It's fair to say that a job posting on monster.com changed chef Celina Tio's life. The ad for an executive-chef opening at the American Restaurant caught her eye, and she fully intended to send in her portfolio and apply for the position in Kansas City. Except she forgot to click Send. Fast-forward a decade, and we very well might have been reading about Tio's success in another city if a friend had not reminded her of the position a month later. She clicked on the mouse, and the following day, the phone rang. The American wanted to fly her out for an interview.
"I figured I'd never been out there, but at least I could knock off two states at one time," Tio remembers thinking.
Instead she landed the job that would launch her career and intertwine her identity with Kansas City.
Tonight, along with the rest of the dining room at her restaurant Julian, she'll watch herself on Bravo's Top Chef Masters as she battles some of the country's most well-known chefs in a weekly televised reality-cooking competition for charity. While at times contrived, the show is not staged. Chefs have failed to get food on the plate and have cut themselves badly in past seasons. This is not playing at being a chef; it's a brutal race against the clock to avoid the weekly elimination at the end of the show.
But then, Tio was never much for playing. When she was 8 years old and growing up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, she begged her father, Cesario, for a Holly Hobbie oven. He pointed her toward the kitchen and said, "There's a real oven right there."
She started by baking. She found it easy to follow recipes, and she gave her dad grocery lists of ingredients. Her first prep-cook job was shucking corn and making pierogi with her baby sitter on the back porch. She knew she wanted to be a chef when she enrolled at Drexel University, but her parents made it clear that a college degree was non-negotiable. Tio graduated with a degree in restaurant and hotel management and with a minor in business psychology.
After school, she landed a job at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. She rose quickly from breakfast cook to sous-chef, learning the world of fine dining. By age 23, she was running the hotel's Grill Room.
"That was my culinary school. I'm a big believer in on-the-job training," Tio says.
It was then that another mouse played a part in her life. Mickey had always been big in her home -- Tio's father collects Disney memorabilia. And on the way down to a convention in Orlando, he began to tell her that she had not eaten at a great restaurant if she hadn't been to the California Grill at Walt Disney World.
The pair dined there, and, as fathers do, he informed the server that his daughter was a chef. She was invited into the kitchen and had a chance to observe the service. Over the next few days, the chef convinced her that she needed to be working at Disney. The resort was just building out its boardwalk and moving forward with several fine-dining concepts. Tio would help launch three separate specialty restaurants: Spoodles (Mediterranean cuisine), Citricos (Southern French cuisine) and Palo (Italian cuisine).
"People often think you work in the Magic Kingdom, but I had the opportunity to run a kitchen where I printed the menus every day in my office. These were serious restaurants," Tio says.
Still, one can't stay at Disney forever. It was in 2001 that she saw the ad for the American and found herself moving from Orlando to Kansas City. And it was here that she began developing a national reputation, cooking at the James Beard House and inviting name chefs in for specialty dinners. In 2007, she was named the James Beard Award's Best Chef: Midwest.
Tio began working on the plans for Julian a year earlier. She was considering spaces not only in the Crossroads but also as far away as Charlotte, North Carolina. When she left the American in the summer of 2008, she was still looking, and then she happened on the location of the former Joe D's.
"I believe everything happens for a reason and I was meant to be here," Tio says.
She built the space out herself, working on everything from the bar to each of the 19 wooden tables. She learned that the plumbing in old buildings is terrible and that some of her diners would walk in expecting a more formal atmosphere. It's why she still personally calls her guests if they're celebrating a special occasion, to explain that they're coming to a casual, neighborhood restaurant.
"There's no romance in here," Tio jokes, "Maybe I could put up a curtain over those two bar seats [gestures to two stools at the far right of the bar in the front of the dining room]."
If Julian isn't romantic, it's certainly practical. And that suits Tio, reflecting her style in and out of the kitchen.
"I'm living the dream. I have a great crew. I can come to work and live comfortably. That's what I want," Tio says.