Patient and fair. Loved teaching. Passion for life. Joyful partner. These virtues are extolled again and again as the Charlottesville food community mourns the passing of chef and food educator Eric Breckoff, who died unexpectedly on August 16 at age 60.
Breckoff was the much-beloved inaugural director of the culinary arts program at Piedmont Virginia Community College. John Donnelly, vice president of instruction and student services at PVCC, says Breckoff was an exceptional choice to run the program.
“He loved teaching and loved what he did and was a great program head and he was so passionate about the program, the students, and teaching,” says Donnelly, who also notes how far-reaching Breckoff’s efforts into the community were. The chef connected his PVCC culinary arts program students to the Monticello Harvest Days and CATEC, through cooking demos and helping place students in jobs in their area of interest. “It’s a significant loss for the college, for the program, and the culinary arts community,” says Donnelly. “He was well known and well respected, and we’ll miss him tremendously.”
Another PVCC colleague, Ridge Schuyler, worked alongside Breckoff at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where the culinary arts program is located.
“He was larger than life with huge passions: a passion for food, a passion for politics, and a passion for people, especially those who saw food as a way of improving their lot in life,” Schuyler says. He jokes that his proximity to Breckoff also meant the threat of an expanding waistline.
“His students would produce meals, desserts, entrées, and appetizers, and he would bring [them] to our office and stand over us till we tried everything,” says Schuyler. “He was exuberant about both the food and the people who produced it.”
And his students carried his passion forward as they began their own careers. Alicia Simmons and Vinnie Falcone learned through Breckoff’s program before taking jobs at Belmont’s Tavola restaurant, where they each rose quickly through the kitchen ranks to become sous chefs (at different times). “They arrived well-prepared for the job, and became indispensable,” says Tavola chef/owner Michael Keaveny, who says Breckoff was his first call when staffing needs arose.
Simmons, now at Restoration in Crozet, mourns the treasured instructor. “He was such an inspiring instructor,” she says. “I always looked forward to cooking beside him in the kitchen…being able to create delicious dishes every day, and experimenting with flavor combinations, while also seeing the delight on customers’ faces, [something] many young chefs dream of achieving.”
Falcone, now at Michelin-starred Rose’s Luxury in Washington, D.C., says Breckoff “couldn’t have been more fair and accommodating to everyone around him. He had the patience of a saint. He knew when he could push people. His instruction absolutely helped me get to where I am today.”
Breckoff’s wife, Patty Carrubba, remembers her husband’s zest for living life large, which included extensive traveling overseas to visit friends and family.
“We laughed every single day and I could’ve spent the next hundred years with him and never grown tired of him,” she says. “We knew that every day is a gift and that’s totally how he lived his life—he didn’t count calories, but he did take care of himself, and he loved his family, his students.”
Breckoff worked as a commercial photographer for years, and decided in his mid-30s to attend Johnson & Wales’ culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, and then in Rhode Island, earning an MBA. Prior to working at PVCC he taught culinary arts at Reynolds Community College in Richmond.
Carrubba was recently divorced and had four children when she met Breckoff at the Foods of All Nations cheese counter. “He was buying one slice of every piece of cheese for his students. I said ‘That’s a lot of cheese.’ He said he was a chef and I said ‘I love to cook! How lucky your wife must be!’ He said he’d never been married, and I said I wasn’t married, and within two weeks we were engaged.”
Breckoff had always wanted a big family and stepped in joyfully, doing Boy Scout camping trips and putting the kids through college, pampering Carrubba throughout their marriage, and bringing her coffee in bed every day.
“He’d been focusing on work his whole life and decided he was going to find a family and we just hit it off,” she says. “At first, I thought there was something terribly wrong with some guy willing to marry me with four kids. I made him go through counseling and I asked the counselor what was wrong, and she said ‘He just totally loves you and he is wonderful!’”
Carrubba says she has been overwhelmed by the tributes and messages she’s received, some from students who graduated 10 and 15 years ago. “Eric kept tabs on everyone from his childhood on, and he valued friendships and cherished and fostered them.” Breckoff was laid to rest on his 61st birthday.