Andrew Carmellini says he hasn’t been answering his phone for the past six months. That’s because he’s still fleshing out a concept (and for that matter, a name) for his new restaurant and doesn’t have much to tell reporters yet. He’ll reveal only that it will be casual, without reservations, and that he won’t be serving white truffles like an uptown restaurant would. And don’t ask him to comment on A Voce losing a Michelin star — he’s steering way clear of that subject. “The obsession is kind of intense,” Carmellini says of the New York food media. Indeed, he’ll be talking about that at the Astor Center, in a discussion on chefs and fame that will feature David Chang, Gail Simmons, and his wife Gwen Hyman, who wrote an essay on the subject. Hyman also co-wrote Carmellini’s first cookbook, Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food, out later this month. We asked AC to reflect on celeb chefs and Urban Italian cooking, in hopes that he might let more details slip about his new project.
Will the new restaurant be the kind of cooking we’re used to from you, or will it be the more simple cuisine found in Urban Italian?
I’m not 100 percent sure. When I had a year off between A Voce and Café Boulud, I was cooking a lot of Italian at home. The book came about from the process of doing my own dishes and all the trials and tribulations of New York City apartment kitchen cooking. I really tried to focus on keeping it to one or two pots.
Where are your favorite places to score ingredients?
I love going to Arthur Avenue. I love Di Palo’s, and Carluccio’s in Brooklyn — they have the great brands of polenta that no one carries in Manhattan and these Calabrian sun-dried peppers which make great sauces when you rehydrate them. The Calabria Pork Store has amazing salumi and these spicy anchovies that are really hard to get. And Royal Crown Bakery has great prosciutto and broccoli rabe bread.
The Observer had a list of “celebrity” purveyors and we’ve written about “star-mers.” Are you thinking about those phenomenon as you source things for the new place?
We’re working on a couple relationships right now. Supply is the hardest thing — if you’re really going to source the kind of products that the top guys in New York like to use, you have to spend a lot of time on the phone. Sometimes you might get the most amazing baby lettuces for a week. You’ll get so excited you throw them on the menu and then two weeks later you don’t have them anymore or the bugs ate them … and everyone has a relationship with a lot of the same people, everyone is scrounging for the same things.
So what exactly is Urban Italian, versus “rustic”?
Italian cooking really started in cities — the countryside was very poor until the seventies. My aunt and uncle tell stories about growing up before World War II without anything to eat — they ate onions and leeks and a lot of things made with bread and maybe zucchini and if they wanted meat they’d go shoot groundhogs. All the wealthy were in the city — there were no spices out in the countryside. Fennel and cinnamon were luxury items.
So will the cooking at the new place be Urban Italian or will you be visiting the idea you told us about earlier, about doing more multiethnic American food?
Being an American chef, in the end I like to make people happy with my cooking, whether it’s Italian or American vernacular-type stuff. There might be a mix of Italian and other stuff. I’m trying to get the box of the restaurant done and then I’m going to focus on the nitty-gritty and the name and all that.
Okay, so you’re doing this discussion at the Astor Center about celebrity chefs. Is media attention a distraction when you’re getting ready to open a place, or does it work to your advantage?
Celebritydom is perceived as the easy life. And yet the reason you fall into a celebrity-chef situation is that you’re doing manual labor (usually, but not always — there are a lot of instances now where you see people becoming celeb chefs that never really cooked much). It’s a double-edged sword — you became famous for sweating your balls off, taking apart animals, and screaming at people in three languages. It’s entertainment but not the kind where your hands stay silky smooth.
Do you think you’ll end up being someone who “transcends” the kitchen, or would you rather keep cooking?
I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity chef — I’m a New York–centric person. I’ve done TV — it’s not something that I super-aspire to, but it has become such a part of the business now that you can’t really shun it. I always love the kitchen and I’ll be cooking till I’m 65 for sure, whether it’s at a couple places or just one.
So if you’re New York–centric, why humor the idea of something in Vegas — how’s that going?
When he opened up Le Cirque at the Bellagio, Sirio was begging me to go out and be the chef — I just wanted nothing to do with it. But I’ve gone out a couple times in the past couple years and eaten around and it’s less of a foreign planet to me. There’s good food out there now. I haven’t committed to anything 100 percent — it’s something I might do in the future. Everyone is out there, that’s the amazing thing — there are people out there I didn’t even know were out there!
So which celebrity chef has done the best job of keeping it real? Who would your role model be?
This might be surprising to some, but the person who has done it the best, that has expanded their business, licensed their name, and still serves a pretty good product — Wolfgang Puck has done an amazing job. Spago in Beverly Hills is really good, and some of his other outposts (even the casual stuff) is pretty decent especially on that value level …
Okay, so what about those chefs you mentioned earlier who didn’t really cook a lot before making it big on, say, Top Chef?
When I came to New York in the early nineties, there were six restaurants to work at if you were a serious cook. If you got a stage at Le Cirque in 1989, it was a big deal and you showed up on time, and you worked your ass off and didn’t leave till all the other cooks were done. David Bouley offered me a job in 1990 and my take-home pay for six days was about $225. Top Chef is very entertaining and in the end the person who wins is the person who should’ve won — the negative part is there’s a generation of people who want to get to that before they actually have to pull some time in good kitchens. You see that in the people you interview these days when you try to get them excited about the actual métier of cooking — showing up at 6 a.m. and roasting things in the oven, and doing lots of mise en place and doing service personally — all those things that make a really great cook rather than a great entertainer. You see it less and less.