A Chef’s Journey with Alternative Seafood


My excitement for groundbreaking products started when I was 16 and I entered the restaurant business. I started cooking after my mom passed away from cancer when I was 12 years old. During high school, I attended a cooking vocational school where my love for cooking was born. After high school, I attended Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where I graduated at 17 during my freshman year in an accelerated eight weeks.

For over 40 years I have cooked all over the world. I’ve opened over one hundred restaurants worldwide, and personally developed over 16 restaurant concepts. My love for the business is as it was when I first started: filled with passion, accomplishments, and now giving back to young cooks and chefs as I was blessed to be taught by others.

Unlike many older chefs, I bring no ego to the game. My motto is, and always has been, to “check the ego at the door.” Many chefs forget that each day we learn from others and must keep open to ideas and trends from every person we work with or meet daily. Every day you need to reinvent yourself to stay up on trends and industry changes. I’ve evolved as a chef and person, because I thrive on passion, people, and being the best I can be.


Around July 2021, I contacted Brittany Chibe, CGO of Aqua Cultured Foods, whom I had worked with years ago. I wanted to learn more about this new start-up she and CEO Anne Palermo had launched in Chicago. While on LinkedIn, I came across the story about Aqua Cultured Foods and had to learn more.

My original interest was to ask questions and see what they were doing. I’ve been a plant-based advisor since January 2021, and have tried many new products that had not yet launched in the market. It was naturally exciting to see what they were doing with seafood alternatives.

We had many conversations about the product and the concepts and such. Each call left me more and more excited about the direction they were going. They sent me samples so I could try a few ideas I had. 

When the product arrived in its raw form, I became very eager to see what I could do with it. I produced a few product ideas, took pictures, and shared them and a recap with Anne and Brittany. Very important in all this was the fact that I had tasted and fallen in love with their product.

My excitement grew into a passion that is hard to describe. As an entrepreneur, I enjoy challenging myself by exceeding the status quo. Each time we would speak, a new vision would arise. The excitement became contagious. Imagine the possibilities around a fermentation-derived product that lends itself to innovation, a product I would place in front of anyone, including plant-based detractors.

In September, Anne and Brittany asked me if I would consider becoming a culinary advisor for Aqua. Very quickly, I said absolutely. To be asked and trusted to bring this product to life meant so much to me. The love they have for the product was beyond exciting to me. To bring their dreams to life by developing a great-tasting, revolutionary product is why I do what I do.


On November 9 I flew to Chicago. As I took my Uber to the office downtown, my mind started racing. I consider myself a type A passionate chef who loves being part of something groundbreaking and new. Even at my age, my love and energy for what I do are just as it were when I first started.

Knowing I was about to meet Anne and lead scientist Bob Schultz for the first time in person, and not on a phone call, excited me greatly. Seeing Brittany again, I felt like we had been friends forever, and we started right back where we left off. I jokingly asked, “where is Sushi?” (“Sushi” is the office dog who doesn’t exist yet. However, I mentioned many times prior that they needed an office dog. Why? The office has a feeling of home. When you walk in, you immediately sense love, passion, excitement, and all that comes with it. Yes, many businesses state ‘we are family;’ however, few live it.)

For the first time, I got to see and work with the product on a larger scale. My first comment was, “it looks and acts like a calamari steak.” Immediately I felt as though I had been working with it for years. There was no learning curve as you’d expect with a completely new product or ingredient. 

We started brainstorming on the new product line we would introduce. Within two and a half days, we developed four new concepts that we will offer. 

When I work on new product development, I want the developed items to scream with flavor. The first thing we did was give the product a crunch factor, so as you bite in, you get an immediate crunch note to your palate that combines with the realistic, slightly chewy texture of the calamari. 

Next, we evaluated the flavors and tasted them with some dipping sauces. This is where my excitement rose. We had that crunch and a fantastic flavor that exploded in the mouth at every bite. Every person that sampled it, even the folks down the hall, said “I would order this.” To me, the most important thing is we wowed everyone trying it, even if they didn’t like seafood or plant-based foods.

The Aqua calamari delivered on every note that a product development chef aims for. When you add in great nutritional values, clean label, and Omegas, you can see why I am so excited and passionate about being a part of Aqua Cultured Foods. 

Bob and I speak almost daily as we develop and move forward. I’ve worked with many scientists in my career, and what I love about Bob is his love for food. Rarely do a chef and scientist think the same. We both knew we could create a product unlike many others. On its merit, I became like a kid on Christmas awaiting Santa. I knew we had something very big, and I was beyond proud to be a part of it.

In this business, competition will always exist. What we all agree is we don’t have to be first, and we won’t be the only seafood alternative product, but we will be the best. In my career, I have accomplished so much, and those who have worked with me will tell you: Johnny only wants to be the best, and will not settle for mediocrity. 

We are developing a sustainable, great tasting product for an ever-increasing population. I am a chef who loves seafood, loves cooking it and being creative with it. With the Aqua Cultured Foods product, I am using the same approach as I do with any traditional seafood I cook

We will be able to offer so many different products that it will create a huge buzz in multiple industries. Anne, Brittany and Bob have brought to life an exciting product, with so many possibilities, to the point that this chef and entrepreneur is beyond thrilled about how we will introduce the best-tasting and looking alt-seafood product, and revolutionize the industry. That statement is a guarantee. I am so blessed to be a part of the history and growth of a consumer product that will blow consumers away.