“Anybody fearless enough to open a restaurant—whether it’s breakfast, catering, fine dining, a pizzeria… my heart goes out to them,” says Troy Ummel of Connected. “If nothing else, you’re brave enough to do it. I wish you nothing but the best.”
It’s early Monday morning—the start of a new workweek—and the Morton, Illinois native is dishing about his 35-year career in a notoriously difficult industry. “Horrible business—oh my god, is it brutal,” Ummel affirms. “But with that said, here we are… starting our eleventh year. It feels pretty good.”
And it should. Connected opened its doors in 2009—not only on the heels of a severe economic recession, but inside of an odd, Walmart-adjacent building, amidst an endless sea of parking-lot asphalt. No one thought the location suitable for fine dining. Nevertheless, Ummel’s creation has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of Peoria’s top spots for an intimate culinary experience.
In 2018, Connected was honored as one of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA)—the continent’s premier recognition of fine dining excellence—placing the Peoria eatery on the national stage. It’s a remarkable outcome for a venture few thought would succeed. “I fell in love with the building,” Ummel confesses. “I mean, horrible location, horrible spot… We may be the only restaurant in the country without a back door! All the deliveries coming in… and the trash going out… have to go through the front door.
“But I think all great restaurants on the planet have quirks,” he continues, citing a number of world-class establishments with unusual but endearing layouts. “You can’t recreate quirks—they’re just there. But that’s what people like! I think if I were to open somewhere else—same menu… different location—customers would say, ‘It’s just not the same; I don’t get the same feel.’”
Homage For Restaurant Royalty
Waxing poetic about his earliest mentors and other bygone restaurateurs, Ummel sounds like a man out of time, lamenting the loss of the old guard. “There’s not many independents anymore,” he suggests. “Travis [Mohlenbrink] is a friend of mine here locally... There’s an admiration. These guys come in—they never get a check in my place.
“That’s homage,” he declares. “Daryl Klusendorf—he’s restaurant royalty! He’s still there at Sky Harbor [Steakhouse] five, six nights a week. And his mom, 98 years old… still there! Those are the people I look at with huge admiration—the ones who get up every morning, put on their boots and go out and do it. I would do anything for them.”
Ummel moves from topic to topic, talking a mile a minute, obviously having fun. “You know how you make a small fortune in the restaurant business?” He pauses a moment before delivering the punchline. “Start with a large fortune.” Just look at all the celebrities opening up their own places—Michael Jordan, Robert DeNiro, Toby Keith. “These guys are already millionaires! Why in the world do you want to get into this…? Look at my hands, the cuts and burns… It’s just misery. I mean, every restaurateur is also a scratch plumber, a scratch mechanic, a scratch electrician… It’s true.”
“But do you love it?” I ask.
“To be honest, I would love to be the guys coming into the restaurant. The CAT executives, the surgeons, the politicians, the judges… Yeah, I’m a little envious. I think if I could go back and do it all over…” he trails off. “I tell my kids—I would like them all to do some time in the restaurant business, because you learn social skills like no one else. You learn how to look people in the eye, how to shake hands—not too hard, and don’t squeeze like a marshmallow. You learn.
“But do I love it?” He pauses again. “It’s my living—I’ve provided for my family and myself. I love food… Everybody enjoys good food. There's something to learn every day. But if I could I do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t.”
Nevertheless, Ummel says he always wanted to cook, ever since he was three or four years old. “My aunt had an old-fashioned stove with 20 buttons, and I just thought that was the neatest thing—pushing those buttons,” he recalls. “And I love tinkering… a little tweak here, a little tweak there. I just love making things taste good.”
In high school, he told his home economics teacher that he was going to the Culinary Institute of America, “and she believed in me!” he recalls with gratitude. “She wrote me a letter, because back then you needed so many recommendations… There was a waiting list to get in.” Ummel entered the prestigious institution right out of high school and spent two years in Hyde Park, New York, learning every aspect of the hospitality industry—and gaining some influential connections.
“Joe Amendola, president of the Culinary Institute of America—number-one school in the world!—was my dear friend. He brought me down to Orlando and took me under his wing,” Ummel explains. “And that just opened all the doors. I don’t think I knew much, but I was a hard worker, a good chit-chatter and I wasn’t scared.”
