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."
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.