Patrick Connolly: From Velveeta Casseroles to Award-Winning Dishes

Ask a chef where he got his start and the answer doesn't usually involve Velveeta and cream of mushroom soup.

But that's exactly how acclaimed Chef Patrick Connolly began building his palate.

A St. Louis native, he says that growing up "we used to eat this chicken and cream of mushroom soup folded up in crescents and then bake those off. And we used to make it with lots of Velveeta."

"When you start getting into culinary school and cooking professionally and you start reading all these books you start to resent that part of your history," Connolly said. "I can't believe I grew up with this. I can't believe they fed me this. I can't believe she didn't make a roue and her own cream if mushroom soup, but there comes a point where you [remember] that was undeniably good. And no matter what technically might have been wrong with the meal -- your mother made it and you can never recreate that, you can never have that again… I've tried forever to just recreate that..."

Romantic Cuisine

"My mother sort of perfected the art of making dinners halfway," Connolly remembered, "and then my brothers and I would come home and finish them." He called his parents' plan of letting the kids finish dinner smart because "as a result we all learned how to cook."

Connolly, winner of a James Beard Award for "Best Chef Northeast" for his six-year stint at Radius in Boston, is now the executive chef at bobo in New York City's Greenwich Village.

Connolly said that when he decided at 22 years old to become a professional chef he moved briefly to Providence, R.I. to attend Johnson and Wales University before making his way to Boston and eventually New York. Connolly worked in a family-owned Irish pub to pay off his student loans.

After a time spent pouring beer he requested to move to the kitchen. That and a well-read copy of "French Laundry Cookbook" jump-started his career. His signature dishes blend French cuisine with Asian influences.

Connolly said that he wants people to be more thoughtful about where their food comes from and how it should be prepared. And he tries to do that for his customers.

"They could be eating a braised veal cheek that is so tender and you may think you want something really crunchy to go with this and you want to anticipate what they want," he said. "That's sort of the philosophy."

Connolly's father is a police chief, a profession that seems to be about as far out of the kitchen a possible. But Connolly said there are similarities in both their personalities and their careers.

"In some ways we kind of run this controlled fraternity," he said. "He gets what I try to run. And you have to lead by example … He has to play politician. He has to play mentor."

One of the hardest things about being a young chef, Connolly said, is "seeing the whole picture."

"You learn things in sections: how to cut this, how to season that and then trying to come up with things on your own and trying to put things together in a unique way seems like the most impossible thing," he said. "But then one day you are able to look at all these ingredients and it all makes sense."

Finding Middle Ground

"It is hard to be original," he said. "It is also hard to be consistent. Just being able to nail the basics is one most difficult things."

"I think I've mastered giving it a good try," Connolly said of being a chef. "I'll always think of something that could have been better."

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