Cook In The Kitchen

Crocker Brings Creativity To Small-Town Diner

Chef Dan Crocker brings his creativity to Panama Diner, where his specials are always a hit. Customers can expect the unexpected for a small-town diner by way of Seafood Stew, Louisiana Boil, Fish Tacos or other Friday surprises. Photos by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Within 30 minutes of meeting Dan Crocker, many traits and attributes surfaced. The chef is not only creative, but mischievous, adventurous, grateful and organized.

“I started making breakfast when I was 9 or 10 years old,” he said. “I always did like to experiment. I made my very first dessert when I was 12 and I didn’t know what to call it so I called it my blueberry stuff.”

The Cherry Creek resident lived in the Jamestown area and was a senior at Southwestern Central School before his father decided the family would move to Pittsburgh. While reading a magazine article about Paul Newman he noted Newman had included his phone credit card number. Missing his friends from back home, he made the decision to use the card to contact them. In time, he became concerned he may be found out and started calling with the same number with the exception of randomly changing the last two digits. His fear became reality when he was caught owing an $80 bill.

When he was 18 years old he moved to Colorado to attend a community college, because he saw the opportunity to ski. After finishing college, while still residing in Colorado and working at a job baling hay that paid five cents per bale, Crocker decided to change “professions.” After supplying two fake references, he was hired for a head cook job, of which he had no experience. He held the position for a couple of years and then moved to Minnesota to be closer to his sister.

“I worked as an assistant manager for McDonald’s for three years when Big Macs were 80 cents,” he said.

Grilled Tuna Steak with Fresh Pineapple Salsa and wild rice.

From there Crocker moved back to the Pittsburgh area where he worked for Eat ‘n Park and Periwinkle’s Restaurants.

“I took a 10-year break (from the restaurant business) and did roofing and remodeling, but after the steel mills fell apart, everyone became a roofer,” he said. “That is when I decided I missed cooking and went to Pittsburgh Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA).”

Having more experience than most of the other students and being highly motivated, he missed being Valedictorian by one one-hundredth of a point. Later he attended Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park “to gather points.”

“I just wanted the title of Chef,” he said while smiling.

He did his externship at Pittsburgh Field Club in Fox Chapel, where several Penguins and Steelers belonged, while attending the two-year program at PICA and actually touched the Stanley Cup in 1992. He remained in that position for the next two and a half years, until he took his first “chef” position at an upscale independent living facility. From there he moved up from chef manager to food service director to director of dining services.

“Best Ever Fish Taco” with Pico de Gallo.

“I enjoyed that job very much and it was there I started building gingerbread houses. I bake, but I don’t like to. Baking is a science. Cooking is an art.”

Building Christmas gingerbread houses became a passion, beginning with the first A-frame house. By the third year he was designing and building entire villages. The village playground contained a sandbox, teeter-totter and a basketball court. The two-foot tall church with steeple had lighted stained-glass windows. A barnyard with animals was added when he displayed a village this past Christmas at the Panama Diner, where customers offered payment if he would build houses for them.

“Everything is edible,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “In order to be a true blue gingerbread house, it has to be edible.” He goes on to tell about an edible waterfall he built into one of the scenes of the past.

During his time at the healthcare facility his boss asked him to have samples at “Taste of the Town” and to “make it nice.” He and his assistant manager served steak tartare, stuffed calamari and oysters on the half-shell beside an ice bowl filled with shrimp and 300 assorted canapes.

“Some of the other chefs walked by and gasped while saying ‘oh my gosh.'”

He tells about a time when he was “desperate for help” and came across a young man preparing food in a bar. “I saw he had a flair and talent,” he says of the man he hired that day and who worked with him for many years, until he wanted to return to his home state. “I gave him a glowing reference, which landed him a job in a 4-Star restaurant. He is now with UPMC, where he will retire. Matt was my protege, a nice young man.”

After his years at the healthcare facility, he returned to Minnesota to help a friend open a Subway where he stayed five years. He then returned to a restaurant where he had worked after college, the first time he lived in Minnesota. A year later he moved back to Jamestown, after a tragic situation in his life.

“I left this area and returned four times,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I like this area.”

After a few short-lived jobs in Chautauqua County, he found his way to the Rowdy Rooster in Panama. He works very quickly and sites an example of when his boss told him on a Friday, just before he was leaving for vacation, that he needed to have five soups prepared for the next week.

“I had two cream soups and three broth soups ready in an hour and a half.”

Since then the Rowdy Rooster was sold and is now called Panama Diner. Between the two, Crocker has spent a total of ten years at the establishment, although he is now semi-retired.

“I can cook circles around a lot of people, but just not for as long,” he said.

One of the best kept secrets in and around Panama, New York could be that the Panama Diner employs a professional chef, something one may not expect to find in a small-town diner. He likes to know his clientele and often begins preparing their favorite dish when he sees them walk through the door, having it ready when the server hands him the order.

“He’s the best cook in Panama, hands down,” said customer Wayne Smith, who added he “will be in Friday for the seafood stew,” a special made of shrimp, cod, scallops, crab and vegetables, with a little pasta.

