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The Bistro on Sterling welcomes back Yvette Zavala as executive chef

 

Yvette Zavala was very young and not yet tall enough to see on the counters when she began spending time with her grandmother in the kitchen. That’s when the seeds were planted that would lead to a life spent around food and lovingly preparing food for others. 

“I’ve had a passion for cooking since my grandmother let me in the kitchen with her at age 4. It pains me that she isn’t here to see me living my dream, but I know she is proud of all the things I’ve overcome to get here,” said Zavala as she sat at a corner table at the Bistro on Sterling in Flossmoor, ready to begin her shift. 

That dream she is living came true last August when she took over the kitchen as the executive chef at the Bistro.

Executive Chef Yvette Zavala plates a shrimp scampi entree at The Bistro on Sterling. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Zavala spent the last 25 years working in restaurants, first in the front of the house and later transitioning to the kitchen. “I’ve liked to cook all my life, but really took it seriously professionally in 2015.”

That’s when she enrolled in the culinary program at Ivy Tech Community College in East Chicago. She then worked at Fresh Starts, the restaurant that previously occupied The Bistro on Sterling’s space. 

“It was my first kitchen job,” she said. She continued working at the restaurant once it changed ownership and was renamed, but shortly afterward she was in a serious car accident that left her unable to walk for some time.

After months of recovery, she got back to work at Giovanni’s Restaurant in Munster, Indiana as the pastry chef and later head chef. It seemed fitting for Zavala, who loves Italian food, to find herself preparing some of her favorite dishes, such as shrimp scampi and chicken marsala. 

Executive Chef Yvette Zavala prepares her specialty, shrimp scampi, at The Bistro on Sterling. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

She also has a flair for cajun- and creole-inspired specialties that she learned from her time with her grandmother and other family members. 

“I grew up in Chicago, but spent a lot of time in the South as a child,” she said. “My family is from New Orleans, and we’re big on cooking and feeding people.” She believes in going big when it comes to food and said she’s the kind of person who will have friends over for a girls’ night and turn it into a five-course dinner.

Zavala is able to pool all her best talents — her love of Italian food, her knack for spicy southern dishes, her gift for baking sweets — and put them to good uses as executive chef, where she said she is fortunate that owners Rich and Tracy Cairo allow her to have creative control over the menu. 

She also has quite a reputation for her tender, flavorful pot roast and her gooey macaroni and cheese. She loves to make sauces and create her own compound butters. 

“They allow me to do whatever I want to do, which is amazing,” said Zavala. “I usually do staging of a meal and they try it before I put it out there. Everything has been very successful. I dream in color is what I always say, and my imagination is so big. I wake up sometimes at three in the morning with an idea and can’t wait to try it.”

​​​​​Executive Chef Yvette Zavala recently returned to Bistro on Sterling after recovering from a serious car crash. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

She made her first from-scratch cake at age 11, she said, and she never stopped learning and teaching herself about cooking through trial and error. 

“Cooking is how I express myself,” said Zavala. She looks forward to incorporating more of her recipes and creations into the menu moving forward. Because of the pandemic, there has been a limited menu, but she expects to expand it in the spring. The restaurant has daily specials, and it has given her an opportunity to experiment and expand the offerings. 

She hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prepare food for dine-in guests at the restaurant since mandated dining room closings began in October and were just lifted in late January. She did keep busy, though, with catering orders, carry-out and curbside service. A tented area also allowed guests to enjoy meals on-site in a three-sided covered tent with heaters. She’s looking forward to better times for the restaurant industry and being able to serve more diners who will enjoy their food in the dining room, right out of the kitchen. 

Even through these tough times for restaurants, Zavala said the community has been very supportive. “Even with the dining room closed people were coming and sitting outside,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ll come and sit outside just to eat your food.’”

Zavala also became a fitness coach in 2013. “After having so many clients I worked out with and made meal plans and meal prep for, I decided to pursue my career in culinary,” she explained. “I always loved the restaurant business, but had conquered everything in front of house from hostess, server, bartender, and manager. One day I plan to open my own establishment. I still train people on my off days. I believe food and fitness go hand in hand and help keep you mentally focused.”

Executive Chef Yvette Zavala loves Italian cuisine and was previously a head chef at an Italian eatery, so you’ll often find dishes like Shrimp Scampi Penne on the daily specials. (Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Zavala is the oldest of six siblings, and the Chicago resident has been married for 16 years. She has a daughter and two sons and two grandsons. “They are all very proud of me and I’m just really excited. I love my job,” she said. “As a female in this very male-dominated industry, I’ve moved up very fast and found my dream job. That’s pretty much the goal in this industry, other than opening your own business. I can’t wait to see what else I can create.”

She’s also grateful that she was able to physically heal from such serious injuries following her accident and get back to doing what she is so passionate about.

“Just coming back from not being able to walk for four months to now being all over the place is just really great,” she said.

One thing that Zavala has been looking forward to returning to once the pandemic has passed is karaoke. “I miss it so much,” she said. Her go-to tunes are usually songs by Alicia Keys.

In the coming months you’ll be able to try more specialties influenced by Zavala at The Bistro on Sterling as menu offerings increase. 

“I’m still new to the fold, but I’m excited about getting to make my menu,” she said. “We’ll keep the classics, but add some new things.”

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