Andrew Carmellini was most recently the chef at A Voce, which was awarded three stars by the Times. He left that restaurant in June, and is currently looking at spaces to house his next restaurant project.
In the meantime, Carmellini and his wife Gwen Hyman have written a cookbook called Urban Italian, which features recipes created in a small city kitchen with a few pots and a flunky stove. Recipes are interspersed with Carmellini’s colorful stories from behind the lines at some of New York’s most well known restaurants, including Lespinasse and Café Boulud. And for a cookbook, it's pretty funny: Ounce bags of Calabrian oregano are described as looking “like the bushel of twigs that stooped old man is carrying on his back on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.”
Hyman, who also teaches at Cooper Union, wrote an essay for the summer issue of Gastronomica called “The Taste of Fame,” which is about the strange modern phenomenon of celebrity chefdom. Tonight at the Astor Center, Hyman and Carmellini will discuss the idea with David Chang, Gail Simmons, and Mitchell Davis. Darra Goldstein of Gastronomica will moderate.
How did you decide the theme and look of Urban Italian?
AC: I have hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks, and I didn’t want it to be too styled, just simple food, from pot to plate. So it looks homey.
GH: It looks homey because we cooked everything at home. Literally, our StuyTown kitchen was probably 8’x5’. Often I sat up on the windowsill, my laptop on my knees, while Andrew cooked everything on the stove because there literally wasn’t any other place in the kitchen to go. So the book is a chef cookbook, but it really is a cooking-at-home book.
Did you both cook everything together when you were putting the recipes together?
AC: Gwen’s not really a cook, so we wrote the recipes in a particular way. She’d ask something, like “How do you know when to take it out of the oven?” The typical cook response is “When it’s done.” Or she’d ask “How do you know when its ready?” And I’d say “When it tastes good.” So we tried to write the book with that in mind, to offer more information about the cooking process.
GH: I wanted to have at least two touch points for every single thing in the book to describe the food, because nobody in my family cooks.
AC: Yeah, nobody.
GH:Yeah, nobody. We order in, and we do it well. I didn’t grow up in a house where things are bubbling on the stove in the kitchen. Nobody that I’m genetically related to knows how to boil water.
AC: When I first brought Gwen home for family gatherings, it was a little bit of a culture shock. You know, homemade sausages made by my cousin would be on the table, homemade wine would get opened. My aunt would show up with what basically amounts to a bar in a box, to supplement whatever food we didn’t have.
GH: The culture thing is really different, so when I’m cooking from a cookbook I need a descriptor to guide me. I need to know what it’s going to look like, what it will feel like, what the change is going to be. I can’t cook from a cookbook otherwise. When we were putting the recipes together I’d be interrupting- “Wait! How much did you just put in there? How much? What was the change?”
It’s amazing how clear the cooking techniques are described very clearly and in a straightforward way.
AC: It really did come from me having a year off between Café Boulud and A Voce, cooking at home, and having the chance to go out to Bensonhurst to Royal Crown for bread and places like Colucchio’s. Getting off the subway, cooking in a small kitchen, the summertime, and hitting the markets. I was telling stories as I cooked, and they became part of the book. It became very personal.
What about the stuff in the book like its repeated instructions to slice garlic “Goodfellas thin”?
AC: That came from the movie: after a while I just started saying that. That particular scene is a great food scene in a movie that’s not really about food.
GH: We were slicing garlic and I asked how thin. See-though thin? I asked. And Andrew just said “Goodfellas thin.”
Are there other movie references that work well with cooking instructions?
AC:Not in this book. You won’t find any Tampopo, or Babette’s Feast references in there.
GH: But you’re not a Tampopo, or Babette’s Feast kind of guy.
AC: What does that mean?
GH: Well, I mean you’ve seen Goodfellas like 4,000 times
AC: I like Tampopo, but I guess I haven’t seen it 4,000 times. Nothing blows up.
GH: You’re not gushy about food, and there’s something real about that.
So this talk you’re doing at the Astor Center together ties in with an article Gwen wrote for Gastronomica about the strange idea of celebrity chefdom, and whatever that means.
GH: When Andrew and I were first living together, restaurant cooks were just cooks. It was a sort of grubby thing, not something to aspire to. Five years after we moved in together, though, the Food Network was everywhere, everyone wanted to be a chef, everybody thought that Andrew had the greatest career ever, and nothing had changed- Andrew and all the cooks I knew were still the same people, mostly kids from working class families who were doing this because they loved it. They made no money, they got sweaty and dirty and worked every holiday. Stuff like that. The work hadn’t changed, just people’s perceptions of the job.
When did you first notice it?
GH: I think the moment was at an event Andrew was doing at the Phoenician in Scottsdale in 1999. I was just kind of tagging along. Rocco was there-
I knew this would come back to Rocco!