“I try to bring in different food, especially on Fridays. I like to play with seafood the most. You can really mess it up, because it is so delicate,” said the chef. “When I do Louisiana boil it knocks their socks off.”

He offers six or seven daily specials, including breakfast and lunch specials. Seafood specials may be offered during the week when there is an ample supply of fish. The Mega Meatball and Baked Chicken Salad were added to the daily specials when Crocker, who doesn’t use recipes, was attempting to figure out measurements on the day he selected recipes for this submission.

“I love food! When I try something that I like, I try to reproduce it and make it better. I will travel for a good fish taco,” the chef said, which is the reason he developed the recipe for Best Ever Fish Tacos. He tells about the customer who does not like fish but says “these are amazing.” Friends often tell him his Loaded Potato Salad is the best potato salad they have ever eaten.

“I am always learning and trying new things,” he said as he described the moment he knows he has created a winning new dish. “When your mouth tingles and when it hits your jaw and you go ‘aaaaahh,’ you know it’s good.”

Crocker’s fiance, Linda Fuller, yells at him because his cooking is responsible for her weight-gain.

“She is very supportive, loving and gives me quality of life,” he said of the person who lives with him in a cabin on 12 wooded acres in the middle of a 3,000-acre forest. He refers to her as a good cook, but says he often has dinner ready when she gets home from her job.

When he’s not in the kitchen, the avid cook enjoys many activities, mostly outdoor-related. He enjoys fishing, shooting and canoeing and kayaking, vacationing in warm places and riding the motorcycle he bought when he was 60 years old.

“I’m a beach bum and an old hippie,” he said.

Another outdoor sport he enjoyed when he was able to share it with his mother, was golf.

“We golfed twice a week for seven years and we got pretty good. We golfed rain or shine and sometimes had to knock slush off our clubs. We were the first ones out in the spring.”

He tells about a very memorable day with his mother when the course was quite wet.

“It started with her being stung by a bee from a nest under the cart and then when I made a turn, she fell out and rolled,” Crocker said. After that she slid down a hill and was covered with mud. Later, when we were waiting for other people to play, a golf ball came toward us and after bouncing off a few things, it struck my mother. On the same day, when she was entering the cart, club first, she broke my glasses.”

Although the following recipes are not part of the diner’s regular menu, they are sometimes served as a special.

Mega Meatballs

2 lbs. ground meat

1 c onions, finely diced

1 T basil

1 T oregano

2 T garlic powder

1/2 c Parmesan cheese

2 eggs

Salt and pepper to taste

2 c fresh bread crumbs

1/2 c milk

Combine all ingredients, mixing well. Form into 6-8 oz meatballs. Bake at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Serve in a bowl smothered with your favorite sauce sprinkled with shredded mozzarella. Serve with garlic toast and salad.

Baked Chicken Salad

3-4 lbs. boneless chicken breasts, cooked and diced

1 c celery, chopped

1 c onion, chopped

1 c green pepper, chopped

2-3 c mayonnaise

1 c cream cheese, softened

2 eggs

1/4 lb bacon, cooked crisp, save bacon grease

2 c Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

Combine all ingredients, mixing well. Place in 9” x 13″ baking dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cut into squares and top more extra cheese and fresh chives. Serve alone or with salad.

Grilled Tuna Steaks with Leafy Greens and

Pineapple Salsa

Dip tuna steaks (Ahi or bluefin) in lightly seasoned olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill 3-4 mins per side or to preferred doneness.

Pineapple Salsa

20 oz crushed pineapple, drained

1/2 c onions, diced

1/2 c green peppers, diced

1 medium tomato, diced

1-2 jalape’os, chopped fine

1 T tomato paste

1 tsp vinegar

1 T soy sauce

Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients. Let sit for 1 hour. Drain. Plate cooked tuna on serving plate with leafy greens and 2 tablespoons of salsa. Serve with wild rice blend.

Best Ever Fish Tacos

with Pico de Gallo

11/2 lbs cod or other white fish, deep fried or grilled (l prefer grilled.)

Cajun and creole seasoning

5 c cabbage, very finely shredded

1c red onion, very finely shredded

Ranch dressing

Chipotle sauce or seasoning

1 tsp garlic, minced

Season fish with Cajun and Creole seasoning. Add chipotle sauce or seasoning and minced garlic to ranch dressing. Place cooked fish on warm 6″ flour tortillas. Top with chipotle ranch dressing, cabbage, onion and 2 tablespoons fresh Pico de Gallo.

Classic Pico De Gallo

5-6 Roma tomatoes, diced

1/2-1 onion, diced

1-2 jalapenos, finely chopped (seeded and ribs removed for milder)

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

2 T olive oil

2 T lime juice

pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients.

Loaded Potato Salad

3-4 lbs Idaho or russet potatoes, cooked, cooled and diced

4-5 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

11/2 c mayonnaise

1 c Miracle Whip

1 c cream cheese, softened

1 T red wine vinegar

1-2 c celery, chopped

1-2 c red onions, chopped

1 c green peppers, chopped

1/2 lb bacon, cooked and chopped, including grease

1 1/2 c Monterey Jack, shredded

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp season salt

1 tsp garlic powder

2 T parsley

Combine well. Chill before serving.