A Chat with the Urban Italian, Chef Andrew Carmellini

Andrew Carmellini has set the food world buzzing with his new book, Urban Italian: Simple Recipes & True Stories from a Life in Food. Endorsed by everyone from Tony Bourdain to Michael Rhulman...Andrew's received praise from heavy-hitters in high places. Co-written with his wife Gwen Hyman, the book delves into approachable Italian renditions, most of which you could easily whip up for a weeknight dinner.

The opening of the book begins with a number of stories...the kind cooks share with each other over beers after work. A bit of eavesdropping cum tell all, reveals:

Truffle hunting in Italy?


Hellish nights on the line?


Italy...slow and easy, tempered by a fender bender?


Moving on to the recipes, these are gems that deliver big on flavor. Based on the drool-worthy photo, I started the Lamb Meatballs Stuffed with Goat Cheese. The meatballs are spiced with a trio of coriander, fennel, and rosemary, and oozy goat cheese erupted from one wayward ball, coloring the quick and easy tomato sauce a vibrant shade of salmon. The dish came together in no time and is a new addition to my regular lineup--both for weeknight or cocktail party fare.

A braise of boneless Short Ribs Braciole was sheer torture waiting the 2 1/2 hours as the flavors melded, yielding meat that was meltingly tender. A mere six ingredients...plus salt and pepper...prove sometimes, the best dishes are the result of simplest applications.

My book is dog-eared with a number of other recipes on my radar:

- Garlic Dressing (made with 2 heads of roasted garlic) finds its way into the Fig Salad with Arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Prosciutto, but as Andrew points out, "It's an excellent marinade for vegetables, grilled shrimp or broiled fish."

- Lamb Ragu on pillowy homemade gnocchi has promise of a new-found fall comfort food.

- Marinated Beets with Grapefruit, Pistachios, and Goat Cheese with aged red wine vinegar is a strong contender for my Thanksgiving menu.

- Raspberry Involtini is a close cousin to rugelach cookies, filled with jam and almond crema, and a dusting of turbinado sugar. Spiraled with vibrant red raspberry jam, these are perfect for the holiday cookie tray.

More than a collection of recipes, this book has invaluable tips woven throughout the recipes and strategic side bars. "Beets are like sponges: they'll soak up everything, so be sure to taste them while they're marinating, and be prepared to adjust the seasonings before you serve them." The Gnocchi recipe has a nice discussion about the importance of salt...from salting your pasta water to taste like the sea...to invaluable tips on salting your dish early vs. later, and why. Where appropriate, step by step photos lead you through the process...from pasta to gnocchi. Just when I might be tempted to panic, there's a photo or a tip to guide you through, making this a book I'll reach for again and again.

Andrew and his wife Gwen are on book tour and will be in Seattle for a very brief time. I had hoped for a rendezvous, but unfortunately...the only day they're available...I will be executing my civic obligations at jury duty! As an alternative, we arranged a phone meeting. I gave Andrew a call between book tour stops, and we chatted about the book....among other things.

I'm still developing my podcast skills, so here's the text from our chat (minus more than a few "ums" on my part):

T: Can you tell me about the book? I have a copy, but I’m curious to hear about it from your perspective.

A: I was in between restaurant gigs and I was cooking a lot at home and that’s how the book came about. I had all this time off all of a sudden and that never really happened before…and I was cooking at home all the time. I was in the mood for Italian and started going out to Brooklyn and going up to Boston to buy different stuff. And that’s how the title came about—this Urban Italian idea. Then I started telling stories. My wife co-wrote with me. The stories turned into the front part of the book and every recipe had a story. Then there was a book.

T: I’ve worked with a number of chefs. Was it brutal trying to write recipes?

A: No, it wasn’t too bad. It was good because I always scaled recipes down when I was cooking at home. Gwen basically sat in the kitchen with a laptop on her knees and typed away as I cooked. The hard part came with the measuring ingredients. Sometimes we’d cook and have friends over; sometimes we’d have “recipe days” where we’d do a bunch of different recipes.

T: How did you test the recipes?

A: When it came to testing the recipes, I didn’t send them to a [professional] recipe tester. We sent the recipes to friends and family.

T: How did that work?

A: We did the recipes once, then we wrote them down and tested them again. Then we sent the recipes out to family and friends living everywhere from New York to California and Canada. We had them try out the recipes and tell us things like, “I couldn’t do this technique.” Or, “There’s no way I could find this ingredient.” We wanted people to be able to cook from [the book]. I didn’t want it to be a typical chef book where the recipe includes 15 ingredients you can’t get and $10,000 in equipment you have to buy to actually make the food look like the picture. So that was my approach.

T: Did you have people give you good feedback on the recipes...and others not so much?

A: Definitely. The people who don’t usually cook…they don’t give the best feedback. Some people would say, “You’re great…everything’s wonderful. It’s amazing!” And you’re like, “Well, that’s not really feedback." People who cook all the time gave great feedback because they knew what they were doing when they started, you know what I mean?

