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Ethnic traditions reflected in cook’s creations

Chef shares favorite omelet recipe.

Israel Ayala says his best advice to a new cook is to try and find someone more experienced who knows what they are doing.

“Then listen and pay attention to what they do,” says Ayala. “And ask a lot of questions.”

That philosophy has paid off for the 27-year-old who came to America from Mexico at the age of 14 and now works as the head cook at the Legacy Pancake House & Restaurant on Keowee Street in Old North Dayton. The restaurant was purchased seven years ago from the Golden Nugget by Sam Kourlas.

The popular dining spot’s diverse menu requires its chef to offer up a wide range of dining options — from cabbage rolls and broaster chicken to country style pork chops and bar-b-que ribs. And there’s a wide variety fo homemade soups.

Ayala says his first teachers were family members.

” When I was growing up in Mexico City, I liked to help my mom and my sisters make traditional Mexican food,” he says. “They taught me how to make the dishes and put them together. We had 12 people in the house every day for lunch and dinner and I have happy memories of cooking together.”

Those good times continue to influence Ayala’s cooking. At Legacy, he turns out chicken quesadillas, burritos, taco salads. The restaurant serves breakfast all day and his Mexican omelets and frittatas are a specialty. (So are his banana and blueberry pancakes and Belgian waffles with fresh strawberry toppings.)

The Legacy is especially well-known for its senior breakfasts available to those ages 60 and up for a $2 donation. As Dayton’s official Senior Resource Breakfast Site, it offers a choice of 10 complete breakfast options to those who sign up. It’s free to enroll and in addition to pancake, eggs, meats, the meals include coffee, milk or juice. The special deal is available from 8 to 11 a.m. on weekdays.

Coming to America

When Ayala came to the United States, he initially worked as a dishwasher at restaurants in Michigan. But it didn’t take him long to find a mentor, a Ecuadorian chef who had worked in New York.

“I started watching him make many of the dishes, and tried to learn and get more information,” he says.

In 2007, when he first came to Dayton, Ayala met a role model who would have a huge influence on him. Nick Rozakis, who owned the Chili King restaurant on North Main Street for 38 years and on Troy Street for eight years before that, had come to work at the Legacy with his wife, Stacie, when the state took their property for a highway. Rozakis was known for his Greek specialties.

Ayala says Nick was “a man with patience,” always willing to share both his recipes and his cooking tips. “He wanted each of his dishes to be the best and he would take the time to make sure everything was the way he wanted it.”

“Nick did whatever he could to help,” says Stacie, who lost her husband on June 27. “He showed Israel how to cut meats, make gravies, fix sauces. He was very particular about his food.”

Ayaya, who returned to Michigan and then came back to the Legacy two years ago, learned from his friend Nick to make all of the Greek dishes that had become a Thursday and Sunday tradition at the restaurant.

Stacie, who works as one of the managers at The Legacy, says Israel has successfully mastered her husband’s Greek recipes.

“My husband put his heart and soul into his cooking and Israel really paid attention to him,” she says, adding that Ayala duplicates her husband’s Greek soup, pastichhio (ground beef with macaroni and cheese), baked chicken with oven potatoes, Greek salads and omelets, and spanakopita (Greek pie).

Adding his own touch

In addition to his Mexican and Greek culinary creations, Ayala says he enjoys trying different things and creating new dishes on his own. His favorite ingredient is garlic.

“It always gives you a good flavor, whether it’s used for chicken, beef or pork,” he says.

Now Israel Ayala is positioned to become a cooking mentor to the next generation including his two children who are already clamoring to join him in the kitchen.

“My 3-year-old tries to help me cook sometimes so I let him mix pancakes,” he says. “I’ll support my children in whatever they want to do. I’ll try to help them and show them how it’s done.”

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