Joey Campanaro

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CHEF: Joey Campanaro

RESTAURANTS: The Little Owl, Market Table, The Clam, Little Owl The Venue (NYC)

EXPERIENCE: The Harrison (NYC); Executive Dining Room at Universal Studios (LA)

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
My maternal grandmother taught me to cook. The most important thing she taught me was if you want to have moist meatballs, add water to the mix.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Homemade cavatelli with broccoli pesto, served with fresh ricotta cheese and fried diced sopressata. It hits every sensory profile on the tongue: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I make the cavatelli myself, and I learned that from my grandmother. The pesto I invented to use the trimmings from broccoli trunks and broccoli rabe. All the things that would go into the trash, I turn into a sauce.

vWhat was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever cooked was spaghetti and clams. I was between 9 and 12 years old. It was delicious.

The best dish for a neophyte is apple pie. You really get a sense for using your hands and using your mind while you’re dealing with the apples: peeling, removing the seeds, monitoring the apples as they cook so they’re not too mushy or too hard. There’s a learning curve: getting the crust flaky, following a recipe, understanding that fruits and vegetables are 90 percent water. Apple pies usually get screwed up when you make them but they still taste good. It’s good to start with something that will still taste delicious, even if it doesn’t look perfect.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I used to work for Jonathan Waxman. He would make me question myself. He’d say: “Do you love what you’re making?” Once you ask yourself that question, then you know whether it needs to be adjusted or redone. Also, Neil Murphy at Symphony Café. If I was having a hard time, he’d say, “Listen, if you love it, it will do whatever you want.” So both chefs taught me the importance of building confidence and familiarity.

Favorite cookbook of all time.
Anything from Donna Hay, because I like the pictures.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
To have confidence.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
White rice. I’ve never successfully made a batch of white rice. It’s either I add too much salt, too much fat, or I don’t get the right amount of water. It never comes out right.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
Chicken. There’s a chicken dish on my menu at dinner without the tenders and I sell the tenders at lunch. With the bones, I make chicken stock and a chicken sauce. I make a roux with chicken fat and I use that to thicken certain sauces.

What is your current food obsession?
Long Island clams or rustichella d’Abruzzo spaghetti. Or both together.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to and why?
Toro in New York. It’s my friend Ken Oringer’s Spanish restaurant and I love Spanish food.

Sushi Nakazawa, on Commerce Street in New York. They use a special kind of rice from Japan that most restaurants don’t use. I want to experience that.

Le Bernardin. I’m jealous that so many people have been and I haven’t.

They’re the three cuisines that fit into my repertoire. I can do a little bit of research and development on the combination of flavors and the use of techniques. I look at the menus online, and they look so yummy.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Thailand. I’ve never been and I hear that the U.S. dollar is very powerful there and you can eat great spicy food and go to beautiful beaches.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
My truffle slicer from Alba. I keep it at home, but as soon as I start buying truffles in the restaurants, I’ll bring it with me.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m interested in architecture and using space to its fullest. The combination of form and function is something I’ve always been passionate about. At Clam, I’ve found a mother of pearl tile and am shaping it into a curved ceiling so it reminds you of being in a clamshell without being too in your face. I have the talent of being able to envision a space.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I always wanted to have a restaurant in a theater, with the floor on a slope. The stage is the kitchen. It would be 500 seats and serve a seasonal Mediterranean menu. It would be in New York.

If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d take Mario Batali to Casa Pepico in Meliana, Spain. Most restaurants in Europe do things that successful chefs in the United States do: allow the seasons to dictate the menu, and this place is on a farm. It’s really simple cooking. Mario Batali once said he feels like I cook like him, but I’ve never worked with him, so I think we’re like-minded.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
During Hurricane Sandy, I took eggs, butter, flour, Parmesan cheese, white truffle, truffle slicer and a bottle of Barolo. I made eggs as an antipasto. I’d make tagliatelle or orecchiette. That’s what I’d do again.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat any kind of store-bought honey-baked ham standing up. My favorite snack is La Tur cheese, Castelveltrano olives and crusty Italian bread.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
The Fagor Duo 9 piece canning set. It comes with Mason jars, a ladle and the grips so you can pickle your own vegetables or jar your own sauce.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
A pre-shift ritual is singing a song with the cooks. I pick a song that I know would get stuck in their head. It’s about getting a rhythm. It might be something like, “I want to be an airborne ranger…” I learned that from Neil Murphy.

I have a kitchen superstition that if there’s a light bulb out at your station, it’s bad luck. All businesses should have working light bulbs.