T: Were there any surprises in testing the recipes?

A: We made some adjustments. Originally, we called for peperonchini, which is another name for crushed red pepper flakes. I used that word in a recipe and people were going out in the West Coast or the Midwest and they were buying the pickled peperonchini peppers…you know the ones in the bad Italian salads at Olive Garden? And they were trying to use those. So ultimately we changed all the recipes to read “crushed red pepper flakes”. It made better sense to people. And that kind of feedback really helped.

T: Speaking of recipes, what the heck does it mean when you say in your book, slice garlic “Goodfellas thin”? What does that mean?

A: Did you see the movie?

T: No.

A: How could you not see the movie?!

T: Whatever! I want to buy a clue…what’s a “Goodfellas cut”?

A: Somewhere in the book it explains it, but there’s a great food scene in the movie where they’re in prison and they’re slicing the garlic really thin with a razor blade so it melts in the sauce. It’s a beautiful 30 second food scene...and that’s the best way to describe the technique.

T: I was doing some research and I came across the New York Times article about your wedding. Is your wife still a vegetarian?

A: No, no…that’s long been conquered.

T: How long ago did she fall off the wagon?

A: It was either just before or just after we got married. She called me up one day and said, “I ate a trout.”

“You ate what?!”

“I ate a trout.”

I said, “After 12 years of being a vegetarian, why did you eat trout?”

She told me, “I didn’t know it would come with the head on,” so she put a piece of bread over the head and ate it.

Being a vegetarian was beginning to affect her health. She felt she needed to eat protein again. I’d like to say it was me that tried to get her off being a vegetarian, but it wasn’t.

T: Speaking of Gwen, she’s cited as co-author. How did you and Gwen collaborate on the book? How did you divide your tasks?

A: Everything that has to do with words, she took care of. Everything that had to do with food, I took care of. It was great. We were able to get the book completed very quickly, that’s for sure. We went from proposal to publish in a year. Because we are together…it was really easy to get things done. I think she did a great job capturing my voice. The stories and the recipes are just how I talk. There wasn’t a lot of editing done, so I appreciated that.

We’re still married so that’s a good sign!

T: How is it being on your first book tour?

A: It’s good. It’s still early in the tour. Florida is only my second stop and basically…it’s a lot of smiling! I’m from Cleveland and Cleveland was busy, that’s for sure. I had a lot TV demo stuff, radio, book signings…you name it. I know a lot of people in Cleveland so that’s fine. But Milwaukee…I’m there for 10 hours.

T: Being on book tour, it’s a lot of people who aren’t familiar with your work, right?

A: I’m about to find out. It’s interesting because I’m in Miami and people are reaching me through my website – customers who come to New York. There are a lot of New Yorkers who live in Miami. And a lot of people who are from Miami, go to New York. Already today I’ve gotten 3-4 e-mails from people saying, “We read about you in the paper and see you’re going to be here. We’d love to see you.” Being in New York, you meet a lot of people from all over the country, you know?

T: It’s interesting because on tour, it seems you meet a lot of people who are in love with fame or the book, but they don’t necessarily know your food. I always thought that would be kind of bizarre—especially for a chef.

A: Yeah, I haven’t done a bunch of national television and I don’t have a show or that kind of thing. So it’s definitely different. I’ve met a number of people who like the book because they like the pictures, you know what I mean? But it’s interesting. I guess I’ll see more of that when I hit Chicago and Milwaukee as opposed to Cleveland and Miami.

T: I hear Cleveland is quite the food town. Can you tell me about being influenced by Cleveland?

A: First of all, Cleveland didn’t used to be a food town, that’s for sure. We grew up there and long before the word “foodie” existed, my parents wanted to eat good stuff. Good stuff meant…no preservatives, no processed food, no hydrogenated oil and that kind of thing. Not because they were really into chefs or restaurants but because they wanted to eat good things at home. That’s where it started.

When I started cooking, I was 14. It was 1985. There wasn’t the Food Network or Top Chef or anything like that. I liked cooking and that’s how I got into the business.

T: As a restaurant owner, tell me about your experience. Because you started young, have you noticed a change in the environment—from the patrons to people working the back of the house and the influence of the Food Network?

A: I was talking about this the other day. It definitely affects the younger cooks. They’re looking to get into the chef game because they want to be famous. It’s interesting to me, because if you want to be famous, there are a lot of easier ways to do it! You definitely see some people getting into the business at a young age because maybe they saw it on TV and I always say the same thing:
Before you go to [culinary] school, go work in a restaurant. Work in any
kind of restaurant. After that, if you still like being a cook…then go to
school. But don’t get into it because you want to be famous.
T: It seems like going to culinary school is the bougiose thing to do these days. If your kid can’t make up their mind what they want to study in college, they send them to culinary school. I don’t think a lot of people realize a. how hard the work actually is and b. that there’s only one guy who is the Chef. The Food Network glamorizes that position. I’ve got issues with that. People have no idea how hard it is.
A: I agree.

