Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Andrew Carmellini

Andrew Carmellini shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.July 2010

Andrew Carmellini is the chef-partner of Locanda Verde, an Italian taverna in Tribeca that opened in 2009. He is also in the process of opening a yet unnamed project on Sullivan Street in SoHo and working on his second cookbook, after the success of Urban-Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food (Bloomsbury, 2008). Carmellini was executive chef of Café Boulud for six years, during which he won James Beard Awards for Rising Star Chef in 2000 and Best Chef, New York City in 2005, after being nominated three times. His following venture, A Voce, received a Beard nomination for best new restaurant in 2007 (he left in 2008), as did Locanda Verde in 2010. Other than two years spent cooking in Italy and in France, Carmellini, who is from Ohio, built his career in New York. The Main Course met him recently to talk about his experiences in the culinary world and his future projects.

What differentiates your Italian restaurant from the other ones around?
Locanda’s is very different. It’s not traditional at all, even though it’s very rooted in Italy. I’ve been to Italy probably 30 times. I lived there for a year. I’ve been to every region. There’s an Italian culture, and an Italian-American culture, and there’s living in New York. So it’s an amalgam of all those things put together. Locanda is also fun. I like serving very high-quality food, with high-quality ingredients, that’s very good but not too serious. It is a challenge sometimes because some people who were used to the restaurants where I was before were used to serious. It’s nice to play the music I want to play, be kind of boisterous, and see everyone having a good time. And we get to serve great food.

And great cocktails.
Naren Young, our cocktail guy at Locanda Verde, is very well known in the mixology world, and he does a great job. There was a little bit of challenge in the beginning when he started, because he never really worked in an Italian restaurant before, and I want to make sure that the drinks have an Italian spirit at least—either spirit in their simplicity or spirit in their flavor profile, so it gives you a narrower box to work with.

What are some of your signature dishes?
I always hated the signature dish scenario, because usually signature dishes let you down—or at least, they’ve let me down in my experience as a diner. You hear about this dish, and then you make the reservation or you travel across the world to get it and it’s like, “This is what everyone’s talking about?” But, I’ve also learned that it’s really important to have a signature dish or have those dishes that, as much as I hate it, people grow to expect, because people say, “We’re going to Locanda Verde. What should we have? We should have the ricotta, the lamb meatballs, the roast chicken, and the lemon tart.” And they show up and that’s what they order. Then they want to come back, and maybe they’ll try one or two other dishes, but they really want to have one of those dishes that they really loved. At Locanda, we cook seasonally. If you’re an American chef these days, if you’re any chef, you’re always going to cook with the seasons in mind. Customers don’t always understand that, so in the springtime, you’ll make a great pea ravioli and they’ll show up in November and ask, “Where the hell’s the pea ravioli?”

With the type of people who go to your restaurant, you still hear that?
Yes. The word “foodie” never really existed 10 years ago. My parents loved to eat and loved good food, but they weren’t foodies. They didn’t go to restaurants. We had a garden in the back. They didn’t like food with preservatives in them or processed food. But still, that culture, a foodie culture, realistically, accounts for maybe 20 percent of people that come to your restaurant. That’s the reality.

Your grandmother sounds like quite the foodie though. In the introduction to Urban Italian, you talk about her giving you Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire.
I’m half Italian and half Polish so I have good cooking on both sides. My Italian grandmother, who was from Friuli, lived in Miami. Essentially, they lived in the South, even though Miami’s not really “the South” but still, there’s that influence there. She would cook Italian food, but she would make black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, and other southern cooking. She would make a meringue pie with sour oranges because they had sour orange trees in the yard. So there was this American South influence, too, in her cooking, which was interesting.

What made you want to become a chef?
Like most chefs or people in the business, you have some frenetic energy inside you all the time. There was no way I was going to be an accountant or a pencil-pusher. I didn’t have enough concentration to be a lawyer and I wasn’t good enough with numbers to work in finance. Something with some kind of creative outlet was the way to go. I loved cooking when I was a kid, even when I was really small, and I used to bake a lot. I cooked my way through Betty Crocker many, many times. This is before Food Network and before any of that kind of food media. It was basically Gourmet and Jeff Smith. Some of the books I used to look at were Jacques Pépin’s La Technique and Julia Child’s. That’s how I discovered that type of things. I’m also a musician, so I was either going to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston or CIA. I ended up going the cooking route. It probably wasn’t until just before I graduated that I really decided I was going to be a chef. I was only 19 when I graduated because I went right after high school. I had also worked in the front of the house before I went to school and I had worked in the kitchen, too. I didn’t know what the wine world was about, so school was a way to learn about the business as a whole.

