What is your drink of choice?
Bourbon on the rocks. I don’t drink many mixed drinks but once and a while I’ll try one. I think our mixologist Paul [McGee] is fantastic so if I go somewhere with someone as talented as Paul I’ll be like, “Sure, send me some drinks,” but if I’m ordering something for myself it’s pretty simple, bourbon or scotch on the rocks. Usually it’s two or three fingers, this one is a good four fingers which is nice.
As the P in RPM Italian, you joined forces with the Melmans and the Rancics to create this concept. Did you guys ever hash it out over your ideas or were you all on the same page from the beginning?
The Rancics really understood their role in a lot of ways and really played their part. They bring a lot of great things to us and style and a great fanbase but they really allowed Jerrod [Melman] to do his thing with the music and the vibe, R.J. [Melman] to handle the business side and they really weren’t that particular about the food. They had some ideas and Giuliana wanted her salad and things like that but it really is a great partnership and a great team in a lot of ways. In the beginning I was with Mama DePandi cooking and this little dish she does is Bucatini Pomodoro and there was no question we were going to have a spaghetti with pomodoro sauce here, it’s foolish not to, it’s our biggest selling pasta. The way she cooked it was similar to how we cook it so I was like, “Great, we can adapt from that.” The thing that makes it really easy about working with the Rancics is they are great people. I think R.J., Jerrod and I work well together and have a lot of respect for each other as well so it helps out.
Your background is in contemporary fine dining. How was it shifting to a hot spot like RPM?
I enjoy this more. I worked for Alain Ducasse for six years at The French Laundry then I opened up a restaurant called Country in New York. We had really high-end fine dining up there and it was great, it did well and was a lot of fun but I wasn’t serving my contemporaries. I was serving older men and things like that. It was good but it was hard for me at that time in my life. I was 29, born and raised in New York and had moved to Napa Valley which was a smaller town than I had thought. The restaurant closed at 10 o’clock and I’m used to working and going out but it’s not a very late night town. It was cool, I could put on that act and do that dance but it wasn’t really who I am. I wanted to do something a lot more youthful and this really is that.
You’re a regular on “Giuliana and Bill”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s scripted and what’s not. Did you really fly out to cook dinner for Giuliana’s birthday like they showed in a recent episode?
Yeah, I definitely did! I flew down for the day and did some shopping around there and then I cooked dinner so that was a complete surprise to Giuliana. She knew nothing about it, Bill organized the whole thing. She had no idea where she was going or anything like that so that was definitely unscripted in a lot of ways.
What’s an underrated dish here that you were surprised didn’t become as popular as some of the other items?
One of the things is actually not on the menu anymore, it’s a grilled tuna steak. I thought it would be something that would sell a lot. It’s just rare, seared tuna. We always sell for how women would eat, like, what’s the healthiest things to have? It was the healthiest thing we have on the menu and we’d sell like four a night. We’d serve 900 people and sell four! So that was something interesting that didn’t work out. But right now I think something that’s underrated is our poached egg with black truffle sauce. It’s a little heavier but it doesn’t sell that much.
Most of your cooking skills you learned at a young age from your Greek grandfather. Is Greek cuisine still your first love?
Now it is. Before I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed it. When I started cooking and started getting to nicer restaurants in New York City everybody was doing all different things and using interesting ingredients, kind of shocking stuff. Nobody did anything pedestrian and Mediterranean flavors are all real simple so I was a little bit, not embarrassed, but I shied away from the things I grew up eating and tasting. I was off to new spices, new flavors, a new way of cooking, different proteins. Then when I started working with Alain Ducasse, a great French chef, I started realizing, “Wow, I’m in a four star restaurant with some of the most amazing items and all of the ingredients are normal.” It was fresh cheeses, lots of lemon, great oregano, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, great olive oil. So I have a lot more respect for what I grew up with now and it holds true in what I do.
When you’re not in the kitchen, where can we find you?
I’ve been out here for about two years and my wife has been out here for many years so we spend a lot of time together checking out the city and things like that.
Did you win your wife over with your cooking skills?
No, not at all actually. I met her at The French Laundry, she was a pastry chef there and then she worked with me in New York. Now she’s the pastry chef at The Peninsula.
Being a culinary couple, what is your kitchen at home like?
It’s overflowing with stuff, that’s the problem. We have so many pots, pans and gadgets that it has overflowed with equipment. And then because of my wife we have tons of chocolate, she loves chocolate.
Did we read that you have a twin brother?
Yeah, I do!
Are you guys identical?
No, he’s the complete opposite of me in every aspect. He’s very mature and calm but we work kind of similarly. We wrote a book together [“The Seasoning of a Chef”] about seven years ago. He represents strictly culinary TV personalities like [“Man v. Food”’s] Adam Richman, [Food Network’s] Tyler Florence and Myron Mixon. He’s one of the bigger culinary agents in the country.
With Thanksgiving coming up, by default are you the one who makes the meal for the entire family?
Yes, I definitely do.
How long does that take you?
A couple hours. That’s it!
Yeah, I know! That’s why I do it. I’m like, “Just stop! Stop everything!” I grew up with my mom putting a turkey in the oven before we woke up and it was like, “Why is it still terrible?”
Can you give us any turkey tips?
It doesn’t take that long! People throw it in the oven before you wake up and then you’re like, “Why does the turkey suck?” Don’t cook it from ice cold and definitely not from when it’s frozen. Just don’t overcook it! That’s the biggest thing. I think people are so afraid of all of the stuff. And don’t buy such a huge turkey. Who eats all of it? That’s one thing my dad always did. He’d be like, “I got a 20 pound turkey,” and I’m like, “For who?!” Twenty pounds of meat? Come on. Get the smaller turkey and don’t cook it so much.
Is there anything that people can cut corners on or should everything be made from scratch? Canned cranberry sauce probably makes a chef cringe.
Actually, no. That’s one thing my mom eats so it’s like if she wants the can, here’s the can! For stuffing I think you can buy the bread they have and just kind of dump it all together. My biggest thing is to make the stuffing really moist and let it cook for long enough. I cook it on the side with a lot of juice and things like that.
What is your favorite Thanksgiving dish?
The salad. I don’t want anything else. For me, I like the twice-baked potatoes and the salad but I don’t want to have a huge turkey dinner. My biggest fight everyday is to not overeat. I taste so many things all day long so it isn’t like I need to have a huge Thanksgiving dinner to get me through, I don’t want all of that. Especially because I’m usually so busy around that time, I kind of sneak away at dinner on Thanksgiving. That way I can cook and hang out and if I drink I don’t really eat that much.
So you’re the drunk uncle?
Exactly! That’s the only way I can get through it with all of the family, you know?
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I’d probably say my father. I would drink bourbon and he’d probably have a beer.
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