Food is my peace of mind in this crazy world. As the days turn into nights we are always deciding what will we be having for breakfast, lunch and dinner and if you have an appetite like mine; three meals are never enough. I made it clear. I eat a lot and even when stuffed make room to shove some more. I am still referring to food and happen to be every chef's dream, always hungry and can't stop eating. With thousands of chefs in New York City, chopping, grilling, saute-ing, and marinating their meat but most importantly, feeding people that love to eat and tolerating those that are bulimic. There I go again... Readers, whats my weakness? Food! I saw a sign for the Heartland Brewery on 34 street and 5th avenue and I walked in, sat down, and a gorgeous waitress named Lauren Tekverk passed me a menu. I ordered a Heartland beer with fish and chips and couldn't get over how good the food tasted. I am not shy so asked Lauren who is the chef? Richard Pietromonaco. There I go again and this time I am in the kitchen with chef Richard Pietromonaco. The man that is seasoned with all the right ingredients. For all you hungry readers take a bite, chew and swallow Rich Pietromonaco is on the menu. The dessert menu that is!
A New York City native, Richard Pietromonaco was surrounded by food his entire life. Growing up on the east coast gave him the opportunity scoop softshell crabs from the docks in Staten Island, striped bass from the Jersey shore, welfleet oysters from Cape Cod and flounder from Long Island. Richard’s father was an avid gardener and had the opportunity to harvest many fruits and vegetables from his back yard. As a teenager he began working in a fine Italian Restaurant, and began to realize that this was a profession he wanted to pursue. He went to the Culinary Institute of America and graduated in 1985.
Since then, he has worked for innovative American chefs such as Larry Forgione of An American Place and Bradley Ogden of Campton Place and the Lark Creek Inn in San Francisco . In 1989 he was hired to be the corporate chef for Sfuzzi, Inc. a multi unit group of Italian inspired restaurants which developed 20 stores throughout the United States . In 1995, Richard was hired to serve as Chef de Cuisine at Drew Nieporent’s highly acclaimed Tribeca Grill.
In 1997, Richard joined Heartland Brewery as the corporate chef/partner and has been with the company ever since playing a vital role in the growth to seven restaurants around Manhattan’s busiest locations.
Hey there Mr. Chef Boyardee, what are you seasoning today?
Anything hot and spicy for the summer – need to get your blood flowing!
How did you start and what inspired you to follow a career in the culinary arts?
Rich I liked to eat good food. As an Italian kid growing up in Staten Island my father always had a bountiful garden -fresh exotic lettuces, vine ripe tomatoes, fruit trees, grapes on the trellis. I basically started cooking what was growing in the garden - concord grape jam in the fall, fresh basil pesto in the summer, apple, peach and plum pies in the fall. I was also an avid fisherman early on and was used to having fresh flounder, mussels and oysters from Cape Cod. My fondest memories as a kid was riding by bike in July down to the local docks with a 10 foot scoop net, catching a few soft shell crabs and sauteing them in extra virgin olive oil for a seeded semolina bread sandwich. Yum!! That is why I wanted to cook.
A chef is a highly skilled and inventive cook who can turn a delicious meal into an artistic presentation. What are some of the pressures you endure in the process?
Rich The mechanics of doing the job can be extremely stressful -cooking multiple dish at once, dealing with guest demands, hot kitchens, crazy cooks and servers, you must be good at multitasking. There are many moving parts before a plate is served in the dining room. Tempers can certainly erupt during a busy night and some very nasty humiliating things can be said. By the end of the shift you have a cocktail at the bar with the team, tell war stories, make amends, get a laugh and move on. They make reality shows about Chefs and kitchens for a reason – we can be nuts!
A chef needs a ton of motivation and desire, an ability to make split-second decisions, a thick skin to withstand criticism, and a facility for multi-tasking. As well as a sense of smell and taste is also a must. Are all these attributes present in you?
