When Jimmy Spano was looking for a head chef for his restaurant, “The U”, over the summer, one of his employees said they knew just the person. Someone with four years of experience in a fast-food restaurant, where the guy had been an assistant manager and trained new personnel. Someone everybody got along with because he was so incredibly upbeat.
Freddie Lee came in for an interview and Spano needed all of about two minutes to know he had his man.
“When Freddie walked in and applied for the job, with his charisma and his personality and his experience, he was a no-brainer and got the job on the spot,” Spano said. “Ever since then he’s been nothing but a great asset to the business.”
How appropriate that Lee found another home in the restaurant world because his plate’s always full. He’s a senior wideout at UB, where he’s second on the team with 17 receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown.
He’s finishing his degree in early childhood education. He’s writing a motivational self-help book. And last month he was one of 11 FBS players nationally named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team in recognition of his extensive community involvement.
Lee’s introduction to the restaurant business came when he arrived from Chester, S.C., as a UB freshman and began looking for a job. He ended up at Taco Bell, rose to assistant manager, and somehow balanced football and academics while working typically 40 hours a week but occasionally 50-55.
Lee was looking to lighten his workload during his senior season. And maybe broaden his culinary horizons. The new position afforded him an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen and produce his own creations. He came up with a southwest Cajun panini. He’s constantly experimenting and developing new wing sauces.
“Joe Licata’s trying to get me to come up with loganberry barbecue so that might be next in the mix,” Lee said of UB’s quarterback. “And I also got a thing called “Everything Wings,” where I mix all the sauces together. I know it sounds disgusting but it’s actually really good. So you mix medium sauce, honey mustard, barbecue and Cajun seasoning and you put them all together and it’s really good.”
Necessity helped Lee develop a cursory knowledge of the kitchen. His mother, Jacquelyn, worked third shift, and when she couldn’t cook she’d leave behind food and sometimes a recipe.
“Me and my sister were home and she could bake but she didn’t like to cook so we had eat something,” Lee said. “We had to find a way to make it work.”
“And I think living off campus, too, my freshman year, you get tired of eating out, like that’s a lot of money. Money gets a little short and you have to cook something, so I started: Ramen noodles, the hot dogs, then you get tired of hot dogs and go to burgers. Then you try to do a steak here and there and before you know it you can cook.”
Lee and his best friend, fellow wideout Alex Neutz, talk about opening their own restaurant someday, with Florida’s Gulf Coast their preliminary geographic target.
Not that Lee’s in any hurry for that day to come. It’s been a long and sometimes frustrating journey for UB football, but the sun’s begun to shine.
The Bulls are 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the Mid-American Conference heading into Saturday’s game at Western Michigan.
“With all the winning I’m really starting to become sentimental,” Lee said. “We battled through the coaching change and dealing with the losing seasons and all the things that we’ve dealt with as a team. And your last year you finally start winning, you start getting the momentum, you start getting things flowing, and then you look at it and go, ‘Wow, everything’s going good and I’m about to leave.’
“We just got to keep it rolling because if we go out on top it’ll just help as far as business and life after. Being part of a MAC championship team or a winning team, that just kind of helps you in the business world. That shows resolve that you went 2-10 and 3-9 and 4-8 and then all of a sudden you come back and start doing things. As far as the business world, that just shows that you’re not a quitter, you’re not a person who just throws the towel in and finds a way. You find ways to get better and improve and continue with leadership. I think this season’s really going to help things off the field more than ever.”
Spano has no doubt that Lee and Neutz, a business major, will be a success if they follow through with their restaurant plan.
“The second they open that place it’ll be successful,” Spano said. “He’s a special kid and whatever he puts his mind to is going to work.”