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Food Is an Expression of Self for Hilton Columbus Downtown Chef Sebastian La Rocca

Chef Sebastian La Rocca

Executive Chef Sebastian La Rocca has cooked in kitchens all over the world, from South America to the U.K. and U.S., to name a few. But it’s at Hilton Columbus Downtown in Ohio where the expression of his Argentinian roots is coming to full fruition. 

“I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of being Latino. And that's what we try to express in FYR. FYR is a reflection of myself,” he said.

La Rocca accepts Marca Pais Award

 “By embracing the tradition of gathering around a hearth or fire, I invite guests to experience the warmth and universal language of food. Food is love; it breaks barriers.”

FYR is one of three restaurant concepts La Rocca manages at Hilton Columbus Downtown, and through it he has exposed the community to one of his home country’s oldest cooking techniques—live-fire cooking. To La Rocca, FYR is not only an expression of his culture, but a culmination of his journey as a chef.

“FYR is memories from my life, my travels, my trips,” he said. “Food is a way to express yourself. The more you travel, the more you taste, the more you eat, the more you want to be able to express yourself.  When you want to know someone, the best way to know them is by  asking them to cook for you. When someone cooks for you, the food speaks a lot more to who that person is—the creativity, the flavors, the taste, the presentation.”

La Rocca was recently recognized as the Food & Wine Ambassador for Argentina through the region’s prestigious Marca Pais Award, which honors individuals who celebrate and share Latin American culture and traditions around the world. The Marca Pais Award was established in 2004 by the government of Argentina and represents a significant state policy to position the country on the international stage. 

Accolades and honors are not new to La Rocca. His professional experience includes being named an Ambassador of Latino Cuisine and Culture in the State of Ohio by the Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as well as being a chef at other distinguished international restaurants and hotels, like the Four Seasons Costa Rica; El Mangroove, Autograph Collection Costa Rica; Faena Hotel Buenos Aires; Hambury Manor Hertfordshire by Marriot; Zodiac UK by Michael Roux and Barbecoa London by Jamie Oliver.

Groups meeting at Hilton Columbus Downtown shouldn’t miss the opportunity to try this fresh addition to the city’s restaurant scene, where a sensory dining experience and genuine love of culture awaits.

[Related: Columbus, Ohio, Is a Creative City of Superlatives for Meetings and Events]

Back to Roots

La Rocca has long been inspired by food. Like many chefs before him, the inspiration struck in the kitchen with his grandparents and growing up with a family that held a great appreciation for food.

“I have memories of my dad during summertime lighting the grill every single day in our summer house,” La Rocca recalled. “When you grow [up] in an environment like that, and you're exposed to that type of stuff, it helps to make it easy to become a chef.”

After considering a career in economics, La Rocca realized the desk life was not for him and decided to pursue his passion for cooking. 

“I don't want to be spending my whole day sitting at a desk,” he said. “Don't get me wrong, it's fine for the people who do that, but it's not me. I'm a creative person, I have ants in the pants and I want to do more.  So, I became a chef.”

His career has been wide-ranging, working in fine dining restaurants, luxury hotels and with celebrity chefs. 

“For me, this journey was amazing,” La Rocca said. “Every place where I’ve worked or lived is unique and every single one has played a part in who I am. I’ve learned from mistakes…you must fail to be successful in what you do.” 

[Related: Ritz Half Moon Bay Chef Applies International Techniques to the Local Bounty]

F&B Group Possibilities at Hilton Columbus Downtown

FYR dining room at Hilton Columbus Downtown
FYR dining room at Hilton Columbus Downtown. Credit: Hilton Columbus Downtown

Hilton Columbus Downtown opened in 2012 and debuted a new tower in 2022 that made it the largest hotel in Ohio. The property is connected to the Greater Columbus Convention Center and offers more than 75,000 square feet of its own meeting and event space. The expansion in 2022 not only brought 463 additional guest rooms, but La Rocca and his three new restaurants: FYR, Spark (serving Latin-inspired small plates) and Stories on High (the 28th-floor eatery serving twists on classic small plates and cocktails with sweeping views of downtown).

FYR serves as the property’s signature restaurant, and planners can work with the hotel to buy out the restaurant or reserve a spot for 12 at the chef’s table or in the private dining room where La Rocca can create custom menus. 

Wood oven-roasted tomato, FYR
Wood oven-roasted tomato, FYR. Credit: Hilton Columbus Downtown

One of the major benefits La Rocca has found from working in Ohio is the quality of locally sourced food. Ohio is home to a large Amish population, and La Rocca sources products from their farms. Also, he counts himself lucky to live just a few hours away from Chef’s Garden  in Huron, Ohio, which supplies chefs around the world—even those with Michelin stars—with high-quality vegetables and other produce. 

“My meat producer’s farm is one hour and a half from here. My cheese guy is half an hour from here,” he said. “It's a privilege to be surrounded by all these regions. So, we really focus on supporting the local suppliers that help us as well to support the local economy.”

The locally sourced products and high-quality menus extend from the hotel’s restaurants to its banquet team. Todd Goodwin, the executive chef of banquets at Hilton Columbus Downtown, routinely creates exceptional restaurant-quality meals for meetings and events, and he and La Rocca share a kitchen and work closely together. 

“Besides working here, we are friends. He’s my compadre, mi hermano,” La Rocca said. 

“We share a kitchen, so on any given day, he could be helping me do a plated event,” Goodwin said. “Or I could be helping him with his chef series dinners, things like that. We are always elbow to elbow .”

That synergy and attention to quality doesn’t go unnoticed by groups. Goodwin mentioned that recently, a planner reached out to him and said it was the first time in 20 years that she hadn’t received a complaint about the food from a group of 500 attendees.  

Team Effort

While La Rocca has received recent accolades for his work at Hilton Columbus Downtown, he stresses that his success is a team effort, from Goodwin to General Manager Chris Coffin and Director of Food and Beverage Doug Bowman to everyone else at the hotel. In 2022, Hilton corporate named the team the best F&B programmers within the company’s North American portfolio.

“We’re doing something different. People like that we are doing something different in the city,” La Rocca said. “People feel surprised by the flavors…we don’t work for awards. We work for customers, for guests, and then they get those awards for us. People love what we do, and that makes us proud of what we do.”

Read this next: More Stories From Top Chefs Around the World

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About the author
Danielle LeBreck | Senior Content Director

Danielle started at Meetings Today in March 2019 after seven years of editorial experience in the travel and food industries. She oversees all of the destination content for Meetings Today and collaborates with the team on digital content strategy and content marketing initiatives.