Accomplished restaurateur, host Paul McCullough of 15 Church dies at 61

Paul McCullough, known for the exquisite dining experiences he oversaw for Capital Region diners for two decades and for the extremely high standards he held to the staff who created those meals, died Friday in Jupiter , Florida, where he had been living since last year. A cause of death was not immediately available. McCullough was 61 years old.

“He was the greatest man I ever worked for,” said Jonathan Stewart, founding wine director of 15 Church, the Saratoga Springs restaurant of which McCullough was co-founder, general manager and partner. McCullough previously co-founded the former Creo restaurant in Guilderland after six years as the opening general manager of the former McGuire’s in Albany.

Stewart first met McCullough when Stewart was wine manager of the former Wine Bar and Bistro, located on the same block of Lark Street as McGuire’s, and McCullough recruited him for six months to help to open 15 Church in the spring of 2014. McCullough and his then-wife, Susan Diep, were partners in 15 Church for several years.

“I can’t even begin to say how much he taught me about hospitality,” Stewart said. “He was so impressive.”

McCullough was an accomplished front man, known for his salt-and-pepper silver hair over the years, his neat attire, his graciously welcoming manners at the table, and his attention to detail so meticulous that the dining experience seemed effortless for guests. . unaware of the rigors that entailed such perfection.

“He was a badass,” said Silvia Lilly, who hosted McGuire for six years and remained close to McCullough, with an affectionate laugh.

“He had very high expectations of himself and his staff, and if you didn’t meet that level of service, you were going to hear about it,” said Lilly, who later bought the Wine Bar and Bistro and the led for 20 months. like Lark & ​​Lily Wine Bar & Kitchen.

Capital Area property developer Tom Burke, who also owns more than 20 Dunkin’ Donuts locations, met McCullough in 2003 when, panicked because he had forgotten to make a Valentine’s Day reservation at McGuire’s, so the hottest spot in Albany, Burke went to the restaurant that afternoon to plead for a table. McCullough succeeded, and Burke and his wife continued to dine at McGuire’s twice a week for years thereafter.

When Burke decided he wanted to fund an upscale restaurant in Saratoga, his first food business venture, he said he had only one choice of partner: McCullough and Diep.

During the year-long process of planning and building the 15th Church, the partners met regularly at the Burkes’ home, often chatting for hours. At the end of one of these meetings, McCullough mentioned his intention to pass on to Burke a book he was reading that had impressed him.

“I thought it might be a novel, a biography, something about history, and it would give me a glimpse into his brain,” Burke said. “The book was something like ‘Hug Your Guest.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what this guy does in his free time, I’m definitely going to go into business with the right person.’ “

“He wanted people to feel hugged as they walked through the door, hugged as they walked out, hugged every moment in between,” said Yasmine Perez, who worked for McCullough as a waiter at McGuire’s, Creo and 15 Church. . The two became close friends, talking often.

“He was my North Star. He was everything,” Perez said.

McCullough was also known for identifying, nurturing and developing hospitality staff.

After rounds of heartwarming calls on Saturday with others who loved McCullough, Perez said, “Everyone I spoke to today said at some point, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am without it. Paul. I wouldn’t be the person I am without Paul. He saw the best in us.”

“He definitely helped me get up in the business,” said chef Brian Bowden, who was a cook at McGuire’s, ran the former Gingerman’s kitchen in Albany and Creo, and is now executive chef at famed Radici Kitchen. & Bar at Chutes Glens.

“He really enjoyed nurturing young talent and helping them grow,” Bowden said.

McCullough’s biggest bet on a rising star was in 2017, when he chose Mike Mastrantuono, then just 25, to be the next leader of 15 Church. They became friends when they both worked at MezzaNotte Ristorante in Guilderland a few years earlier, and McCullough was impressed with Mastrantuono’s skills and confident in his potential.

“Tom (Burke) wasn’t sure I could do it,” Mastrantuono said. “But Paul was. That was all Paul did. He believed in me.”

Born November 3, 1960, in Albany, McCullough grew up in the city as one of four brothers and one sister. A graduate of Albany High School, he worked in restaurants in Atlanta and Hilton Head, North Carolina, and co-founded a restaurant in Florida before returning to the capital area in the late 1990s, according to his sister, Colleen Connelly.

Aware of McGuire’s reputation, Diep applied for a waiter job in 2005. She was on her way to another job interview when McCullough called.

“I literally turned the car around, went to McGuire’s and sat (outside) talking to him for a long time,” Diep said. “I remember thinking after the fact what a lovely, handsome man he was.” They married in 2008, divorcing about a decade later. She still holds a leadership position at 15 Church.

Although a leader in professional matters, McCullough was also appreciated for the genuineness and affection he showed to people, be they staff members, clients, friends or other people.

“The man was like a warm sun to everyone,” Diep said.

Busy freelance food writer and frequent Times Union contributor Deanna Fox, who only knew McCullough professionally as a source for stories, remembers receiving a surprise envelope from McCullough about eight or nine years ago. Inside was a greeting card with a handwritten message.

Although they never discussed personal matters, Fox said, “He sent me a very nice note saying he wanted me to know that he recognized that it must have been difficult to do my job. like I did and being on my own and raising my kids. He just wanted me to know that was something he noticed. He was exceptionally nice. He’s the kind of person it was.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful uncle” to four nephews and a niece, said Connelly, his sister.

He also sought to help people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions, according to friends and family. Sober for 16 years, he had relapsed in recent years and has spoken openly about his experiences with alcohol-related health issues and depression, Connelly said.

McCullough’s legacy is the vaunted level of service and food he insisted on at 15 Church and strived to continually improve, Burke said.

“As far as front of house, he was the best of the best — better than anything I’ve ever seen, even in New York, LA, Miami. The man was magic,” Burke said. Although McCullough hasn’t worked at 15 Church in two years, his presence is felt daily at all levels of the restaurant, Burke, Diep and Mastrantuono said.

“The hospitality is still there because of the way he organized it,” Diep said. Staff receive regular training and assessments, including written and practical tests, Burke said.

“This summer is probably going to be our biggest yet, and we’re going to live up to and exceed Paul’s expectations,” Mastrantuono said. “We’re going to do it because we know that’s how he would want it.”

McCullough is survived by Connelly and her husband, William; brothers Daniel, Paul, Michael and Christopher McCullough; five nieces and nephews; and other family. Connelly said all funeral services would be private. Diep and Burke said they may hold a public memorial event in the future.

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