In a tomato sauce, olive oil and onions make a beat. Some wine counts as a bass line, and tomatoes are chords. The melody is herbs and vinegar. The point is for it to sound good -- in your mouth.
"Cooking and music are very similar," Carmellini, a non-professional musician serious enough to have a recording studio in his house, said in a recent interview. "I find the processes very, very similar. Kind of constructing a flavor, and constructing a song."
Over 18 years in the New York City restaurant business, Carmellini has won rave reviews for the sounds that come out of his kitchens. Now the executive chef and co-owner of Locanda Verde, a popular casual Italian restaurant in TriBeCa in New York City, he earned his stripes at upscale Manhattan eateries including San Domenico, Lespinasse and Le Cirque (amid multiple tours of duty in France and especially Italy). He was Daniel Boulud's chef de cuisine at Cafe Boulud. He took the helm of the fine Italian restaurant A Voce in 2006, and he published his first cookbook, "Urban Italian: True Stories and Simple Recipes from a Life In Food," co-authored with his wife, Gwen Hyman, in 2008.
Try some of chef Carmellini's recipes HERE
Carmellini took time out from the bustle at Locanda Verde to talk about the course of his career, why New York is a great city to cook in, the problem with celebrity chef culture and more.
The goal of his work, he said, is a kind of reinforcing loop of pleasure between diners and the people who feed them.
"In the end the thing I care about most, really, is that people just leave happy," Carmellini said. "And sometimes you can't control that. Like you can only control up to a certain point people's happiness. But the majority of the people who walk out the front door at the end, if they had a good time, then that makes me happy."
The Culinary Capital of the World
Carmellini was raised in Cleveland, Ohio -- "the culinary capital of the world," as he calls it -- by parents who didn't consider themselves "foodies" but who just "wanted to eat good stuff."
"Good stuff for them was like when we went down to Miami twice a year to go visit my grandmother and my aunt, we stopped at the one place to buy grapefruits and orange juice that had like the best-tasting ones, because they [had] stopped at every single one on [Interstate] 95, over the years, to try the best single one," he said. "And we had a garden in the backyard, because they didn't want to buy stuff that came from out of the country, that might have chemicals on it.
"It was kind of not because they were foodies, but they wanted good stuff. I think that had an impact on my thoughts about food and cooking."
Following an apprenticeship in his mother's kitchen, Carmellini took his first restaurant job at age 14.
"I was kind of hyper-active, so my mom says, and cooking calmed my nerves," he said. "But I liked it, I did some baking, I did some cooking, started working at restaurants."
Threaded through Carmellini's early memories of food are moments with his extended family, half-Italian and half-Polish, preparing dishes from the old country.
"Christmas was always spent with the Polish [side]," he said, "and that meant kielbasa. So, about two weeks before Christmas, everyone gets together in my uncle's garage, and they make kielbasa. Which is not so much about making kielbasa as it is about, you know, putting on a winter coat, going into the garage and drinking whiskey and beer, but that whole process ... was always a good time."
In his early days in the business, Carmellini got to know every corner of activity under a restaurant roof.
"When I was 17 I worked for a real chef who had a real restaurant, who got live lobsters there and he made sauces, and it was more than opening up a box and throwing it in the fryer," he recalled. "He saw that I liked the kitchen work. Because I did everything, I worked in the front of the house, I bused tables, I worked behind the bar, I did all kinds of stuff. And he was like come back in the kitchen, and I started cooking full time with him.
"And when I was 18, I came to New York."
Carmellini's first stop in New York state was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where as a young cooking student he hatched an elaborate plan to become a food mystic.
"I had this whole grand plan, you know, I was going to go to New York for a couple years, work at a couple restaurants, I was going to go to Europe," Carmellini said, chuckling. "Then I had this kind of meandering kind of like road map, sort of go through the Middle East, and then India, and Thailand and Japan, and work a little bit in California, and I would come home [at] 30 years old, a long-haired culinary sage.
"Didn't work out that way. I got stuck in New York and ended up working in Europe, traveled through Asia -- but you know New York is not a bad place to get stuck for 18 years."
In the superheated world of contemporary cooking, Carmellini credits the New York food scene, and specifically the city's exacting diners, with keeping him honest.
The Greatest Customers on Earth
"New York is, it's one of the greatest places to cook. On Earth. Not so much about ingredients or anything like that, but because there's a lot of competition in New York, and I am friendly with a lot of chefs and restaurateurs in New York. And the customers are the greatest restaurant customers on Earth because they are crazy. In a good way. They are so passionate about eating out in restaurants, and if you suck, they are going to tell you."
Tuning in to what his customers want has helped Carmellini find new directions in his cooking, he said.
"I always used to cook for myself, it was all about me. You know, I want to make this, I want to make that. I feel like this. You know, the last two years, really, I have kind of paid more attention to customer comments. And it's one of the reasons I switched from -- but it won't be forever -- from French cooking to Italian cooking, was I had really really good customers in mind when I was Uptown. And these [would] come twice a week, spend a lot of money, love to eat different things, and after about two years of cooking for them a lot, they said, 'Could you just make it -- you know, you are a great chef, you do such a great job. Could you just make a it a little more simple?'