If you were to graduate culinary school today, are there things that you would do differently from what you did back then?
No. I was very lucky—and determined, I guess. There are so many more choices and opportunities now than there were then. I don’t want to sound like some 70-year-old grandfather; I’m 39. I’ve been doing this for 20 years in New York now, and there are so many great restaurants here. I just got done traveling all over the country. Everywhere. From Texas barbeque to po’boys in New Orleans, you name it, we’ve eaten it. I can tell you that the best food scene in America is in New York. The best restaurants in America are in New York. Hands down. There are some great, bright spots and I love traveling around the country, but overall, the quality of cooks, the best customers, the volume of customers—New York is the best. So, coming to New York, I would never have changed that. When I left school, I thought I was going to come to New York for a couple of years, then go to Europe for a couple of years, and then travel through Turkey, Morocco, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and I’d come back, at 32 and I would have worked all over the world. I kind of got stuck in New York, even though I lived in Europe for a couple of years and I’ve traveled all through Asia, but no, there’s nothing I would have done differently. I’ve made some business mistakes before. My restaurant before Locanda Verde was a business mistake, but that was a huge learning curve, on the business end of things, so it was a valuable experience in the end. You should never be afraid to make mistakes either.

How many more restaurants do you plan on opening?
I like the creative process and the crazy energy when you open up a new restaurant. This fall will be the first time I’m actually going to run two of them, so I’m trying to do that as smartly as possible. The most important thing for me is that it has to be personal. It’s going to be a reflection of how I feel about cooking in a restaurant. We’re going to pour our heart and our soul into this thing. I have no master plan, though. I’d rather have two great places than 10 places and one is great, another one is okay, and eight are mediocre. I do a lot of consulting also, for other groups. We’ve done some work in Asia too. But right now I have one restaurant and I’m about to open up a second one and that is plenty. We’re putting our own money into this restaurant—me and my two partners there, my operating partners from Locanda Verde, Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard. We invested in Locanda; the one on Sullivan Street is just the three of us.

What is the concept of your new restaurant?
I’m not really talking about it just yet, but it’s still developing—even though we’re building it. Not Italian. I’ll be doing more Italian restaurants, but the next couple of restaurants probably won’t be. I’m very comfortable in other cuisines also, even though I love Italian food, so it’s always been my dream to do a couple of different types of restaurants, and not really be locked down to one type of thing.

Are you worried that people are expecting a second Locanda Verde?
No. I generally try to not worry too much about what people think because my philosophy has always been if I do what I believe in, if I have conviction in what we’re cooking and what we’re trying to portray or sell, or if I’m happy generally, if I’m super proud about it and I would be happy eating here, then I feel that other people are going to be happy also. I don’t know if I’m going to do super high end ever again. I like the idea that you can come to Locanda two or three nights a week, and you can get a bowl of pasta and a salad or a quick dessert and spend 40 bucks. Or you can come with a big group of friends and do the whole menu. You can come for breakfast one day. You can come for lunch one day. It’s a neighborhood corner restaurant and that’s what I want for our place in SoHo.

You’re talking about casualness and happiness. How do you define your culinary philosophy? Are those elements essential to it?
A lot of my cooks and sous chefs were working at Café Boulud with me. It’s a lot of the same guys, which I’m super proud of. It makes it very comfortable for all of us. It’s important to have people around you whom you trust and have the same philosophy that you do. We’re not cooking any differently now than we were at Café Boulud, when we were using caviar, foie gras and truffles. We’re cooking exactly the same. Before, to put a dish together it would maybe take us seven pans. Now we’re basically using the same techniques, the same ingredients—well, maybe not the truffles, foie gras and caviar—the same level of cooking, but we’re putting it in one pan. We’re putting one or two less ingredients and it’s the same: the same care, the same way we run the kitchen, just stripped down a little bit.

How did you decide to work with the people you’ve worked with, such as Gray Kunz or Daniel Boulud?
When I got out of school, I wanted to come to New York. I ended up working at San Domenico because I had great Italian food there, and then Tony [May] sent me to Italy. That was a big reason why I went to work there and I worked there two years. After two years working with Italians, I had had it. They’re great cooks, but they drive me crazy. I like a little bit more organization. I’m definitely too OCD to work in a 100 percent Italian kitchen ever again. I knew that to be more well rounded, I needed to work for the French. I went in and staged everywhere at the time. This is in ’93. All the big French restaurants. At that time, Lespinasse was unbelievable. It was just before it got four stars. The line there was basically Scott Bryan, Floyd Cardoz, Rocco DiSpirito. Everyone was just cooks there, but the food was incredible. It was difficult to get a job there because a lot of people wanted it, so I tried pretty hard and had to wait a little bit, but finally a position opened and I got it. I ended up working there three and a half years. I started working there because I’d never seen anything like it. I was never really exposed to the southeastern flavors that he [Gray Kunz] was using a lot of at the time. And Floyd was only a couple of years in America at that point and was just starting to assert some of his [Indian] background into the cooking. There were a couple of amazing cooks there at the time who helped influence Gray’s cooking and brought a lot of those other flavors. It was a great experience. Then I really wanted to go to France, so I did that for a year. I worked at Arpège in Paris and a bunch of bistros and brasseries in the south. When I came back, I was supposed to work for Jean-George when he opened up in Columbus Circle, but he wasn’t opening up for another nine months or a year, even though that’s the job I wanted. I probably was $20,000 in debt and had zero money in the bank, so I needed the work right away. Le Cirque was about to open and they didn’t have a sous chef. I wasn’t even looking for a sous chef job at the time, because I didn’t think I was ready for it, but I was so in debt that I needed to make more money than just a cook’s job. And somehow at 27 years old, I took the executive sous chef job at Le Cirque.