GH: Yeah, well, Rocco was being Rocco. I went into the kitchen and there were all these squealing, screaming women surrounding Rocco holding out all these things for him to sign. And he was a rock star. In this country when we think about celebrity and success, that’s all about not working. We think about success in terms of hard work that eventually lets up, but cooks are still cooks. Chefs are still chefs. And I think that’s really interesting. It’s creates a really complicated story about how we think about chefs, and I think the TV Food Network has a lot to do with it- creating the idea of chefs as stars, wanting to put them in their place, and wanting to identify with them all at the same time.
Andrew, do you do television appearances?
AC: I’ll appear on television, but really, I’ve been cooking since I was a teenager, and my first cooking job was when I was 15 in Cleveland, so I didn’t really get into this to have restaurants all over the world, or to cook for famous people.
Your Ko-panelist [get it?] at the Astor Center is David Chang, who was quoted in New York Magazine earlier this month as saying “there’s just no cooks in New York City,” indicating a change in mentality of young cooks. Chang also said “90 percent of the time when I interview people, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, ‘How much are you going to pay me?’”
AC: It’s true. When I started, there were a few restaurants you could land a job at if you were serious about cooking: Le Cirque, Daniel, The Quilted Giraffe, Le Cote Basque, River Café, and Bouley. 3 to 4 star places. If you landed a stage at Daniel, you showed up on time and stayed late and didn’t act like an asshole. Now there are a lot more decent restaurants, and a lot less cooks. Now sometimes stages make appointments, follow up, send their resume, and then don’t even show up- don’t call or anything. I’d rather have someone who has no experience, because then you can mold them to your style, and they’re more receptive to working the kind of progression you’ve set up for your kitchen. It’s better to have someone go through your system and sort of graduate after two years than to have them make demands, like they want to start off at the pasta station first, for example.
Do you think that chef-television is partially responsible for this?
AC: Yes, definitely. For a long time when you came out of culinary school, you either were going to be a cook or work the front of the house. I spoke at the CIA graduation a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to meet a lot of the graduates. I was asking everybody about their post-graduation plans and I was getting responses like, Oh, I’m going to be a food stylist, or a private chef, a food writer. I’m going to start a web something. It blew my mind, but not one person I talked with that day said I’m going to Chicago, or New York, to work for such and such great chef. Nobody. Not one.
But people still have to cook somewhere.
AC: Sure. Gwen found one of our rising-star cooks, so to speak, working at a diner in Brooklyn.
What was he doing there? Showing off amazing grill skills?
GH: He was sort of doing everything.
AC: He was working the cashier, he was cooking in the back. He’s a friend of Gwen’s nephew, and she told him to come see me at A Voce.
GH: But it was also the way that he talked about what he did. He wasn't expecting that he’s going to be a chef tomorrow. It’s about the work.
AC: He worked for me for almost 3 years, and we’ll hire him when we open a new place.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in the city?
AC: It depends on the kind of restaurant. We don’t go out to eat a lot, but we have been going to Sripraphai for years. We love Mercadito just to get some tacos. Ushi Wakamaru on Houston Street is really good.
What about underrated places in NYC?
AC: I’ll tell you about underrated, and it got a little bit of hate when it opened: We had a couple of great dishes at Bar Q the other night. We just went- we didn’t call Anita ahead of time or anything. We had a really great short stuffed short rib dish there, kind of Southeast Asian. Very masterful. We also used to go to Hearth a lot. I love Marco’s cooking. Michael White is awesome. I love Ippudo. I think the ramen there is really great, some of the best in the city. Lupa is great. It’s a pain in the butt to get into, but it’s also a great place for lunch.
What’s the latest on your next restaurant? It was reported that you were looking at the former Tasting Room space, and now that’s apparently not happening.
AC: You know, in a perfect world I’d have a flurry of answers for you, and I’d be able to show you plans. But I’m taking my time with it, just trying to make good decisions about the location. We’re working on a couple of things, some stuff you might or might not have read, and one deal fell through. I do have a chef who’s been working for me a long time, and he’s doing this with me. I look at four or five spaces a day, every single day, trying to find the right balance. I don’t even know exactly what kind of restaurant it’s going to be. It’s kind of about finding the right space, and the deal works out, and then we figure out what we’re going to do there.
GH: For now, we eat at home a lot.
AC: We do eat at home a lot.
Do you have a favorite underrated cut of meat?
AC: Lamb shoulder. I buy so much of it. Not so much for the home, but at the restaurant. It’s very versatile.
How about a strange, only-in-NY story?
AC: At Café Boulud, we had a regular customer come in for New Year’s Eve evening on December 31, 1999. He came in with a couple of his friends and a couple of escorts. We had known him for a long time as a customer, and he came in and gave me Cristal Millenium Vintage pack, which I think had one bottle for the last four or five preceding decades. That was the gift for me, and my two sous chefs both got escorts. That doesn’t happen all the time.