"And a lot of the things that they were asking for, were the Italian things. Just because inherently Italian cooking is a simpler cuisine, and you can make great things with three ingredients, and that kind of started me on a road of making everything a little bit simpler. And that was kind of like one of the first times I actually listened to customer response. Which is different from critical response.
"Because, you know, critics sometimes -- they want you to go for it all the time. ... I realized that you know, you want to make great food, but for people who come two, three four times a week -- which in New York you have a lot of customers who are eating out many many times -- so I wanted to make sure they could come and have something simple that was great if they wanted."
That said, it can be difficult in this age of food fetishizing to find a diner who isn't a critic.
"When we opened," said Carmellini of Locanda Verde, "it seemed like every second table was taking photographs of the food, and it's not really a high-end kind of -- it surprised me because I was used to that before, a little bit, because ... the plate was a little more intricate, more artistry on the plate -- there was more, you know, I won't say more or less technique, but more visual technique. And we opened, and every second table was taking pictures of, like, a bowl of pasta.
"And it's a little annoying. Just when I go out to eat, you know, I just really want to put my fork in it and enjoy it. And I think you know for me, it seems not as fun really, if you are going to overanalyze it and pick up your knife and fork, and pick up every little thing and overanalyze it. As opposed to, I am out with my wife, or out with friends, and you know, let's just have a good time. And the food is a vehicle to have a good time. ... As a diner I don't want to get that overly critical. As a chef now I am used to it. I am used to it."
Carmellini looks askance at many features of the foodie-industrial complex. It is as if food criticism, the celebrity chef culture and ambient hype have erected a wall to segregate -- instead of protecting -- the best parts of the food experience.
"It's cliche, because a lot of people talk about this, but you know, to be a great -- there's a difference between being, like, a chef, and then kind of an entertainment personality. And there's some great chefs that are on TV now, but there's -- it's different. Being a chef you have to know a lot about the business, you have to know a lot about people. And no one shows you this stuff, really, you just learn it along the way.
"Experience, I mean you still learn every single day about cooking and about people. I will never figure out that one. But, it's just an evolving process. So you've got to have some good experience behind you."
Busy, Loud, Fun
Like many a chef who has grappled his way to the higher reaches of the restaurant business, Carmellini has remarked how different things are these days from when he was coming up.
"When I graduated from high school [in 1989], I would tell people I was going to go to cooking school ... I mean I might as well have told them I was, you know, going into the seminary. They didn't understand it. They had no idea what I was talking about. Ninety-nine-point-five percent of my graduating class went to college. I was like no, I am going to cooking school.
"You know, now, I spoke at graduation at my, CIA, about a year back. And there was a big difference in the students that were there -- kind of more higher-end background, and I think that it was very blue-collar when I went to school. I think that the TV thing really changed that. Because here, it became glamorous, it became you know, 'Hey! I am really cool and I wear a funky chef jacket and a hat, and you know, act stupid. And I kind of cook a little bit, but I really just act stupid.'
"And that really changed, it changed it a lot with young culinary students, with the perception of the business."
In other words, being a chef isn't always glamorous?
"Well, [not] if you want to do it right. It's cliche, because a lot of people talk about this, but you know, to be a great -- there's a difference between being like a chef and then kind of an entertainment personality. And there's some great chefs that are on TV now, but there's, it's different. Being a chef you have to know a lot about the business, you have to know a lot about people. And no one shows you this stuff, really, you just learn it along the way. Experience, I mean you still learn every single day, about cooking and about people. I will never figure out that one."
The one way he unplugs, Carmellini said, is to take to his home studio and cut some tracks.
"You know, everyone has their thing outside what they do every day, and mine is music. Whether I am good or not -- I have no idea. But I just like it because it's a way to, you know, concentrate on something and do something that makes me happy. I spent a lot of money, I have a little studio in my house, and I can -- when I get home, four or five nights a week -- I can put on headphones ... and play music, and concentrate on something that has nothing to do with cooking, or reservation sheets, or anything, and just completely get lost in it. So that's kind of the way I disconnect a little bit."
For as far as he can draw out the analogy between cooking and music, the similarity breaks down in the inherent chaos of the kitchen, Carmellini explained.
"I really wish a restaurant was like making a great song, and I could spend one month trying to make the perfect song -- and you record it, you get the vocals where you want to be, the bass is perfect, drums sound great, and you put it on a CD and everytime you want to hear that song you just put it in a CD player and it's the same every single time. The restaurant business changes every single day. Which is the great dynamic of it, but I think it's also kind of crazy, too. The customers change, fish delivery changes. The temperature of the dining room changes, you know, my mood changes. Eighty employees, their moods change, every day there's always a million variations on what can go great, and what can go wrong."
In the end, Carmellini said, he takes his own feelings as a barometer to what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.
"I don't have a particular philosophy. Professionally I kind of do, like the way we work, but as far as the food is concerned, it's very emotional for me. Kind of like the way I feel.
"So, six years ago, when I was doing very refined, high-end, kind of French fusion cooking, [it] was really the way I felt then about how I wanted to cook. You know, now we have a big bustling corner, which has really robust cooking, served at a great price, and it's busy and it's loud and it's fun. And that's kind of how I feel now."