How did you first learn to cook in high school?
I ended up in Vo-Tech [vocational technical school] because I was a terrible student. I lived in the Bronx until my freshman year of high school, and I’d get into too much trouble. My dad moved my sister and I out to the suburbs of Long Island, and I started my sophomore year there, which was even worse; going from urban to suburban life was a culture shock. The following year, my high school gave me an ultimatum: They said either you go to vocational school half the year or you’re going to fail [out of high school]. They had all these different courses from automotive to culinary to cosmetology. So I said, “Oh, culinary! I’ll try that out.” As soon as I stepped foot in the class, I realized this is what I wanted to do and [it] gave me a super kick start.
First, it was the camaraderie. All the students there didn’t want to be there at first, but once we were in the class doing lectures, and then into the kitchen to start working—you’re working side by side with colleagues, and you realize everyone’s doing the same thing to get the same results.
Who do you credit as your chief mentor(s)?
My instructors—John Murphy and Paul Magro. They just motivated me. They kept me engaged. Without those guys, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. And there was one chef at the beginning of my career, John Johnstone, he’s a certified master chef—and that guy was a technician. He’s the one that helped instill the fundamentals and the basics of cooking. I was probably 16 years old then; it was like a three-headed monster to me.
What was your vision when you took over StripSteak?
I look at it as a restaurant before a steakhouse, because if I focused on just a steakhouse, I would trap myself into that box of the same formula that’s across the board. The formula works, but the items you put into it are what we focus on. You have to have the basics, but I like to make sure there’s some whimsical stuff as well.
I wanted to make it a lot more shareable items—it’s fun to dine with other guests. Shareable apps and global fusion have been successes. I know we’re a steakhouse, and a steakhouse is usually American—the classics, baked potato and steak tartare and all that—but we still try to put a twist on the basics and try to do things that wouldn’t normally be in a steakhouse. For example, that Instant Bacon that I do. And a take on Spaghettios. I’m doing fresh mini rigatoni rings with wagyu Bolognese.
What is the most important tool in the chef’s kitchen?
Tasting spoons. We’re chefs because of how we can cook, but it’s also about taste. In training to be a chef, you learn the skills but ultimately you train your palate to recognize certain flavors, whether it’s acidity, or bitterness or sweetness or tartness. Having a tasting spoon nearby and always tasting, that’s key.
What is the biggest mistake new home cooks typically make in their kitchens?
(Laughs) My wife’s gonna kill me. It’s probably not reading the recipe correctly before they start to cook. When I first met my wife, I had an apartment. I’m in my bedroom, and she’s cooking dinner. I come out, and the kitchen is smoky. I turn the stove off and go, “What is this?” She goes, “Shake ’N Bake.” And I’m like, “Why are you frying it then?” She says, “I thought you were supposed to fry it.” And I go, “It’s Shake ’N Bake!” Whether it’s a boxed food or a real recipe—you gotta read the directions before you start cooking, so you don’t burn the joint down.
What’s your advice for someone who’s aspiring to become a chef?
Don’t let TV hype up the industry to make it look all glitzy and glamorous. It’s a lot of hard work. A lot of kids now want to skip the basics to do the advanced, meaning they prefer to make food look good or [use] new techniques, but they don’t know how to do the original technique from which it derived. Food’s looking prettier than ever, but it’s kind of soulless.
Do you watch any cooking shows?
I can’t. … When I was doing Chopped, I was watching them before and getting all amped up. But now that I’m done, I watch an episode and it gives me anxiety still. Some of the competitors, I’m like, “What the hell are you doing?” So I just stopped watching.