Many believe that being by the ocean improves health and well-being, and Saint Louis Science Center General Manager Jeff Spirer may be a believer. Even though he grew up in Pittsburgh, went to land-locked Virginia Tech and currently works in the mid-western city of Saint Louis, he said he loves the ocean. His love of water may have started as a child. For many years, his family took sunny summer escapes to either Cape Cod or in the North Miami area. While visiting Cape Cod, he discovered the National Seashore Park with its sand dunes, swamp, six swimming beaches, eleven nature trails, and it was enough to create a life time of memories. Another popular destination for vacations was sunny Florida where his grandparents had an apartment in Cricket Club complex on Biscayne Blvd, adjacent to a white sandy beach.
One day Jeff hopes to visit either or both the Canary Islands and the Galapagos Islands. Designated as World Heritage Sites, both sites feature stunning beaches and natural attractions that includes exceptional marine life. The adventure that beckons beneath the water surface appeals to Jeff as he has been a certified scuba diver for more than 20 years.
When asked what his ideal job would be, Jeff laughingly replied “be a lifeguard on a beach.” And it’s a job he can do as he was a lifeguard for six years many years ago. He was also a member of his high school water polo team, where he was known as “Baywatch.” The best man at his wedding gave him a rescue cannon that was used on Baywatch, the long-running ’90s beach rescue television series. This keepsake is kept in the family’s den where Jeff also displays a wooden golf club that was used by his grandfather who played in the PGA during the l950s.
Jeff and his wife, Rachel, were married in 2001. For a honeymoon, he took his wife to Hawaii where they enjoyed – what else, the ocean. They have two children: 11-year-old Ethan and eight-year-old Madison. The couple met after college graduation, but Jeff knew all about her because she was the college room-mate of one of Jeff’s best friends from high school. They finally met in person when Jeff stopped by his friend’s house, and Rachel was there getting sympathy as she had just broken up with her college boyfriend. In the course of the introduction, Rachel told Jeff she needed ice cream. Jeff listened, and they went for ice cream. Something must have been in that ice cream as Jeff left for New York 10 days later to attend culinary school, and Rachel started her weekly commute between Pittsburgh and New York, flying in Friday night and returning home to go to work on Monday morning.
Jeff at work
Jeff attended Virginia Tech where he prepared to be a leader in his field and community by earning a business degree. To learn more about food and its preparation, Jeff went to the French Culinary Institute in New York City, which is one of the most highly respected culinary schools in the world that offers a fast track total immersion method of culinary education used by the French schools, stressing hands-on experience and following it up with professional experience in restaurant settings. Jeff then went to work for celebrity chef Bobby Flay at his Mesa Grill restaurant where the emphasis is on bold Southwestern flavors. Jeff said that he planned this experience as a way to strengthen his resume and to understand the art of food.
After completing his culinary training, Jeff returned to Pittsburgh and went to work managing a local restaurant. Several years later, he entered the corporate world in hospitality management. When Jeff was managing the culinary operations at the Phipps Conservatory and Gardens, the gardens received the Hobart Center for Foodservice Sustainability award. The national honor highlighted the green operations and practices at Café Phipps, the garden’s three-star Green Restaurant Certified café, which was managed by Jeff and his dedicated talented staff.
Jeff is now an active participant on the Science Center’s green team and is establishing an on-site compost program as well as a vegetable garden.
One of the smartest things Jeff said that he did was to take a semester off after his freshman year of college to work at Disney at one of its resort restaurants, and yes, it was called The Yacht and Beach Club. He started as a host and ended as a waiter at the popular seafood restaurant. He jokingly said that he usually doesn’t do smart things very often.
After graduating from college, he took a break and backpacked around Europe. He and five friends visited 18 counties and 23 cities in eight weeks. While he was in awe of the architecture in the various medieval cities, he also took time to enjoy outdoor adventures, such as paragliding, even though he’s terrified of heights. Jeff shared that he thought he was going to have a panic attack on the drive up through the mountains to reach the launch site.
Jeff at play
When Jeff isn’t working, he’s spending time with his family. On Thanksgiving, the family volunteers at a local soup kitchen. A favorite pastime is sitting in his brown leather chair with his legs propped up on an ottoman watching recorded programs on a large flat screen television. Jeff’s favorite shows include Hawaii 5-0, NCIS, Chicago PD and some Food Network programs. His daughter wants him to apply to be on the popular competitive baking show, Cupcake Wars. But Jeff said he doesn’t like baking sweets, as recipes need to be closely followed. If he’s not watching television, he may be with his son on a Boy Scout camping trip. Jeff has the title of “Honorable Grub Master” as he’s responsible for the food. With his background, the menus don’t include hot dogs or hamburgers, but tacos, fish and other tasty entrees.
Jeff also enjoys reading Cigar Aficionado, a magazine dedicated to the smoking and collecting of cigars. Another favorite is Wine Spectator with its articles on wine, fine dining, cooking, world travel and the arts.
Like many Pittsburgh natives, Jeff is loyal to the hometown teams: the Steelers, the Penguins and the Pirates, even though he doesn’t currently live in Pittsburgh. His favorite sports to watch include football and hockey. In fact, Jeff said it would be difficult to give up watching “his” Steelers. But he particularly enjoyed watching the Pirates play the Cardinals in the baseball playoffs in the fall of 2014. It was the first time that the Pirates made the play-offs in his lifetime. Jeff has also become a fan of curling, a sport in which players slide stones on a sheet of ice toward a target area. This skill-based strategic game has been compared to chess and that’s what Jeff loves about the sport.
As a guy with both right and left brain tendencies, Jeff likes to help people, especially his staff. “I like to teach and train people,” he said, “I could never sit behind a desk and be an accountant.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the water-loving culinary master likes to eat shrimp and sushi, but he said his favorite food is mac and cheese – even the kind that comes in a box! He said he makes a killer version. Jeff became a fan while living in New York and attending culinary school. Tuesday nights were mac and cheese nights for him and his seven roommates, while the other weeknight meals featured gourmet dishes.