Rockford's top chef

Paul Sletten was a teenager when he discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life – cook.

Yet, even with his goal clear in his mind, he faced the obstacle of finding his way to obtain it.

The solution?

Find someone whose love for cooking matched his. Then find somewhere that would encourage his culinary curiosity. Then run with it.

Sletten was blessed. He tells of the Rockford area restaurants that took him on as an employee and eventually opened the door to their kitchens where he evolved from bus boy at one, to bar food short order cook at another and, finally, from a non-paid apprentice to head chef in a two-year period at a French restaurant.

But finding formal classroom training in the culinary arts was not as easy. In high school classes, he was frustrated because it seemed teachers failed to engage his curiosity for the field. He wanted to go beyond textbook cooking.

Enter Blackhawk Technical College and its Culinary Arts program. It was at BTC, under the guidance of instructors who encouraged his creativity, that Sletten was able to take his cooking instincts and turn them into a trained art.

“I learned a ton there,’’ Sletten recalled recently. “The best part of the program is that if I wanted to learn more than what they were teaching, I could always get the answers.

“The instructors encouraged me to be that way. They wanted to see me use the things I had learned and advance it a little further. They gave me the tools to do that.’’

Sletten has put those tools to good use. He owns two downtown Rockford restaurants – Abreo Rockford and the Social Urban Bar and Restaurant – which are within a block of each other on State Street. He also operates a catering business. Information about the restaurants may be found at their websites – www.abreorockford.com and www.social509.com.

His ties to Blackhawk remain strong. He stays in contact with the Culinary Arts program by bringing in current students through Culinary Arts externship program.

“He’s a very talented young man,’’ said Chef Joe Wollinger, a Culinary Arts instructor. “He’s a real go getter who works very hard. He’s got a great reputation in the business and has developed a real following for his restaurants.”

In January 2015, Sletten will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Abreo. He aptly sums up his cooking philosophy on the restaurant’s website, a philosophy that was enhanced by his time at Blackhawk.

“I did not get into this business for any other reason than the fact that I have a great time doing it,’’ he tells his customers. “I love my time in the kitchen creating, tweaking and sometimes failing at new dishes. I love working with a great staff and watching as a team of 20 or so all work together for a common purpose.

“I love grinding in the kitchen on a busy night in the chaos and then walking through the dining room to talk with guests who have no idea what it took to make their dining experience happen.

“My goal is to never get bored, never be afraid to take a chance and to always appreciate the people around me.’’