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A Buffalo native who went west to pursue a restaurant career and garnered a passel of culinary honors at exclusive resorts, has come back to run the city's best known restaurant, the Park Lane.

The return of James Cohen, 43, previously executive chef at the famed Phoenician resort hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., was announced by Park Lane owners William Koessler and Frederick Pierce II.

Cohen joins the landmark establishment as a full partner, responsible for the restaurant operation as well as its catering and banquet business at the Gates Circle location and the Birge Mansion on Symphony Circle.

The Park Lane's fresh start under Cohen follows a rocky period that started in July with the forced departure of former partner and manager John Baiocco. Pierce and Koessler immediately began looking for someone to manage the high-profile fine-dining establishment, which had reopened in March after an expensive upgrade.

Meanwhile, Cohen was urged by Buffalo friends he visited over the summer to explore opportunities in the thriving local restaurant trade -- particularly the Park Lane opening.

Pierce and Koessler considered 10 to 15 candidates to replace Baiocco, eventually narrowing the list to three.

"Jim really stood out," Pierce said. "We felt he truly knows what makes a restaurant successful."

His resume is impressive.

Cohen graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and eventually moved to Denver, where he owned and operated a successful restaurant and catering business and was chef for the nationally recognized Tante Louise restaurant. His work there moved Julia Child to name him one of the nation's 13 best chefs, and to invite him to cook on her public television series, "Dining with Julia Child."

From Denver, Cohen moved to Colorado ski country as executive chef and food and beverage manager of the Lodge at Vail. He managed Vail's esteemed Wildflower restaurant, and was rated one of the Southwest's top five chefs by the James Beard Foundation.

At the Phoenician, Cohen was responsible for the tony resort's seven restaurants and lounges, some of which are consistently ranked among the nation's best. While there, he received Restaurants & Institutions magazine's prestigious Ivy Award.

Cohen, who has appeared on the "Today" show and on Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and will appear at the end of this month on PBS' "Jewish Cooking in America," aims to make the Park Lane a focal point for fine and casual dining and help spread the word about the area's outstanding restaurants.

He said he will invite "name" chefs from around the nation to participate in benefits and work to draw the attention of food magazines to local restaurants.

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