An Interview with Andrew Carmellini: A Voce, New York City | Scott Haas

from Gastronomica 7:4

SH: There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York. Why would you make your first independent restaurant Italian?

AC: There must be thousands. I was approached by some different restaurant groups to do something Italian. I knew it was a fraught genre—Italian, Italian American, it’s like thirteen different things, it’s complicated. But I’ve been fortunate to travel to Italy a lot. The first time I went was as a teenager. And then I did stages at a bunch of places there, around 1991 and 1992. And my background is half Polish and half Italian. My grandmother’s family is from Friuli; they’re in the terrazzo business. My grandfather Carmellini was from Toscano. Anyhow, I traveled through the whole country, from Sicily up to Aosta. When outside space became available here in New York, I signed a lease. I could have fifty seats outside, and in the warm weather that means lemon trees and a gelato cart, sort of an atmosphere like the places in Piazza Navarro, but with really good food. I had a year off before we opened, and during that time I cooked at home a lot. I cooked what I liked to eat. I wanted to explore the idea of Italian food through my eyes. I wanted to dilute what essence is in the food without it signifying “Italian American” or “Italian.” I didn’t care about the authenticity police asking: Is it Italian? Is it Italian American?

SH: What’s an example of the food speaking for itself?

AC: Duck meatballs. They’re whimsical. The idea, in part, is to have food that’s rustically inspired and yet elegantly presented. I wanted to serve different dishes, but not go so far as, say, anchovy ice cream.

SH: But what’s really different about what you’re doing here? After all, as you say, there are thousands of other Italian restaurants.

AC: Well, take the meatballs. My sous chef, Luke, and I were brainstorming one day about what people think of as Italian food, and I’m like, “Meatballs? You’ve got to be kidding.” But then I thought of Trattoria D’Ivan, a place I’d eaten at in Emilia-Romagna, where I had a roast duck, almost like a confit. It renders itself because it cooks inside fat, and it’s served with a splash of homemade mostarda. So I thought, why not make duck meatballs? It’s traditional but also original. The richness of the duck and the sweet tartness of the cherries and the astringency of the mustard.

Andrew Carmellini at work. Photograph by Emilie Baltz © 2006

SH: They are delicious. But are you concerned that they don’t define a region? I mean, so much of Italian food is about regional cooking. Are you losing something when you do away with a sense of place as represented by the food?

AC: I can remember how special it was being in inland Sicily with my wife, enjoying some braised pork shank in the countryside with a Nero d’Avola and roasted porcini. It’s impossible to represent a region fully in New York. We try to do different things at different times of the year: black truffles with ravioli, a daily market menu, specials. It’s definitely good to show the moment. But we’re in New York, and you need to source the best stuff you can and cook it with a sort of Italian inspiration of place.

SH: Your background is working in top French restaurants, like Café Boulud, where you were executive chef before opening A Voce. Have you taken techniques from French cooking and applied them to Italian ingredients?

AC: Cooking for me is not drawing the line between France and Italy. They’re so similar. I think the only differences are attitude and discipline. The Italians had an inferiority complex with the French—Escoffier codified French food, but the Italians never had anything like that. Okay, there’s Artusi, but his book never brought the country together gastronomically. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that Italy has only been a unified country for just over a century—and the Italians still don’t get along! Anyhow, I don’t see a division between the two countries. There are some Italian techniques and some French techniques in what we do, but more than specific techniques, I think of chefs who have influenced me.

SH: Who, for example?

AC: Gray Kunz, for his professionalism and his dedication. I worked with him at L’Espinasse from 1993 to 1996. What impressed me most was the way he approached flavor, striking a balance between acidity and spice and texture and fat, making dishes exciting.

SH: Any simple dishes you love?

AC: I love clams and pasta when they’re done right: they just open up your palate. So earthy that you want to keep on eating them. And then there was one time I was driving around the country and found this place in Colorado that made chili beer. It had the right amount of spice and temperature. It was served freezing cold. It kept you thirsty. The thing that bugs me out the most is simple dishes done poorly. Like some random hotel I was at serving a Cobb salad made with a complete lack of care by a group of cooks without passion.

SH: Have you made dishes that haven’t worked at our restaurant?

AC: Things I thought would be received well often weren’t. Like the side dishes. I made this escarole Calabrese that I thought was awesome, but no one really ordered it. Same for a fennel braised in orange and Sambuca. When we first opened I wanted to make pizzettas, but I had to take them off the menu, there just wasn’t room. Too bad, they were really delicious. I also wanted to serve great beef. So I sourced some dry-aged, prime beef. But it was very, very expensive, and I didn’t want to have a restaurant that was perceived as pricey, so I couldn’t do that.

SH: Why didn’t you want an expensive restaurant?

AC: I’ve been cooking in New York for sixteen years with a number of fancy chefs and wanted to do something different. No tasting menus, very reasonable pricing, half portions of pastas. I wanted to have a neighborhood place.

SH: How have your customers helped define what you do? You had a concept, but how it develops has a lot to do with who eats at A Voce regularly.

AC: I thought we’d be much more casual. The same thing happened at Café Boulud. By the second week customers were asking, “No winter truffles?” So we got truffles and sold even more white truffles than when I’d been cooking uptown at the Café. And now at lunchtime we have a power scene: a very literary crowd, the Credit Suisse people, and so on.

