Healthy appetite leads ‘86 alumnus from KK diner to American Culinary Federation presidency
Veteran chef, butcher, industry operator follows passion for food
By Will O’Brien (TM ’07)
Joe Parajecki is one hungry guy.
A veteran chef, butcher and industry expert currently leading the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) Milwaukee chapter, the 1986 St. Thomas More alumnus has enjoyed a taste of nearly everything the food world has to offer. And he still wants more.
“I love to eat,” he said, “and food has been the gateway for everything that’s happened in my life.”
A South Side native who attended St. John Kanty for grade school, Parajecki grew up with Polish and American dishes, steadily growing his palette through meals with colleagues from around the world.
“You learn culture, history, about someone’s family — all through food,” he explained. “Through food, everything else comes to the top.”
While in high school, Parajecki secured his first restaurant job, at a Kinnickinnic Avenue diner, with the help of an STM teacher and graduated near the top of his Milwaukee Area Technical College hotel and restaurant cookery class. A series of kitchen jobs followed, including a position where he met his wife, Debra.
The couple live in Waterford and have two children, Lauren, 22, and Jacob, 20.
“The food business has been very, very good to me,” he said.
Even as he climbed up the industry’s ranks, with Lauren’s birth, Parajecki decided it was time for a career change.
“The only thing I remember about Lauren’s first year of life is her sleeping,” Parajecki said, referencing the grueling hours of his early career. “I quit my job and for months changed every diaper, fed her every meal.”
A switch to the grocery business provided a more predictable schedule and ample opportunities for professional growth. Parajecki spent more than a decade with Roundy’s Supermarkets, training as a journeyman meat cutter, managing meat and seafood procurement for its 150-plus locations, and eventually overseeing entire meat-processing plants.
He honed skills in finance, operations, logistics, vendor relationships and — no surprise — meat along the way. Roles at Harris Teeter, Sendik’s and artisan, organic meat suppliers followed, and work took him to Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In 2016, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin’s Master Meat Crafter program and now works in sales for Pritzlaff Wholesale Meats, a New Berlin-based purveyor with fine-dining customers throughout southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Parajecki is also active with the BBQ Club of Milwaukee, on social media and across the region’s foodie scene.
“I’m still out in the field, doing recipes, helping chefs develop menu items,” he said.
No longer limited to potatoes and fried fish, the Milwaukee foodscape has changed tremendously during Parajecki’s decades in the business.
“My dad is 80 and now eats sushi,” Parajecki said. “That’s not something he would have even thought of growing up. Now it’s not just Mexican food, but from what region of Mexico do you actually want to eat?”
Parajecki’s two-year term atop ACF Milwaukee started in January. The local chapter of the 17,500-member national organization coordinates an array of professional development, networking, mentorship and scholarship opportunities.
Nick Spinelli, one of Parajecki’s first bosses, nominated him for the honor.
“It’s always nice to be recognized for what you do by the peers in your field,” Parajecki said. “But it was an even bigger honor to be nominated by him.”
While he was heavily involved in Scouting during his son’s youth, these days, Parajecki doesn’t have hobbies outside food.
“You know, I don’t think there are any,” he said with a laugh. “Everything I do revolves around food and the food industry.”
Parajecki’s journey from high school cook to accomplished professional all started with a healthy appetite. “You should follow your passion, whatever it is,” he said. “You’re going to give one-third of your life to your job, so it ought to be something you enjoy. There’s no doubt food is my passion. I love the food industry.”