T: How is it being a restaurant owner? How are you handling that transition?

A: I’m in between gigs right now. I left A Voce. Being a restaurant owner just means control to me—both on the creative side and the business side of it. As a chef, you’re a control freak and as a chef-owner you can control everything a little bit better.

T: So you left your restaurant, A Voce? What happened there?

A: I had a break up with my partner.

T: One thing I was curious about. Since you’ve been in the business for such a long time, what inspires you? What keeps you going at the process?

A: I like the creative part of the process best. I like creating the concepts, creating the food, creating the menu…the business plan, the hiring, the way you sculpt the way the place is going to look. That’s the thing that I love—the constant creative part. Whether it’s creativity in the problem solving or creativity in the ground up kind of thing. Both of those elements are what get me up in the morning.

T: You’ve worked in a number of different restaurants. Who were your biggest mentors and influencers?

A: Food-wise, I think Gray Kunz, for sure. And business-wise, I think Daniel Boulud.

The way Daniel has grown his business slowly and the way things are managed there. And Gray, the way he combines flavor. He was one of the first guys in the early ‘90’s to do a lot. One of the things Gray did was to bring this Southeast Asian…I’ll say fusion...kind of approach to things in a way that no one else did before. That kind of approach about flavor building still influences my work today.

T: So are you influenced by other cultures? The book is Italian-focused but are you influenced by the Asian or Japanese aesthetic?

A: When I was the chef de cuisine at Café Boulud, for instance, for 6 years I did a lot of International kind of cooking. And I did a lot of traveling through Japan and Southeast Asia. I love Mexican food. Cooking is very International for me. I never try to make it fusion[-esque]. I don’t just study French food, or Thai food. The history is important to me. The culture is important to me. It’s not like I grab a book and just start cooking. It’s more about what the food means in the context of the country, if that makes sense.

A Voce was my first restaurant on my own and I did Italian. I found out a lot of people love my Italian food, but I love everything. As long as it’s good, I love it.

T: Let’s talk about books. What are some of your favorite books that have influenced you?

A: When I was a kid, my Grandmother gave me a copy of Jacques Pepin’s La Methode. It had old school French recipes that growing up in Cleveland, I had no idea what they were. That was a big influence because La Methode made me want to be a chef.

T: It’s funny, I’ve heard a number of people refer to that book’s impact on their careers. It’s about the technique, right?

A: It’s black & white pictures…a lot of “how to.” You don’t see that kind of book anymore.

T: I’ve talked with a number of authors and there’s always something you have to compromise or give up control over. Are you happy with the outcome of your book?

A: One of the reasons I went with Bloomsbury is because they were going to let me do the book I wanted to do. And that was really important to me. I didn’t want to give up anything just so the publishing house could tell me “Let’s make this change because we’ll sell more [copies] in the Midwest.” You know what I mean? They let me do what I wanted to do…and gave me some good guidance along the way… but at no point did they restrict me in any way. And that was important to me.

T: What kind of help were you getting from your publisher?

A: Design and a lot of copy editing. At one point I wasn’t going to do pictures and they were the ones who encouraged me to include them. In the end, I’m very glad they did.

T: Yes, I love the pictures. Visually, I think the photographer did a great job.

T: When I worked with the chef and he’d send recipes off to magazines, he’d see the photos in the final copy and say, “That looks nothing like my food. “ Do the photos in your book look like your food?

A: I didn’t hire a stylist. That’s just me and the photographer.

T (somewhat incredulously): So you did the presentation and then [the photographer] shot it?

A: I did everything. I cooked the food and plated it. I didn’t want [the food] to look like someone else did it. So every one of those pictures I did with the photographer. There’s no stylist.

T: That’s fascinating. I talk with a number of people who have no control over what the final outcome looks like. It’s amazing you had the opportunity to do that. The food looks great.

A: I was very hands on through the whole thing. I don’t think I’d do another book if that wasn’t the case.

T: Andrew, how did your book project come together?

We hired an agent and had 6 offers on the book. We met with everyone individually and tried to make the best decision.

T: What was the original pitch like? Was the selling point…you being the chef or the food…or a combination?

A: The narrative was a big selling point. It wasn’t just the A Voce cookbook or something like that. It was more complex than that. It was great stories, plus the recipes. But the book is almost exactly like the proposal.

T: Speaking of stories…whose idea was it to lump all the stories together? I thought it might have been more effective to spread the stories throughout the chapters. Was that your idea?

A: I wanted it to be a narrative in the beginning. I wanted the recipes to be separate from the stories because I like the recipes one after each other. When you want to actually cook from the book, it’s more practical.

I wanted people to actually cook from the book, you know?


Andrew Carmellini and his wife Gwen Hyman have an event at Tavolata Wednesday, November 19th . If you want to attend, here’s more information.

Additional book tour dates can be found on Andrew’s website: http://andrewcarmellini.com/