Bringing Family Into the Kitchen

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

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."

Star Chef: Getting to the Top

Campanaro said he enjoyed being in the kitchen from the start.

"I love working with my hands," he said. "I love starting from scratch. I love figuring out how to make something better."

And being a good chef, he said, takes "practice, patience, persistence and passion."

"I don't think that I have, or most chefs, have all the ideas. You take a hamburger. Who was the first person who created a hamburger -- who knows?" he said. "But now it's not just about just hamburger, but it's about wanting to make that hamburger a great hamburger. And having the passion to do that I think feeds that skill and it feeds learning technique and practice."

And he got a lot of practice and technique during the holidays with the family.

"During the holidays, especially in Italian-American homes -- and I mean all holidays -- baking and cookies are a very, very big thing," Campanaro said. "We give out cookies to people for gifts to people on the street, our door is open for people to come in to have a little pop of sambuca usually."

His family also taught him a secret ingredient that has carried with him throughout his career -- fennel seeds. Even in cookies.

"One of the things that's interesting about my family recipe in which you don't really find if you were looking for this recipe online is the addition of fennel seeds, the fennel seeds are usually used in savory ingredients," he said. "I use it for a pork chop, I put it in the gravy we eat for macaroni. So you don't really find this in sweets, there aren't many desserts that use fennel seeds, it's an interesting little kick."

Keeping Up Family Traditions

And while many people wake up to the smell of bacon and pancakes, Campanaro, who is married, gets nostalgic waking up to the smell of browning meat.

"One of the first memories that I have in my home is when on Sunday morning when the windows in our house would fill with steam from the pots of boiling water cooking pasta and you know the smell of Sunday gravy, which starts early in the morning and browning meatballs and browning sausage," he said.

It's not something he recreates in his New York City apartment, but rather at the restaurant.

"It's cute," he said. "Sometimes these windows fill up with steam and it reminds me of my childhood."

Another childhood tradition he keeps up is eating fish on Christmas eve, a practice that stemmed from his Roman Catholic, Italian-American upbringing.

"They call it the feast of seven fishes," he said. "We don't really practice it that strictly but what we do do is we make this dish called spaghetti and clams with shrimp."

Now he shares holiday cooking duties with his brother Louie Campanaro, who is also a chef.

"I do a dish, he'll do a dish, my mom will do a dish," Campanaro said. "My grandmother isn't with us anymore, but the only thing she did was make the cookies."

This Christmas they were trying to get the whole family together again. While big family dinners used to be a mainstay, getting together now takes a bit of effort.

"Unfortunately we're sort of all over the place," he said. "The way that we grew up is very different from now because we were always all together, so getting together these days is more of a challenge than crossing the street. There's a lot of traveling involved and we're not getting any younger."

But it's worth it, he said, to try and keep some semblance of tradition for the family's youngest generation.

"It won't exactly be the same, but I'll definitely put on [an] album … 'Mob Hits' or something like that," he said. " I'll put the old Italian songs on, we'll play some Louie Prima, some Frank Sinatra, and my mother will probably smack my brother Michael in his face again."

The latter in itself has become somewhat of a holiday tradition in the Campanaro family.

"My brother Michael likes to get the attention so he tries in many ways to be charismatic and get the attention and sometimes my mother doesn't always approve," he said. "And he always used to sit to the right of her at the dinner table and that was, she had her rings on that finger, so a lot of times it's a funny story, before we sat down and Mikey was feeling a little attention needy he would say, 'Ma, take your rings off' before we sat down.''

Tips From the Master

When it comes to his cooking, Campanaro said the best approach is to keep things simple.

"Don't try to razzle dazzle," he said. "When you choose ingredients, choose ingredients that will speak for themselves and just be that vehicle."

Campanaro said that part of going to the market is knowing what's available. Most of his menus are dictated by the season.

"In December you're not gonna buy asparagus from Chile, so I do the best I can to get things that are local," he said. "But most of the things that I get, if I get them from the green market or if I get a produce market to get it for me, they're getting it from the same place."

Though Campanaro has done well for himself as a chef, it wasn't the career he initially dreamed of. Cooking, he said, was just a "natural" part of life.

"I always wanted to be an architect," he said, adding that his desk in high school was a drafting table. "I have a little bit of a background and a major interest in it, so I get to design all my restaurants with my architects."

Architecture also comes in handy, he said, when figuring out the logistics of setting up a kitchen.

"There is a book of architectural minimums that I had to break out many, many times to design this kitchen -- it's 7 feet deep," he said. "I've worked in restaurants that were 1,100 seats … so the organizational layout, logistics of where things go. Having an architectural interest or background has definitely helped me in that."

But making the food is much more emotion than structural, he said.

"I think, if it is structured some things just don't work out. And you have to be able to color outside the lines and you know that's where the patience comes in," he said. "'OK, this didn't work out, don't berate yourself up over it, just try it again.' And I try to teach the people that cook with me the same relaxed mentality where the food -- food made from an angry chef isn't going to taste as good as food made with love."

Eventually, Campanaro hopes to open a restaurant in his home city with his brother Louie, calling it one of his "lifetime dreams."

"Hopefully, hopefully we can get it together," Campanaro said, "and I would look out for it soon."