F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Frankies 457, Frankies Spuntino, Café Pedlar, Prime Meats (New York)
Experience: Falcinelli: Culinary Renaissance (New Jersey) Moomba and Moomba (Los Angeles) Castronovo: Jean Claude, Parish & Co. (New York)
Where did you get your start?
FC: I started out at an Italian gourmet store in Queens called Durso’s. We made pasta, mozzarella, sausages. It was kind of like a Faicco’s, but with more prepared foods.
FF: I was a dishwasher at the Braddock Deli, a German delicatessen, in Queens Village.
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
FF: The family, for sure: I had two grandmothers and was fortunate enough that they lived a long time. They were both really into food. I don’t know if it’s a poor people thing, but eating was a big deal. My mother’s family is from Naples. My father’s family is from a small town outside Rome called Sutri, which claims the oldest Etruscan ruins in Italy.
FC: Jerry Durso at Durso’s, that’s where I figured out time and temperature, how to handle salt and pepper. After that, it just got more detailed. I worked three years under Jacques Pépin at the Russian Tea Room; he taught me how to use a knife. When I did my stage in France, Paul Bocuse taught me how to work and be professional. David Bouley taught me a lot of tricks. Bernhard Güth was my partner at Jean Claude; he brought me to Germany. But I'm still learning every day. I can’t really say one guy.
Frank also—he inspired me. We grew up together, but he was a couple of years ahead of me. I didn’t even know that cooking could be a career until I was in my early teens, when I watched Frank get into cooking, then go to culinary school, work at Maxim’s of Paris and then go off to France.
How did you both reconnect?
FF: In 2001, I was at Moomba LA, when 9/11 basically put us out of business. I came back to New York and was sitting around trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was eating at Bar Pitti every day, when it dawned on me that I wanted to do Italian food. For my whole career, I had done contemporary food or French food. But everybody loves Italian, and that’s what I grew up on. So I started mapping out what became Frankies. My first partner was going to be Niels Koizumi from Nobu. He’s the Asian oceanographer in the bathing suit in The Life Aquatic. Wes Anderson told him, “Hey, do you want to be in this movie? It’s not a big speaking part, but you’ll hang out in Italy the whole summer!” He never came back! So meanwhile, I’m closing on 457 Court Street, when Frank Castronovo gets pulled over in front of my house! I’m going out of my mind looking out of the window, wondering, Who is this guy giving the cops such a hard time? The cops leave and the guy says to me, “Yo, Frank!” I’m thinking, I don’t know this guy. He says again, “Yo, it’s Frank, it’s Frank! I’ve been chasing you for 20 years! I’m a chef! When you left the neighborhood, I was always right behind you!” I knew I’d found my partner.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
FC: Scrambled eggs, when I was about four years old. I think I dropped half the eggs on the floor. But I had the other half going in the pan! Eggs are great to practice with, because they— you can overcook them so easily. To cook them right, you’ve got to understand the whole process, how the protein goes from liquid to solid, how the heat carries over even after you take the pan off the fire. They also cost like 8 cents, so they’re cheap to practice on.
FF: I used to make cream puffs with my mother that were pretty good. I think that the Sunday sauce is pretty awesome for beginners: the tomato and meatballs over pasta. Especially if you’re cooking for a few friends or the family, it’s a fun thing to do.
Dish or style of cooking you’re most famous for?
FF: Probably our meatball. But we also do a subliminally healthy thing. I think we’re appreciated for that on a quiet level. You can see it by the type of diner and our repeat customers. We don’t do any saturated fats. All the vegetables are organic, but we don’t put it in your face. We use a lot of vegetables with a little bit of protein as opposed to the other way around. So I would say what we’re known for is a really clean interpretation of Italian food.
You both say nutrition is central to what you do: where did that come from?
FF: From our grandparents. I'm telling you, if I showed you a picture of my grandmother at 90 years old, you would swear she was 65. At weddings, and at family outings, she was leading the dances! I’m talking dancing. They just loved life. But they also embraced a certain nutritional aspect of the Italian diet. They showed us that you should always have time to eat right and take care of yourself. When we started Frankies, I told Frank, “Listen, saying no is going to be the hardest thing that we do. When we make the menu, we have to say no to mediocrity, we have to say no to second-best, and we have to say yes to foods our customers will feel thankful for. Brussels sprouts, or a great escarole salad, or a tomato sauce with only two ingredients. Not overcooking foods to the point where all the nutrients are dead. Not deep-frying. A lot of chefs cook foods to satisfy their ego; they don’t care if what they make is unhealthy. They’re hurting people for no reason.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
FC: Ferran Adrià’s The Family Meal. It’s just a few years old, but I love it. It shows you how one of the greatest chefs in the world, who can do the most inventive molecular gastronomy, how he cooks simple food.
FF: All of the Larousse books that came out in the ’70s and ’80s: Les Recettes Originales de Alain Chapel, Jean-Louis Palladin’s Cooking with the Seasons,The Cake Bible, The Baker’s Bible by Joseph Amendola—I could go on and on. Simple Cuisine, when Jean-Georges Vongerichten came out with that, he ruined people’s lives! So many chefs were like, “I had that idea, too! I was thinking the same thing!”
vIs there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
FC: Following recipes is really hard for me. Especially pastry recipes. I got better at it by writing a cookbook, but I could still improve.
