PLATELIST: Chef Marco Canora Returns to Roots

Chef at Hearth traces cooking, life influences to Italian dinners of his youth.

BySarah Rosenberg and Tom Mccarthy
March 31, 2010, 11:43 AM

March 31, 2010 — -- 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."

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

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: 'Really Great Food 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.

"My aunt and my cousins were always around for holiday meals and it was always a big deal -- Easter was a big deal, Thanksgiving, Christmas -- they were huge deals, and my aunt and my mom would cook for days before. And then we would eat it in 20 minutes. Which was always the joke, you know, 'Three days to prepare it and 20 minutes to scarf it down.' But yeah, they're really great memories, and they've informed me moving forward."

While at Pace University in Manhattan, Canora took a job in the prepared food section at the new Dean & Deluca gourmet grocery store in Soho. When he graduated he left the kitchen. The next episodes of his life he tells in fast forward, as if racing to get back to the kitchen, back to his favorite part.

"From there I graduated college, did the motorcycle cross-country thing," Canora said. "Stopped in Boulder, worked in a kitchen. Stopped in San Francisco, worked in a kitchen. And although I really loved it and I did it for a living and made money, I hadn't really convinced myself that it was going to be -- you know, that it was going to define who I was or be my career, moving forward. And not until I moved back to New York City from San Francisco, at around [age] 27, did I say to myself, 'You know what, I'm going to really -- this is it.'"

It would have been hard for Canora to find a better place than where he landed: the Gramercy Tavern.

"I did all this research, and I put on a suit and I went to all -- like, I made a list of five restaurants I wanted to be at, and you know, old-school style in the suit, like knocking on the door, 'Give me a chance, chef' kind of thing. And I ended up taking a job with Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern, and they had just been open for a year-and-a-half.

"And I had never seen anything like that. That kitchen was just grand and beautiful and the brigade of chefs, and it was awesome. And I fell in love with it again, and I think it was good for me to start at a later age because I really -- when I took that job at 27, you know, I was done with the partying and the drinking and all the fun; I was really focused and I really wanted this to be my future. And I took it really seriously and I excelled and I did well, and then from there, Tom asked me to open Craft, and I was the opening chef at Craft. Those were really great, great years, and I learned a ton from him and those restaurants. And then I came and opened Hearth in 2004 and that's where we are today, six years old."

Canora: The Endangered Family Meal

Canora said he didn't miss his partying days.

"You know, this business is about sacrifice," he said. "This is about not going to weddings and not going to parties and not having weekends off, and Super Bowl Sunday, who cares -- all those things that you think are important to you, like, you better reevaluate if you want to come into this world because this world is the opposite of what everybody else does, which is what I loved about it! I loved having Monday and Tuesday off in this town because I could actually go see a movie, you know, it's great!"

The chef said he is a little disturbed by the way the world of cooking -- and the world of eating -- have changed since he came up.

"More and more I hear that cooking is going the way of darning your own socks, and that really frightens me," Canora said. "I hate to hear that people are doing less and less of it, and [that] even in the Old World countries, like Italy and France, the importance of cooking and eating around a table with your family is really going away. The idea of sitting around the table and eating a meal, it's just not happening often enough. You know, speaking with people face-to-face and having that process I think is hugely important. And I think people need to be reminded of that."

The chef has a daughter whom he would encourage to get into cooking if she wanted to, he said -- but first he would tell her to spend a year working at it.

"If my daughter came to me and started to find the love of food, you know, I would encourage it, but I would also make sure to educate her and I would also make sure that she spent a lot of time in kitchens before she committed $40,000 to go to cooking school," Canora said. "I think what happens too often is that young kids don't do their due diligence, and they don't go and spend time first, like spend a year in a kitchen before you say, 'Oh, I love the idea of being a chef!' Because especially now, it's so glamorized, right? People think chefs are rock stars and it's like, 'Holy God! I am not a rock star.' It's grueling and it's hot and it's oftentimes miserable.

"I love this business because I find it invigorating. It's very satisfying to work with things from a raw to a finished and actually be a part of putting it in front of a person, who actually eats it, and you know, you satisfy something soulful within them. It's very intimate. And that really floats my boat, like I think it's gratifying, it's rewarding. Yes, it's hard work and yes it's sacrifice, but you know, like they say 'big risk, big reward.'"

Canora: 'This Is About One Person'

The highest hope he has for his diners, Canora said, is that everyone has an ideal meal, regardless of what hurdles the kitchen had to clear to make it happen.

"I'm constantly trying to remind myself that all of the stuff in my day, right, like you know, the fish didn't come in, the guy at the Green Market said he was going to have these baby little onions doesn't have them, you know, there's so many balls in the air and there's so much room for like, 'Ahh!' And I always remind my cooks and I always remind myself that at the end of the day this is about one person who walks through this door and sits down and has their two or three or four dishes and for that one person, they don't care about a back-story. They don't care about anything, they're coming here, they're paying a lot of money, and they want their salad and their fish and their dessert [it] has to resonate with them.

"And when you're a line cook or when you're a chef and you're putting out 300 plates a night, it's very easy to forget about how each plate is really impactful upon the one person. And that's something I always try to remember, and I'm always instilling in my cooks."

Reflecting on his work and life, Canora's thoughts return to the home on the Hudson River, and the woman who gave him his first experience of real food.

"A lot of the recipes that we use at [Hearth] to this day have roots from Mom back in the day," Canora said. "You know, over time I always kind of modernize them a bit, you know we don't serve as rustic food as I grew up eating. At the wine bar we do though, and that's really cool.

"But yeah, she's been a huge role and she's hugely proud, and you know, listen, is there a part of her that wishes that I was a doctor or a lawyer, you know, making half-a-million dollars a year, and on my own terms and not all the sacrifice? And she sees me like pulling my hair out and she worries, like, 'You're going to give yourself a heart attack.' So she worries, and I'm sure there's a part of her that wishes I had a, quote, 'easier life.'

"But at the end of the day, I think she sees me enjoying what I do. And like [I tell] my daughter: As long as you're happy doing it, then that's a win."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events