Rich Desire yes- motivation can some times be a challenge. But that is what I love about the restaurant business - every day you get a fresh start to do your best. There isn't much that get carried over from one day to the next. You are only as good as the last plate you served. All of the other attributes are what makes the job fun and challenging.
As a chef you are giving a menu to follow or you custom-design. Does following a menu hinge your creative output as appose to creating a menu?
I always need to be in a creative mode, regardless if I am following a recipe, a specific menu or just working with what is available. A chef will always put their personal flare on every dish made. I like the challenge of creating a dish on demand. Its fun to go to the green market, take a quick walk around and formulate how the ingredients can be merged together into individual plates and how they will become different courses in the meal. Will the vine ripe tomatoes be used as a first course salad, or roasted for a pasta dish or used as an accompaniment for an entrée? That is when experience kicks in and you have a knowledge base of flavors and textures to merge to pull from. I like to work with classic tried and true flavor combinations – sweet with spicy, seafood with olives, chocolate with berries. I just don’t get the flavor combination of smoke bacon in a dessert – sometimes it may work, and other times it may be disgusting.
What is your favorite meal you love to cook?
Pasta!! The variations are endless, will it be dry pasta, fresh pasta, small shape, long noodle, stuffed pasta or layered and baked. The most important thing to do is use the freshest ingredients available and do as little with them as possible. 99% of the time when I cook vegetables on the grill for a dinner party someone will comment how great they taste and how they were made. Its very simple – fresh produce, a great olive oil, fresh herbs and a good quality sea salt and FRESH GROUND black pepper
Are you sensitive to your wife's reaction if she doesn't favor a meal you prepared?
Rich Yes- that is why I try not to cook for her – LOL She is also a chef and she gets more defensive then me.
A lot of people turn to food to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Both major life events and the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating, What advice can you give those that struggle with this behavior?
Rich The only advice I can give it tell you what works for me. When its time for me to binge, I learned to keep healthy binge food around, and I mean everywhere. Home, office, you car, backpack everywhere. I can either stuff my face with harmful fatty crap food or keep it more pure. I always have a stash of good quality dark chocolate, almonds and dry fruit. And if it is going to be a cookie binge, I keep a good quality stash around, something organic with zero transfats – Newmans O’s cookies fit the bill.
What is the most rewarding part for you as a chef?
Rich Teaching – when you find the right individual that has a passion for the business, it is a wonderful experience. Serving great food is rewarding but it doesn’t last, building relationships does.
If you weren't a chef, what do you think you would have chosen otherwise for a career?
Rich Architect! Ever since I read the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand I was hooked. I like to build and tinker with things, I just happened to do it with food because I love to eat.
To become a chef one needs to be certain they will possess the education, experience and skills necessary for their certification as a chef. What advice do you have that will be helpful for anyone looking to follow a career in culinary arts ?
Apply for a job in one of the top restaurants in your area and offer to work for FREE for the first six months. You will first find out if this is a hobby or something you would want to do as a career. Next you will have an opportunity to get involved with more aspects of the kitchen since you are not being paid to work one position. You can train with the pastry chef and work many other positions instead of peeling vegetables for six months. Every Chef loves free labor. Plus you will get hands on experience and make good contacts.
Any last words you would like to season the readers with?
Rich Don’t be afraid to use your imagination when cooking, you do not need to follow a recipe exactly. If the recipe calls for fresh thyme and you only have basil – no problem. Buy the best ingredients and keep it simple.
For the first time in my life I think I am full. LOL! Rich I thank you for feeding me and the readers with all your fresh, organic and healthy advice.
People are like water, we can see right through them, but sometimes water can be dirty. That's why we have filters. In Rich is case, it's obviously apparent his passion for food and living is like a clear cleansed cup of water. That we can't live with out, sometimes forget to drink. Then there are times we don't pay attention to who is pouring us a glass. Drink his words, they come from a place of sincerity. I wish you keep cooking and never stop eating your career.
FYI: Rich I love Lasagna and haven't taste any one's that compare to my sister's .. Take it has a challenge.. I just got hungry : )