FF: True Neapolitan pizza dough, the double-fermented kind. I’ve been playing around with it at home. I have a wood-burning oven in my backyard. Pizza is a two-stage fermented dough, with bufala mozzarella, great olive oil and San Marzano tomatoes. Everything else is hot dough with melted cheese on it.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
FC: Salt and olive oil.
FF: Onions. They’re the ultimate stretcher.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
FC: The East Village Japanese restaurant called Hasaki has always had the best carrot salad dressing, and now they actually bottle it. It is so good; if I had a gallon of it, I could drink it. I’ve tried to make it at home, but I can’t get it right. It’s carrots, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, maybe some miso paste—I don’t know, it’s ridiculous.
FF: La Boîte à Epices, Lior Lev Sercarz, he’s killing it. I love his red pepper ingredients, like his Aleppo or his árbol.
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
FC: My favorite new wine is Istvan Szepsy's Tokaji, his 2008 Szent Tomás Furmint. I crave it all the time. Aldo Sohm, it was one of his picks. It’s just so delicate, and it has a sick balance. I love that Hungarian vines are the oldest and the most valuable vines in the world.
FF: My favorite cocktail is sake. I love Oze; I just had a bottle of it last night.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
FC: Cold schnitzel. I dip it in a jar of mayonnaise. The mayo’s gotta be Hellmann’s.
FF: Usually what I made the night before. In this case, paella and ribs.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
FC: Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. It’s still the best. Thailand and Burma are probably the best right now.
FF: Same. I’d like to say France or Spain is a great bang for your buck, but we all know that’s not true.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year.
FC: They’re all in Paris, since Frank was just there: Arpège. I haven’t been, but Frank said it was amazing. Chateaubriand. It’s near L'Arpège and great also. Pierre Gagnaire.
FF: Pujol in Mexico City; Alex Atala’s place in Sao Paolo, D.O.M.; Amass, by the guy that worked at Noma, Matt Orlando.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
FC: A Buddha I brought back from Nepal.
FF: A nice big spoon off the table at Paul Bocuse. We actually tried to take one and we got busted.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
FC: Either a restaurant that changed the menu and the chef constantly, to take the seriousness out of restaurants. Or a place where you could prepare a few dishes a day and tell customers, “that’s it. That’s what I got.” You open when you want to open, you close whenever you want to close, you go home, you play cards, you hang out with your family, and the next day you do the same thing. That’s the ideal way to do it: a restaurant that runs less like a business, that’s more of a place to eat.
FF: I would invent a place where chefs from all around the world could come be in residence, to present their work in New York. They could stay there, like at the Guggenheim, or Carnegie Hall, where you have an artist in residence. The chef could hang out with the New York crowd, and present his work how he wanted to present it, in an unstressed environment. We’re building that place, by the way: It will be called Res. It will be in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
FC: I would take Mario to Frankies. He hasn’t been here yet!
FF: I’d take Thomas Keller to Don Peppe’s, a clam and linguini house in Queens. I think he would appreciate it.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
FC: I’d take salt, spices, dried beans, dried lentils and you’d have to carry water I guess. With that, you could make many dishes. You can find some vegetation and cook that up, add some spices to make it taste good. You could probably survive a couple of weeks if you can get water with that.
FF: Reservations at L’Arpège.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
FC: F for frankfurter.
FF: F for F’ing delicious.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are (your food dish-story)
FC: Lentil soup. It’s my grandparents’ recipe. We still serve it at Frankies. It’s the dish that I survive on. I still eat it all the time.
Oatmeal and granola in the morning. I still like to start my day with something healthy and nutritious: yogurt, homemade granola, homemade yogurt, homemade steel-cut oats, all that good, earthy stuff. And fresh juices.
I still love a bowl of pasta almost every day. And that’s really it. I’m a pretty simple guy.
FF: My first taste of caviar at Maxim’s of Paris. When I say it was sublime, I mean it was subliminal. It was amazing.
Lunch at Michel Guérard in the ’80s, literally blew my mind. I just remember that it was light and flavorful and harmonious.
I just had my mind blown recently when I went to L'Arpège. That guy is a Jedi. The subtleties in preparation are so mind-blowing, you don’t even know how he made it. I’ve cooked 50 million lobsters in my life; I could not believe his lobster.
Yellowtail jalapeño in Nobu. And his miso cod, mind-blowing. Even Ferran Adrià said Nobu Matsuhisha is a genius. He just hit the nuclear holy grail with that yellowtail. It’s not only a taste experience, it’s a physical sensation and a temperature sensation. And it’s so simple. He whips your ass with just three ingredients.
Even the eggplant parm in the early days at Bar Pitti was amazing. I love bufala mozzarella. I love cool flavors. Like when you burst the skin of a perfect ball of bufala mozzarella that just came over from Campania, it has that cold deliciousness. It’s the same thing you get with caviar, too, when you burst the egg.
And my grandmother’s braised artichokes, those were amazing. It’s just a great memory.