Bringing Family Into the Kitchen

Chef Joey Campanaro dishes on how his childhood inspired his career.

ByABC News
December 22, 2008, 11:17 AM

Dec. 24, 2008— -- Joey Campanaro's acclaimed career as a chef started with a dream -- not for fame, but for a boat.

Though Campanaro grew up with a mother and grandmother who methodically fed 10 to 15 people a day in the family's South Philadelphia neighborhood, it was his longing for a boat that landed him in the kitchen.

"My father had a house down at the beach in the Jersey Shore and one year I told him I wanted a boat and he told me to get a job," Campanaro, 36, said. "So I got a job washing dishes."

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"I've just maintained an interest and kept a work ethic in the kitchen, which has always taken me to the next step, from washing dishes, to peeling potatoes, to making sandwiches, to eventually getting on the line and actually cooking," he said.

After majoring in restaurant management at Pennsylvania State University, Campanaro traveled to Italy and France where he studied the Mediterranean cuisine that would become his trademark.

He now helms The Little Owl, a 28-seat restaurant in Manhattan that combines the teachings of Europe with a few of the tricks he learned from his grandmother.

"My culinary career started when I was very young, helping my grandmother make fresh pasta. We used to make a dish called Cavatelli," Campanaro said. "And, she lived next door and I'm Italian American so food is always the focal point."

But it wasn't always an easy trip to the top.

"Once while I was a dishwasher at a restaurant, the restaurant forgot there was a party, and so they didn't hire any cooks … so the chef and I had to make lunch for 150 senior citizens," he said. "So I was pulled from the dish pit right into the hot line and that was, you know we had to make, it was ham and cheese sandwiches."

That rushed lunch didn't necessarily teach him about cooking, but rather about how to tackle challenges, something every kitchen inevitably faces.

"It was about the show must go on and the importance of being organized and being ready, especially in the kitchen, having things in their place and not panicking, turning any sort of mistake into the opportunity to make friends," he said. "So I actually go to meet some of the diners that day and it was just an exhilarating day where I went from a dishwasher to getting to meet some of the people I actually cooked for."