SH: Are the customers different from the crowd at Café Boulud?

AC: The Café has a very, very loyal customer base—diners from the Upper East Side, a very powerful New York crowd. They come by two or three times a week or stop by for a bite. We have a mix of people here: downtown couples, finance people. It’s really what New York is: different industries, different tribes, different price points.

SH: What did you learn from all the years you worked with Daniel Boulud?

AC: Besides the food aspect, Daniel is a great chef, the way he pulls together the whole package. He has a passion for the business as a whole: the catering and wine programs, the restaurant. He mixes and tests drinks, busts chops, sees if the delivery door is dirty, understands the pr aspect. He has a passion for cooking and for the restaurant that he brings to the mix, even now. His dedication and passion are kind of amazing. Like at Daniel. When he’s there, he observes everything, whether it’s a salad or the need to spend ten thousand dollars to move an exit sign. A lot of restaurateurs and chefs wouldn’t care.

SH: And what did you need to unlearn from having worked with Daniel?

AC: I relearned to chill out.

SH: So are there different types of chefs? I mean, you characterize Gray Kunz a certain way and Daniel Boulud another way. What type are you?

AC: I’m not very comfortable with self-analyzing. I’m a chef who wants you to have a good time. By the time I was around ten years old, I knew I liked to cook. I watched cooking on tv, chefs like Jeff Smith and Jacques Pépin. My grandmother from Friuli gave me an old copy of Escoffier and Pépin’s La Technique. I liked to cook from them. I still have the books, they’re great. I tried soufflés three times in a row because I wasn’t ready to do them right. I remember the black-and-white photos of jambon persillade or chicken en croûte. I was basically into cooking, sports, and music. That’s it. And when Jacques Pépin did a cookbook for a Cleveland clinic and was a guest chef at a local supermarket, I had him sign his book—I was only thirteen years old. It was kind of a career changer to meet a food star. Not because he was a star, but because of his book. It’s like my dad would say, “What’s that guy’s claim to fame?”

SH: What’s one dish from your childhood you still love and think about from time to time?

AC: My mom’s cherry or lemon meringue pies. We would also visit my grandmother in Miami, and she had sour orange trees in her yard. She used the fruit from them for her meringue pies.

SH: In your cooking at A Voce what ingredients do you enjoy most?

AC: I spend a lot of time sourcing Italian products. I just got back from Italy, where we visited some of the better producers in Campagna, Piedmonte, and Emiglia-Romagna. My good friend John Magazino is importing some nice organic rices, polenta, and other stuff from this co-op in Alba. I also found canned tomatoes, without the skin, packed in plastic-lined containers, which eliminates the metallic taste. And great sheep’s milk ricotta from Sardinia.

SH: I want to get back to the way a place changes how you eat. How would you compare dining in Italy to dining in the States?

AC: The Italian blinders: eating in a three-hundred-year-old building, so it must be good, it must be authentic, right? Okay, sure, eating Italian food in New York is slightly contrived and, yes, there’s a sense of place you can’t reproduce. But it’s not true that the food will always be as good in Italy as it can be here. Although I have to say that dining experiences in Italy can be very memorable and revealing. Look, I grew up south of Cleveland with southern Italians, and I go to the Jersey shore now. But it wasn’t until I went to Sicily and spent time with people there that I felt, “Oh, now I get it!” The culture there was brought here.

SH: What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?

AC: I love the sea and at one time I thought of being a marine biologist, but I have no patience for science. These days, when I’m not at the restaurant, I play music. I got a music producer and started a band—the band is basically me. I have a studio at my house. I’ve been playing guitar, bass, and keyboards since I was six. And in the past eight years I’ve been recording hip-hop and some rock. I work with an artist/rapper/pastry chef from Queens who writes rhythms and such. I have a couple of hot chicks singing backup and keep busy writing songs. It’s really a little bit like cooking: layering emotions and grooves in, getting a baseline down, adding melody from keyboards. In cooking you start by layering flavors and building up the dish as you go.

SH: I want to ask you about all the attention being paid these days to health concerns, like the decision to ban trans-fats in New York City, or the political fight to ban foie gras.

AC: First of all, I don’t believe I have any trans-fats here. It’s at supermarkets, in cookies and baked goods. Or in fast food that relies on deep frying. It’s in items that are targeted at lower-income communities. As for foie gras, it’s very expensive, and only a certain demographic can afford it. If they’re going to go after foie gras, why not look at animal husbandry in general? It’s an ugly business: salmon farming, feedlots that look like black dots on the horizon from overcrowding, Perdue chicken farms where hundreds of chickens are shitting on each other. And how about labor conditions for agricultural workers? You have illegal, uninsured, underage workers. Why focus on ducks? Why not look at labor conditions and the ways most animals are raised and slaughtered?

SH: What can home cooks learn from you?

AC: Organization and planning are about 60 percent of the work. Plan ahead. Think ahead. Do things ahead of time. At holidays I have everything done about six hours before everyone is going to come over so that I don’t stress out too much and so that everything is ready to go. I want to be able to visit and have a drink. I use the microwave.