Influences, Inspirations, and Aspirations

Throughout our lives we are all influenced and inspired by many people, places, and things.  I as a chef am susceptible to many outside factors. A picture of visually appealing plate on Google Images or an ingredient I’ve never used can influence me to try something different, and meal in the right restaurant can inspire me to improve my work, and aspire to achieve more. So, I thought I would write down many of the influences, inspirations, and aspirations in my life as a chef.

My earliest influence as a chef was Mario Batali. Not the pink-faced obese Mario, but the owner of Pó in Greenwich Village from the Molto Mario show on The Food Network. Remember when they used to have actual shows about real food with real chefs?  Before I actually worked in a professional kitchen I used to video tape all episodes of Molto Mario and watch them over and over, retaining as much as I could about cooking techniques, Italian products, and food history. It was a great show because it was simple and about cooking and the love of Italian food culture. I knew then that that’s the type of cooking I wanted to do professionally.

In 1982 I was taken to a new restaurant, Café Capriccio in Albany. Our waiter was Billy Karabin, a legend. He wore a different tuxedo jacket every time he came to the table.  I told the people I was with that It was the kind of restaurant I wanted some day.

In 1998 (the year I started cooking professionally) I opened a small Italian restaurant in Glenville, NY called Theresa’s Italian Grill. With too little money and too little experience it closed after 14 months. It was said at times that my food reminded them of the cooking of Jim Rua, chef/owner of Café Capriccio.

In 1999 I went to work in the kitchen of Café Capriccio and learned that my cooking was not yet like that of Jim Rua. I learned about putting simple flavors together for wonderful rustic Italian, and some Spanish influenced dishes. Jim Rua to this day has taught me more about cooking than anyone else. If you’ve never seen him work, you have no idea what he can do with the most basic staples. His presentation of individual dishes is not overly exciting, but the experience of the entire meal is.

This philosophy was reinforced when I went to Italy with Capriccio’s travel group in 2002 and stayed at Fattoria Lavacchio, a working farm and vineyard outside of Florence. It was here I saw where the simple, earthy, and organic cooking was a way of life. I’ve never experienced life that way and never have since. I do however refer to it in my mind many times when I plan a menu, a meal, or a single dish. Thank you many times over, Jim for the experiences you’ve given me.

The other thing I learned at the Café was the importance of great service and a solid service system. That responsibility fell on Bill Karabin, a constant educator. He saw to it that there were no amateurs on the service floor, he insured front waiters were well-trained and back waiters often waited many month, or years before gaining front waiter status. Billy’s lessons are still with me and I hope to use them more extensively one day.

For too many years after the Café Capriccio I waffled around in too many Capital Region restaurants void of influence and inspiration.

In 2011 I landed the Chef’s position at The Wine Bar and the freedom to be creative has found its way back into my life. I have become far more serious about my career on the last 18 months than ever before. I closely follow chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Humm for inspiration for what is possible.  My friend Jason Baker has given me great insight into the drive for perfection  Dominick Purnomo of Yono’s  has shown me, and others that wanting the best for the local clientelle is not just bullshit, but the proper way of doing business. I’ve worked for many people who say “I want the best,” but do not know what that means. Dominick travels, visits the best restaurants and educates himself in the art of being a great restaurateur.

Also, Tom and Anne Gaughan for their approach to life, Mehmet and Mary Odekon for their hospitality and appreciation for what I do, Jonathan Stewart for his dedication to the proper tending of a bar, and Dale and Judy Evans for their work ethic. There are many others who have influenced parts of my life other than my work as a chef. Perhaps in another post you’ll meet them.

Finally, I am most influenced by my daughter Theresa, who for all the obstacles she has faced, still loves life. And, my wife Jennifer, who supports what I do in many ways.

My aspirations are simple, yet complex. At some point I want my own restaurant, with all of these influences put into play. I want to see what is possible in the 518. One day perhaps.

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