Rustbelt Chef Chases a Love for Food and Nature, Keeps Finding Wheeling

By; Jeremy Morris

Lorenzo Arce has dashed across the country, working insane hours milking cows, making cheese, baking bread, and perfecting vegan chocolate.  He gleefully laughs about working seven days a week, 15 hours a day.   Hardworking, thoughtful, and reflective, it’s not a surprise that he racks up opportunities to hone his kitchen skills anywhere he chooses.


At a young age, Lorenzo recalls his grandmother saying, “cook is a four-letter word, and we don’t do that in this house.” To this day, the women in his family rarely cook, and growing up, Lorenzo’s dad was the family chef.  The kitchen was where he and his father connected.  Lorenzo also jokingly recalls ‘iron’ was claimed as a four-letter word in their house too.


The Arce kitchen was where Lorenzo’s fondness for crafting sweets and desserts was fostered.  He spent countless hours in that kitchen experimenting, learning the baker’s alchemy. “I started selling cookies in middle school, slinging almond-laced cookies, I love making those.  They are basically butter and sugar, so everyone loves them.”


He baked cakes for friends’ birthdays and other sweet treats for special occasions.  Yet, his fondest recollection was the family tradition of a Santa Cake. “We had this simple Santa cake mold, and we were hardcore about decorating it with different sized piping tips to get different textures for the beard and coat.”


Despite the joy cooking and baking with family and friends brought him, he put it on the backburner (his pun) to pursue a more serious career endeavor in engineering.  He enrolled at Kettering University not far from his hometown of Brooklyn, Michigan.  Kettering was once known as the West Point of the Automotive Industry as General Motors operated it.


At first glance, engineering and baking may seem worlds apart but, they are genuinely kindred in their skillsets.  Both professions rely on precise measurements, exact timing, and following well-practiced methods to achieve desired results.  He continued to hone his kitchen skills at Kettering, where he encountered a battery of new housemates each quarter that had never navigated a kitchen, “One of the things that really surprised me was the fear some people have about cooking and how foreign it seems to them.” Lorenzo seized on these opportunities to be not only a chef but a teacher helping encourage his new friends to learn a new life skill.


As time wore on at Kettering, he began to question whether student debt and an engineering career were his real ambitions.  Kettering University structures its curriculum so that students are on a continuously rotating schedule in the classroom for three months and then working in the real world for three months and never really getting breaks.


By his senior year, Lorenzo had a real solid taste of what a 9-5 engineering job might look like, and he had some reservations.  His friend at work, Jeremy Mills, owns Mills Maple Mill Farm and invited Lorenzo to come out and work.  This experience changed Lorenzo, the hard manual labor invigorated him, and he was drawn to working in nature.


He decided to leave Kettering just before his last year, which was also the most expensive year at the school.  He took a WWOOFING position in the Hood River Oregon.  The Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that connects organic farms with people who want to learn about sustainable practices.  Those participants are WWOOFERs, Lorenzo WWOOFED it with an organic Vineyard with a small farmyard, Hiyu Wine Farm. 


In the mornings, he milked cows and goats with snowcapped Mt. Hood in the view from the milking barn.   In the afternoons, he was often free to roam the woods and forage for his dinner or take off to Portland and explore one of the country’s most adventurous culinary cityscapes.


WWOOFING further carved his view of the world, “being there and cooking with fresh ingredients that you, yourself, picked from the garden, using butter you made from a cow that you milked, making fromage blanc regularly. You realize how much nature gives us.  You realize how much is a gift and deserves to be appreciated.”


Eventually, his volunteer position with WWOOF ended, but he had a fever for service work and a calling for farming.  He soon found himself standing atop Sandscrest, a sprawling Episcopal Conference Center just outside Wheeling, WV.  The conference center hosts many retreats and meetings, but its farmland is managed by a local nonprofit farming group Grow Ohio Valley. During his yearlong Americorp assignment with Grow Ohio Valley, Lorenzo worked the Sandscrest farm, several other smaller sites, helped with greenhouses, and taught pasta-making classes.


As any foodie is bound to do in Wheeling, Lorenzo wandered into Good Mansion Wines.   A quick look around, and he knew he was home.  He was blown away by their process, sourcing of ingredients, and commitment to detail and of course the sweet pastries. He knew he wanted to learn from them and soon found himself in their kitchen at 6 AM making dough.  Alternating mornings and afternoons between the Farm and the Good Mansion kitchen. He had been working with bread since Portland and baking all his life but was eager to sharpen his knowledge with master patissier Olivier Thiry.


His time at Good Mansion was everything he wanted; he labored and learned from a French master. However, his time at Kettering and the constant rotation of school and work had engrained a curious restlessness in this aspiring farmer chef.  While he walked into Good Mansion seeking to learn bread and pastry making, it only sparked an interest into the world of cheese.  Cheese led him to New Jersey.  Yeah, New Jersey.


He left Wheeling for a New Jersey farm and 150 head of cattle.  On Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, he worked six days a week milking cows, making cheese on weekdays and baking bread on weekends.   At Bobolink he worked under Jonathan White a silver medalist in the Farm Cheese Awards sponsored by the Associations Fromages de Terroirs de France in Lyons. Not being one to lay around, he jammed a few more hours of work in as a chocolatier at Vegan Treats, a bakery in nearby Bethlehem, PA.  As he began debating full-time position at Vegan Treats, Wheeling called again.


His friend Billy Litman at Hangover BBQ was looking to work together, and Lorenzo couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “Billy is modest and doesn’t like to call himself a chef,” says Lorenzo, “but he cares so much about the quality of the food he puts out that it is inspiring. The care he puts into consistency, I knew I needed to work with the dude and see how he runs.”


Lorenzo is up at 3 AM almost every day, slinging BBQ with Billy and his brother Noah Litman.  A few days a week, he can be found back at the Good Mansion Wine bakery.  Recently he catered the grand opening of the Clientele Art Studio in East Wheeling and with more Clientele catering


In Wheeling, stories like Lorenzo’s are becoming more familiar, people being enticed to Wheeling by a job, even if temporary, and finding themselves staying. People are finding Wheeling is a place that is rebuilding. It is a place that is welcoming. It is a place where a person can carve out a niche.


The Grow Ohio Valley Americorp Program has brought a bountiful, vibrant group of people from across the country to work on sustainable farming in our community. Many of them move on after their service time, but many of them, like Lorenzo, have chosen to hang around.


And when businesses like Good Mansion Wines, Hangover BBQ, and others help retain those that wish to stick around, it helps add to the energetic service industry that is baking your bread, making your cheese, and waiting on your table when you sit down at a restaurant on your next trip to Wheeling.



Social links and tags