So, were you ready for it?
No. The cooking, yes. That was a way too big step because I was running a brigade of 50 cooks and we were closing down the old Le Cirque and opening up the new one in the New York Palace. How we got four stars there, I have no idea. Chalk it up for another learning experience. It was big balls to take that job, but, frankly, I needed the money. I thought I did it pretty well. Then I had a chance to take the chef’s job opening Café Boulud. Daniel wanted someone American there to do it.

You were there six years?
Yes. I loved it. It was nice to be 100 percent focused on the food and the cooking and not have to worry about any of the business BS.

Do you sometimes miss those days?
I was not interested in TV and cookbooks and self-promotion. Even to this day, to be honest with you, I don’t really like any of it, even though it’s very necessary. I’ve become more comfortable in it. You see some people in the business now who only want to do that. That’s their own choice, and you definitely can make good money doing only that. I love the cooking and business part too much. I never used to go in the dining room at Café Boulud; it just wasn’t my thing really. At a certain point, I needed to do something else. I wanted to be Daniel’s chef for all his restaurants, his chef who oversaw everything. I think Daniel wanted a French guy for that, though. Which I respect him for, because he needs someone who communicates in a certain way, so I understand that. But it forced me to get my act together.

Do you think it’s possible today to reach any type of success without doing interviews and being in the dining room?
Yes. I think that the worst thing that can happen is that it’s too much about self-promotion before you make sure your food is good, which happens a lot. Or you worry too much about self-promotion when you don’t have the team around you to assist you in executing your ideas. Just because a reality TV show is going to get your face out there doesn’t mean that your restaurant is going to be full every night. I’m not saying it hurts; I’m just saying that, in the end, you have to be able to deliver your product.

What helped make you decide to do a first cookbook and now a second one?
There’s something very tactile about holding a cookbook and cooking from a cookbook. Whether that is the future or not, I’m not sure. We did a book not because I had to have a cookbook out there. It was more because I had a story to tell. It would’ve been really easy for me to do the blah-blah-blah cookbook. Urban Italian is more about stories; every recipe tells a story. It’s a very personal book. If you pick up a copy and you read it, you’ll know probably too much about me, about who I am and why I cook, what my vibe is and what my food is. I really wanted the recipes to work at home. Gwen [Hyman], my wife, wrote Urban Italian, which was very helpful because she knows who I am. We are doing the same process for this book, too: She sits at the kitchen table and I cook. We write the recipes as I do them. They’re all done at home, because if you test the recipes in the restaurant, it’s not the same. Urban Italian’s not really a professional cookbook; it’s an instruction manual for regular people to be able to cook at home. The next book is going to be the same. I have about 70 recipes done so far. It’s not Italian and I’m really excited about the flavors in the book and the stories we tell; it’s exciting.

Among chefs or restaurants today anywhere in the world, whose cooking do you find really exciting?
I’ve been trying to draw inspiration more from what regular people eat as opposed to what the big chefs cook. I love having higher-end gastronomic experience more than anybody, but I think that my inspiration comes from what is the most real version of food as possible. That’s always what I’m looking for, which is very hard to find sometimes.

Do you think that’s a reflection of where you are in your career or a sign of the times?
I think it’s a reflection of where I am in my career. When I was younger, I was definitely more obsessed with what the great chefs of the world were doing, because they were the chefs whose techniques I was trying to learn. When I was 22, I went a couple of times to Girardet, Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire—all the great chefs of France and Italy. I’ve done a lot of that, I’ve been to El Bulli four times, I’ve been to all those places in Spain a bunch of times, to the Fat Duck. I don’t do that type of cooking; I appreciate it and I understand it. The greatest meal I ever cooked was not in a restaurant. It was in someone’s backyard in France. I had bought the vegetables at the vegetable market, picked up some fish down on the dock, bought a side of baby lamb at the meat market. They had this amazing, old wood-burning oven grill in their backyard, some wine that this guy’s friend brought, homemade Vin d’Orange and homemade limoncello and amazing bread from the guy down the street. The combination of the company, the weather, the ingredients that were unbelievable—I didn’t do much to them really: I really still think that that is probably the best meal I ever cooked in my life, because everything was so pure and it was amazing. I’m always looking for terroir wherever I’m going. We might hit the high-end place as a reference, but that morning we had noodles sitting on a low crate. You have to understand local culture and local food, and that’s what I try to get influenced by.

What’s a word of advice you have for someone graduating culinary school?
Just get the most experience you can. The absolute worst thing you can do is jump around too much, because you’re just short-changing yourself. It’s really important to find a good place to work and plan on staying there, even though it might be difficult and even though certain parts of it might be tedious sometimes.

How do you pick the right restaurant from the get-go?
Food is really important, obviously. You want to work with the food you want to do, but vibe is important, too. If it’s total chaos every single day, it’s going to wear on you after a while. You want to make sure it’s clean, organized, that the energy is good, that it’s a team environment—those elements are really important, too.