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Meet the chefs of the roundtable

Eric Ronson, Fargo Country Club "I have the freedom to experiment and be creative." In 1963, Ronson graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then based in New Haven, Conn. In the years to follow, the New Jersey native traversed the East ...

Eric Ronson, Fargo Country Club

"I have the freedom to experiment and be creative."

In 1963, Ronson graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then based in New Haven, Conn. In the years to follow, the New Jersey native traversed the East Coast, from the swanky Westchester Country Club in upstate New York to the exclusive Jupiter Island Club in Florida. He even detoured to Arizona to dabble in Mexican cuisine.

He also delved into classic European fare with help from his fellow German, French and Greek cooks at Westchester.

He moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area in 1970 and, after stints at a couple of Moorhead restaurants, started at Fargo Country Club. There he has juggled gourmet dishes, such as his tenderloin with wild mushrooms, and timeless comfort food, such as mac-and-cheese and hot dogs.

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Andrea Baumgardner, Untitled

"In this job, you never feel you've learned it all."

Baumgardner was juggling work on her comparative anatomy degree and a full-time job in New York City when she realized she didn't find her chosen path compelling enough. So she asked herself what she did find compelling, and her answer whisked her across the country, where she enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

She worked at a number of restaurants in the Bay Area, including the renowned Chez Panisse, a temple to locally grown ingredients. She later helped open a tapas bar in Los Angeles, hailed as one of the best seven restaurants in this highly competitive market. But when she was offered to take over the Untitled in Fargo, she didn't think twice. As a teen, she had worked at a downtown Fargo deli, and a touch of nostalgia sealed the deal.

Dan Crow, PD's on First

"There's nothing at my store that comes out of a can."

Crow learned the basics in the late 1960s at Giovanni's, an Italian restaurant in Minneapolis his father owned. After working as a chef at a couple of other Italian restaurants in the Twin Cities, he joined the Marine Corps and took a break from cooking.

Six years later, he returned to the trade, only to hit the road soon thereafter. TGI Fridays hired him as a corporate trainer and dispatched him to teach in lands as far-flung as Lebanon and Turkey.

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He learned from his students, too. Between safaris in South Africa, for instance, he picked up game marinating techniques from his Zulu prep cooks.

He then worked at the Holiday Inn in Detroit Lakes and at the newly opened Speak Easy until becoming head chef and part-owner of PD's. He loves his job for the freedom to experiment, which fuels creations such as his best-selling Thai salad with garlicky sauce.

Saravanan Marimuthu, Saffron

"I just have to keep moving."

Marimuthu graduated from the prestigious Food Craft Institute in Tiruchchirappalli, India, but he credits his mother, a passionate cook, with teaching him the basics. He worked as a chef at the five-star Taj Residence hotel in Bangalore before heading to America. "I just have to keep moving," he says.

He did quite a bit of moving in the following years - from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean - as a chef on cruise ships. He swapped recipes with Filipino, Australian and British chefs as he tried to please thousands of multinational travelers with sea-air-honed appetites.

He resettled in Michigan before spotting a job ad in the India Abroad weekly. He got the job and arrived in Fargo to help open Saffron, where he tantalizes local tastes with, among many others, his signature masala dosa dish, or rice crepes with potato filling.

Nathan Strei, Monte's

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"In my occupation, you never know what will happen next."

Strei made his debut in the restaurant business while in high school. At 16, the late chef Craig Kuehl enlisted him to help in the Radisson kitchen - and hooked him for life. Strei was impressed with the sheer number of sauces his boss could whip up without cracking open a cook book.

But Strei also wanted to snowboard, so after high school he moved to Bozeman, Mont. Under a multitalented young chef, Strei helped open three adjacent restaurants: an Indian place, a sushi bar and a fine dining establishment. "I decided at this point in my life my goal was to own my own restaurant," he says.

Back in Fargo, he rejoined the Radisson, where he met Monte Jones, the namesake of the restaurant they would open. Today, Strei whips up his own sauces with no written recipe in sight - the currant-apricot duck chutney and the secret seasoning for the rack-of-lamb.

Mike Wald, Littlefield's

"You don't get where you are without passion."

At 15, Wald started at an Italian restaurant in his native Bismarck under a chef named Gregorio Di Dona, who boasted no formal culinary education but had 20 years of experience in the New York restaurant scene. "He was my inspiration to continue on," Wald says.

But Di Dona expected his employees to keep up with his 80-hours-a-week schedule. Wald saw his high school grades plummet and moved to another restaurant in town. He enrolled in the restaurant management program at Bismarck State College, and two years later emerged with a 4.0 GPA and a job at a newly opened bistro in Bismarck.

He quit to enroll in NDSU's hospitality and tourism program, and on his very first day in Fargo, applied for a job at Littlefield's and got it. Under head chef Joshua Henson, of Lafayette, Ind., he gets to experiment with a couple of his new passions: sushi and Mediterranean cuisine.

Steve Weaver, Seasons at Rose Creek

"It's exciting to come in and find out what we are doing."

Steve Weaver's initiation into the restaurant business was an extended test drive of Germanic discipline. He got his start under a Swiss chef at the Tree Top restaurant in Moorhead and then moved on to the no-less-strict stewardship of a German chef at the Hyatt Regency in Des Moines, Iowa. "You learn in a hurry, let's put it that way," he says.

His next job brought him back to the area, as a chef at the Ramada Inn in Moorhead, where he perfected his skills.

After a stint at the North Dakota State University, Weaver helped open Seasons at Rose Creek. He's particularly proud of his signature raspberry poppyseed dressing and his homemade soups. "I like making anything from scratch," he says.

- Compiled by Mila Koumpilova

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