Platelist: Andrew Carmellini's Music for the Tongue

"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?'

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