On more than one occasion in 2009, Troy Ummel felt a very strong urge to go to his knees to ask for a little help from Upstairs.
He had moved back to central Illinois to help care for his ailing father, following a successful and colorful career at prominent restaurants in Florida and elsewhere around the world. He had a Culinary Institute of America diploma, and he felt he was ready to go out on his own, in his hometown.
“Well, I knew I was going to be here a while. What was I gonna do? I had a lease, the place was turnkey. I went back and forth, made a deal,” recalled Ummel. But even for a risk-taker by nature, this was a risk.
“The recession in ’08 had bled over into 2009,” he recalled. “I’m in arguably the worst city for fine dining … I’m in the worst location” – at 3218 N. Dries Lane, between one parking lot and another parking lot and another “with potholes that would swallow a car” – “It’s the worst economic time. I have no money. I have no staff. I have nothing.
“I’m a very … you’re gonna laugh … I’m a religious guy. I sat right in this chair and I said a prayer. ‘My Lord, what have I done?
“Not two seconds after I said my prayer, I heard, ‘Hello? Hello?’ Very heavy accent. ‘Hello?’ In came Father Elias, a priest in Peoria, and he said, ‘David Joseph' – a well-known Peoria builder and developer – ‘and his wife tell me you’re a good cook.’ Father Elias then walks right back into the kitchen. I’m very proud of this to this day. I didn’t have much but I had something. I knew good food. I’d worked at some of the best places in the world. I sliced some prosciutto for him, some parmesan ... I think they’re staples.
“He says, ‘Put me down for 8 to 12 people tonight.’ We were off and running.”
Nothing if not nondenominational, Ummel wanted to cover all his bases. At the small Mennonite church in Groveland he attended with his father, the pastor asked for prayer requests. “Usually, it’s ‘my Aunt Jane is sick.’” Next thing he knew, he was hearing, “Lord, bless Connections” — he laughs now at the mispronunciation.
A year later, he was back, and again the call went out for prayer requests. “I raised my hand and said, ‘Please stop praying for Connected, just for a moment. We can’t keep up.”
And so it has been at Connected ever since, where despite that “awful” location, Ummel has managed to build one of the best and most consistently popular restaurants in central Illinois. The five DiRoNA awards he has on the wall – among North America’s most prestigious restaurant prizes – join two Wine Spectator honors as testament to that at the everything-made-from-scratching throwback. Of the 23 Illinois restaurants listed by the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) on its website, all but Connected are in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Not even a near-biblical plague like COVID could derail him. No government assistance for this small business, which didn’t qualify because it hadn’t suffered losses. Ummel just pivoted to a frozen entrée takeout operation. That first COVID Easter alone, 200 meal kits went out the door – 800 meals.
Like any successful restaurateur, Ummel also is a superior storyteller, of course – a little Mark Twain in there somewhere, a guy who knows how to work a room. Listening to him is like sailing down a long river with no end of tributaries, as he drops the names of fellow passengers along the way, before inevitably ending the voyage at the destination he intended all along.
Ummel’s story starts in Morton as the middle child in a family of five, a son of Kenneth – a construction worker, longtime Morton schools custodian and baseball coach – and Rose, who owned a hair salon in town. He was a lackadaisical student – school “got in the way of living” — but acquired a sense of what he wanted out of life while cutting his teeth as a teen at Miller’s Cliftwood Restaurant in Morton and at Carnegie’s at Peoria’s elegant Pere Marquette Hotel. The kitchen became his preferred classroom.
“I couldn’t hit a 100 m.p.h. fastball …
Probably, by today’s standards, I would have been diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) times two,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to be a restaurateur. That was as close to a movie celebrity when I was a kid as you could get.”
He also knew where he wanted to go to make that happen. This kid from little Morton wanted to go big-time, to New York’s famed Culinary Institute of America, the “other CIA.” He graduated in 1989 with a diploma, significantly more confidence for a guy who had learned to “fake it until you make it,” and some very well-connected friends.
Few were as instrumental as the late Joseph Amendola, the legendary CIA ambassador, hospitality consultant and businessman. Ummel was on his way to Toronto when Amendola intercepted him and put him on the road to Orlando instead, where he would ultimately land a job at the landmark Christini’s.
Eventually, he would make his way back home, where others opened doors for him and provided assistance at critical moments – in particular he cites Ed LaHood of Food Service Equipment Corp. in Peoria. Now he’s looking to pay that forward.
“As Mr. Christini used to say … a restaurant is a culmination of many things,” said Ummel. “The problem is that so many people excel at one, maybe the food, but the service sucks … I just try to do it like I would like. I like high quality food. I empower my staff … I want this to be a fun experience.
“Everyone’s taken a little piece of ownership of the place.”
Running a restaurant is an all-encompassing job, of course, and it can take its toll.
Ummel describes himself as “dedicated to a fault.
“Let me put it to you like this: If somebody called any one of my friends and said, ‘Did you hear that Troy had a heart attack at work? Died on the spot,’ nobody would be surprised.”
He subscribes to a “farm mentality,” acquired growing up in Morton. “When there’s good weather, you’re out working ‘til midnight because it might rain tomorrow … I’ve never been that guy who can schedule like a dentist four months out. A lot of my family time has suffered.”
As a result, at 53, Ummel – with a wife, Monet, a commercial airplane pilot, and stepdaughter Merlot at home in Peoria and two adult children, son Joshua and daughter Marina, back in Florida — is contemplating retirement, “at least from this pace.”
“There’s two types of success,” said Ummel. There’s the kind depicted by the statement, “I feel so bad for you, all you have is money.” And there’s the kind described by Warren Buffett, whom he paraphrases: “Pure success is to have the love of those you love.”