He landed at Christini’s Ristorante Italiano—still one of the nation’s top fine dining restaurants—and earned the nickname “Horse” for his strong work ethic. “People are attracted to hard work,” he says. “I had nothing. Zero. But I had friends in good places.”
Ummel spent more than a decade at Christini’s—“that was rock-star life,” he explains. “Christini’s was the place. Every celebrity who goes to Orlando, goes there.” He later spent time in Hawaii and California, including a private gig cooking for puppeteer Jim Henson, before returning to his native central Illinois. “My dad had bad health, and I wanted to be back here with him.” In 2009, he took everything he’d learned from these experiences and started Connected.
The Fascination with Food
Ummel says he always knew he would own his own restaurant someday. “No question,” he declares. He also had premonitions of what the industry would someday become. “The Food Network, the Food Channel, this fascination with food—it’s all mainstream now. Look at Anthony Bourdain. Thirty years ago, he would have been looked at as a ‘dirty cook.’ Now he’s as close to icon status as you can get.
“I knew back then that the restaurant business could take you anywhere you want to go, “ he claims, rattling off a who’s who of celebrity chefs. “Emeril Lagasse. Paul Prudhomme. Gordon Ramsay. Bourdain. Wolfgang Puck… Everyone knows these people! And I’ve worked with Wolfgang Puck. I’ve worked with Emeril. It’s fun to know these guys have achieved that kind of notoriety.”
“So, have you ever thought about doing a TV show out of Connected?” I’m only half-joking.
“Not out of here—but I would love to be a writer,” Ummel suggests, shifting subjects again. “I think there’s too many critics out there. Wouldn’t it be fun if people just focused on what people do right, rather than what they do wrong?
“Sometimes you tip a server who doesn't deserve it,” he continues. “Maybe they don’t deserve it this time, but there’s 5,000 other times they did and got shortchanged. I have a heart for that. It’s a lot like parenting—you have to tell your child when they do good, just as often as when they do bad. So I would love to be a writer and say, you know, the struggles are real in a restaurant—but of all the things going wrong, here’s some things that are going right.”
Ummel’s former boss in Orlando, whom he still calls “Mr. Christini,” once chided him for being overly critical of other restaurants—and he took the lesson to heart. “I would go around and say, ‘Oh, they’re doing this or that wrong’... and he would tell me, ‘He’s got a $3 million store in the middle of a $10 million market—he must be doing something right.’ That was his way of scolding me… as if to say, ‘Who are you? What have you done? You’re tearing apart this restaurant… somebody who mortgaged their home, went to the bank and took horrible terms to get the place open, then hired a staff and trained the staff and probably worked 100 hours a week…’
“It sure is easy to be a backseat driver,” Ummel affirms. “So now I have a catchphrase: Don’t change a thing. If that’s what’s working for you, don’t change a thing. Nine times out of ten, they don’t want to be told what they’re doing wrong anyway.” If you want to know everything about your restaurant, he adds, just spend a couple hours in the dish room. “Stand by the garbage can when all the food comes back, and the half-eaten plates will tell the story. If none of the potato salad is getting eaten, you better go taste the potato salad!”
Building Comfort Outdoors
Today, Ummel is working on a brand-new addition—a semi-enclosed, outdoor space appended to the restaurant’s façade. Despite sharing an entrance with Connected, it will be a separate establishment with its own menu, he explains. “We have a very small market in central Illinois… and what I lose of that market are shorts, flip-flops and t-shirts. What about the people who don’t want to have a server in a tuxedo and spend two or three hours dining? It’s still going to be top-notch service, top-notch food, but uber-casual.”
A rock-laden “creek” runs the length of the new space and promises to be its centerpiece—not unlike the massive waterfall Ummel installed inside of Connected in 2010. “They’ll stamp this to make it look like an old wooden bridge,” he explains excitedly, “and over here will be a rustic kind of handrail. The water will crash down at 10,000 gallons an hour, and it’ll be lit up like the Taj Mahal.” The walls will be tall enough to hide the view of the parking lot, he adds. “And there’ll be different music out here—more fun, more youthful. Just a different vibe.”
