When Eric Vasta started working at his father's diner at the age of 14, he had no idea that it was the beginning of a journey that would take him around the world, and ultimately, land him a job as the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort's executive chef.
Vasta was raised in New Jersey where his father owned a quaint, 19-seat diner. He started working there as a short order cook when he was 14, and his 10-year-old sister helped out as a waitress. Although it was obviously not a major culinary operation, it was enough to interest Vasta in the art of cooking, so he enrolled in a culinary trade school the following year.
When he turned 18, Vasta enrolled in New York Restaurant School in New York City and began cooking at various establishments throughout the city. He eventually decided to transition into the hospitality industry and joined the culinary staff at Sofitel New York hotel; within three months, he was the sous chef.
"That was the beginning of my classical French training," Vasta said. "I spent about five and a half years there really mastering that technique and way of cooking."
But then it was time to move on to a new challenge, and a new hotel; Vasta began working at the Palace Hotel in New York City to learn what it's like to cook in a luxury hotel environment.
He took that knowledge with him to Chicago where he worked at the Sofitel Chicago and later, the Four Seasons, where he served as the banquet chef.
"That's where I started delving into Asian flavors," he said, "and it was also where I fell in love with Mexican cuisine and learned the true essence of it."
But soon he was ready to move on to better - and literally bigger - things.
"After three years in Chicago I decided that I wanted to work at a really massive hotel," Vasta said, "so I moved to Miami and worked at the Fountainbleu as the banquet chef. I'd prepare banquets for 1,200 to 3,000 people."
Little did he know that that was nothing compared to what was in store for him; he was soon offered a job as executive chef at Jumeirah Creekside Dubai, a hotel twice the size of the Fountainbleu. The banquets he prepared there were far bigger and more elaborate than anything he had done before.
"I learned how to organize a huge volume of food because in the Middle East, you have to have 20 of everything for them to even consider it a dinner," he said.
While in Dubai, Vasta learned how to incorporate Middle Eastern, southeast Asian and Indian flavors into his food. It was during that time that he also had the opportunity to travel, continually expanding his flavor profiles and increasing his skills as a chef.
"Jumeirah Hospitality actually sent me to do some training in Singapore, and then I spent six weeks opening a restaurant in Spain," he said. "Although they didn't speak any English and I didn't know any Spanish, so I don't actually know why the sent me," he said with a laugh.
From there he spent six weeks in the Maldives before returning to Dubai to work at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai. There he oversaw 14 restaurants and 330 chefs, and received the Culinary of Excellence Africa and Middle East Executive Chef of the Year award from Marriott International.
However he promised his wife that they'd raise their two young kids close to family, so they moved to Southwest Florida.
"I had never heard of Marco Island before," he said, "but the minute I came here, I fell in love. It's just so clean and pure and magical."
Vasta will oversee the culinary operations and staff for the entire JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort as its executive chef, a role that will present him with challenges different than those he's faced in the past.
"Obviously we're still finishing up the two-year construction project," he said, "so right now the focus is on re-building the team and staying true to the JW brand with luxury service."
He also wants to focus on bringing a little bit of the Marco Island magic that he loves so much to the Marriott, especially its new 12,000-square-foot state-of-the-art indoor entertainment center, which will include a craft beer bar and a gastropub-inspired menu.
"It's going to be something completely new to the island," Vasta said, and will be yet another great dining option at the hotel, which already offers several different cuisines, including Italian and Japanese.
Upon the completion of the hotel's new tower, the epicenter of the renovation project and the location of the indoor entertainment center, the property will have a total of 810 guestrooms and suites across three towers, more than 800 employees, nine eateries, five pools and two golf courses.
The JW Marriott will host an official grand opening ceremony in November 2017.