For Marco Canora, happiness is a busy restaurant on a Saturday night, a sinkful of dishes and a protective trash bag suit.
Actually, that may not still be the case. But once upon a time, when the future chef was getting his start in the business as a dishwasher, the hectic press of a frenzied kitchen was all he ever wanted.
"My first exposure to restaurants was in high school, and I was a dishwasher at a restaurant in upstate New York that served 'continental cuisine,'" said Canora. "And it was a whole lot of fun, and being in the kitchen and being exposed to that kind of culture, it really sucked me in. I was fascinated by the chef, I was fascinated by the process. I loved how the beginning of your day was preparing first service, and, like, service time, it was like the curtains up, and it was just so multilayered.
"And there were just so many different things and it was so dynamic. It was addictive and I bought it hook, line and sinker. And from that first job as a dishwasher, you know, wrapping a plastic bag around me on a Saturday night, so I wasn't drenched -- you know, I loved it! It was so energizing."
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Canora has come a long way since his dishwasher days. In 2001, his boss at Gramercy Tavern, chef Tom Colicchio, selected Canora to open the downtown Manhattan restaurant Craft, which won the James Beard Award for "Best New Restaurant." In late 2003, Canora opened Hearth, an Italian-style eatery with partner Paul Grieco, now in its seventh year of thriving success. In April 2007, Canora and Grieco opened Insieme at New York's Michelangelo Hotel. The restaurant won a Michelin star for its traditional and contemporary Italian dishes. A year later, the team opened Terroir, a casual spot in the East Village.
By his own count, Canora has fallen newly in love with food and cooking at least three times: as a kid, watching his Italian mother make dinner each night; as a teen working his first restaurant job; and as a man in his mid-twenties who suddenly found himself in one of New York's most storied kitchens, the Gramercy Tavern.
"You know, one of my first food memories was growing up in my home up in Milton, N.Y., on the Hudson River, and we had a beautiful kitchen with brick floors and wooden beams and very old-school style," Canora said. "And I just remember being in the kitchen and watching my mom cook. And it happened every day, she put dinner on the table every night, and they're really good memories."
Canora's mother was born and raised in Lucca, Italy. Her cooking, he said, was "very Tuscan in nature: very simple, very seasonal."
"I didn't know how good it was until I got older," said Canora. "I used to kind of bitch and moan about not getting my sweet cereal and not being allowed to have Steak-Ums, you know, in a steak sandwich. And to this day, I remember being in the grocery store begging and crying and asking my mom to buy me Cocoa Puffs, and she wouldn't do it. And I hated her then for it, but I look back at it now and I'm incredibly grateful that I didn't grow up on junky, processed food."
Even if Canora wasn't tuned into it at the time, his extended family knew what good cooking -- and eating -- was about, he said. Family get-togethers could mean days of cooking that culminated in a feeding frenzy.