It’s all inspired by the outdoors, Ummel explains, an ideal setting for comfort and relaxation. “Have you ever known anybody who says, ‘I’m going to get away for a weekend and go sit in my living room’?” he laughs. “No! You’re going to go to the mountains… the ocean… or Lake Tahoe. You’re going to go somewhere you can see nature. What about the Morton Pumpkin Festival? They sell 60,000 pork chops—because you’re outside. You hear birds and crickets… It’s a delicious smell. You see the smoke. You taste the food. You feel it—it hits all your senses. So we’re going to have a little outdoor grill… true European style, like Barcelona or Madrid.”
For one of the area’s top fine dining restaurants, the pivot to “uber-casual” is a step in a very different direction. “This wasn't done for economic reasons,” Ummel explains, admitting that the water feature is a bit outlandish. “I don’t even own the building! But sometimes it’s not about money. When I did the waterfall… it was the dumbest thing in the world [financially], but everyone wants to be next to the waterfall! This was done just for comfort. It’s going to be a fun little area out here.”
“Do you have a name for the new place?” I ask.
“No, nothing’s come up yet. I’m hoping to do something Italian, something that’s got a little flair to it.”
“So when do you plan on opening?”
“I would say two, three weeks it’ll be ready,” he answers and pauses. “As unorthodox as that sounds—and I saw the look in your eye, like you’re gonna be open in two weeks and you don't even know what you’re doing?! We’ll put a couple chairs out there and see what happens. I would say, we’ll be fully functional by the end of the year.”
Unorthodox, no doubt. But Ummel’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach to business has worked so far. “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans,” he chuckles, serving up another witty aphorism. “If you would’ve told me 10 years ago that we’d have a second story with a grand piano up there, and a 30-foot waterfall...” He shakes his head. “It evolves. And by evolving, I’ll get your opinion… and other customers will come in and tell me, ‘you ought to do this, you ought to do that.’ It evolves.”
Tribute To A Workhorse
A lifelong career in the culinary arts has taken Troy Ummel around the country and placed him amidst the upper echelon of the fine dining world. He’s worked hard, paid his dues, dined with celebrities and succeeded in establishing his own operation in Peoria, Illinois. The DiRoNA distinction is a tribute—not only to Connected’s exceptional food and service, but to the perseverance of a “Horse” and his respect for all who paved the way. Like his old boss, Mr. Christini, would say, he must be doing something right.
All that experience has uniquely attuned Ummel to his staff’s needs—and the plight of restaurant workers in general. “It’s a lot of work, tons of hours, working holidays,” he explains. “Think of all the World Series, Super Bowls and World Cups... When the rest of the world is out there living, we’re prisoners in the kitchen.” Back inside Connected, he points to a big-screen TV in the kitchen, right over the line. “That’s so my guys can watch the Super Bowl if they happen to be stuck here. They can look up and see the score, watch the election results, that kind of thing.”
Little things like that speak volumes, and it’s engendered loyalty in return. “I would say the majority of my staff in 11 years is still here,” he reflects—a turnover rate that’s practically unheard of in this industry. His kitchen manager, for example, has been with Ummel since Day One. “Jake Stratton has the heart of a lion!” he declares. “He’s an old friend of our family. When I was down in Florida running Christini’s, we kept in contact. I knew he was on board years before [we opened]... and here we are 11 years later. Bobbie’s been here that long as well. And Taylor has been here for seven years. Thirty-five years in the business, I know one thing: you need good people.”
“Back when you started, did you ever think this wouldn’t work?” I ask.
“Hundred percent no, thousand percent no!” he replies. “Now, did I think it was going to be a raging success? I still don’t think we’re a raging success. To be a truly raging success, you need an area of at least a million people.
“If Emeril Lagasse were to open up a restaurant in Peoria, would he make it? I doubt it,” he conjectures. “Not because it’s not a great restaurant, but you’re not pulling from 10 million people! In Orlando, you have 20 million visitors a year, plus a metropolitan area of a couple million. Volume fixes a lot of problems.”
Ummel recently attained his Level 1 sommelier certification, and he hints at exciting news to come. But he also has an exit strategy. “With my father just passing, I realize life is pretty precious,” he explains. “I don’t want to do it spending 14 hours a day in the restaurant business.” But he’ll be around for a while—hard-working, unorthodox and ever-evolving—and Peoria is fortunate to have him. PM