Coming home: Young chef opens restaurant in Woodstock

Mel Shtanko hands out a reuben sandwich order inside his new restaurant CarMElized, which is located at the corner of Hoover Road and South Main Street in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Immigrant, entrepreneur and a retired Marine corporal, Mel Shtanko has achieved the American dream at 23.

Born in Uruguay, Shtanko came to the United States at a young age. His family put their stakes down in Woodstock, where they owned 7 Bends Restaurant for a few years before selling it for a diner in New Market. It was at 7 Bends that Shtanko caught the cooking bug.

“I knew from a young age this is what I wanted to do, hanging out in the back office of the diner when I was kid,” Shtanko said. “I’ve been surrounded by culinary businesses my whole life; I got family owns a bakery in South America, I’ve got an uncle with a nice bakery in New York.”

So at 14, Shtanko went to work for Shaffer’s Deli, where he took out the trash, washed dishes and mopped the floor.

“I just basically needed a job for high school … then one day, I picked up a knife and started cutting,” Shtanko said. “It all took off from there. At 14, I knew that’s what I wanted do.”

Mel Shtanko tops off a chef salad with croutons inside his new restaurant CarMElized. Rich Cooley/Daily

From there, Shtanko joined the Marine Corps, where he cooked in Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines. After retiring from the Marines, he bounced around fine dining restaurants in Miami, Florida, for a year and a half. He came back home to Woodstock a year ago, working at various restaurants before going into business for himself.

“The Marines taught me discipline and organization in a kitchen, while in Miami I got exposed to fine dining and worked with some of the best chefs in the country,” Shtanko said. “I learned a lot of techniques and ingredients in Miami.”

For almost three weeks, Shtanko has operated his own restaurant, CarMELized, at 1296 S. Main St. in Woodstock, the very site his parents ran 7 Bends all those years ago. It is open seven days a week and dishes out southern favorites like biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and meatloaf.

Shtanko said no matter what meal he’s preparing, all cooking is a “spiritual art.”

“The kitchen is my laboratory,” Shtanko said. “Taking raw materials the Earth created and change them through chemical reactions and feed them to people who consume is amazing … I know that sounds weird, but it’s an art, it’s a necessity … the artistic part comes from the technique.”

Of course, operating a restaurant isn’t all about the cooking. There’s payroll, inventory, maintaining a clean kitchen and insurance payments to attend to. Shtanko said when he was working for other people he tried to take in as much as he could.

“When I was in Miami, when I was at Shaffer’s, I didn’t just pay attention to the food. I watched how they operated their business,” Shtanko said. “I saw what was working, what didn’t and I took all the ideas I liked and put them into my own.”

Shtanko puts in 100 hours a week at the restaurant, making sure the operation runs smoothly. With 15 servers, cooks and dishwashers, Shtanko said, “it’s not easy working for me.”

“I’m very strict, but I’m firm and I’m fair,” Shtanko said. “I think that’s why I’m succeeding at the moment because I pay attention to everything. I wouldn’t call it micromanaging, but I’m making sure everything goes out the way I want it to.”

With no roadside signage, advertising and a Facebook page with 800 likes, Shtanko has been relying on word of mouth to get customers in the door. He said the key to running a successful restaurant is good food, good service and affordable prices.

“I’m trying to establish repeat customers,” Shtanko said. “I might only make $2 on that hamburger, but if that customer comes back every day, it balances itself out.”

Angela Russell, a CarMELized patron, couldn’t agree more.

“Everybody likes this place,” Russell said. “They like the food, they like the people, they like the atmosphere and they like the prices.”

In the near future, Shtanko said he would like to get a sign outside his restaurant, print up to-go menus and maybe advertise on the Woodstock exit sign. However, he’s got bigger plans in the long haul.

“This is not going to be my last restaurant,” Shtanko said. “Maybe in a couple of years, I’d like to have somebody manage this one and I can start another restaurant elsewhere … not a chain or anything, just a different concept, or the same concept in a different place.”

CarMELized is located at 1296 S. Main St., Woodstock, and is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com