As a fourth generation restaurateur, did you ever feel pressure to go into the family business?
Yes, but any of the pressure that I have felt was all put on by myself, never from my dad or anybody else. When I took my first job 10 years ago I was 19 years old working for Emeril. What [my dad] told me was, “I can get the door open for you but you have to keep it open yourself.” That was always a motivational tool for myself to succeed because you knew that people in the kitchen were gonna be gunnin’ for you a little bit, you know, “His daddy got him in the kitchen, now let’s see what he’s made of.” Which I would have thought the same thing if I was them. So that was always just a good motivation and I’m a big self-motivator. Everything I do I always put the most pressure on myself and it all comes from within. And that goes for just about everything in my life.
What do you remember most about that first day in the kitchen working side-by-side with a legend like Emeril Lagasse?
That was such an eye-opening experience. It was my first real job, it was an internship, I was 19 years old living by myself in New Orleans. On my first day I was like, “What the hell’s going on?” [Emeril’s Culinary Director] Chris Wilson taught me to just let go and to not be nervous and to just go in there and do my thing … It ended up being a phenomenal experience because most interns are peelin’ and choppin’ and kind of out of the scene but he just threw me to the wolves.
The life of a chef comes with many sacrifices. What do you consider the biggest sacrifice you made to reach success?
You sacrifice everything, you really do. It’s everything. I’ll tell you, I had a 22-year-old cook working for me that just left for Italy. This kid has a lot of potential and I really like him a lot. He’s got what it takes to go the distance and you don’t really see that often. What I told him was, “I’m just gonna give it to you straight, you have to literally tell yourself [and be committed to the fact that] you’re gonna have to sacrifice all of your 20s. That’s what it’s gonna take to get to the level where you’re gonna make a difference someday.” Unfortunately that’s the reality of it. If you want to be the best and you want to really move up quickly, you need to pretty much be giving your life away but that’s the conscious decision you make. You gotta love it that much to make that decision. You gotta do whatever it takes and that’s anything you do, in any career. If you really want to be super successful you just have to make that sacrifice. And unfortunately in the restaurant business with the long hours and nights and holidays you just gotta make that choice. There’s a lot of talent out there but talent’s everywhere, you gotta be willing to go the distance.
You started bussing tables at the age of five in your family’s restaurant, Heaven on Seven. Were you always such a responsible kid?
I was a good boy. I never got in trouble. I really didn’t get grounded much because my parents didn’t really believe in grounding, they didn’t think it would solve anything. But my dad, if he got pissed off, I mean, we were scared. We were scared of him!
There has to be at least one time when you got in trouble.
Okay, the last time was when I was in high school. That was the last time I got in really like pretty severe trouble. Me and one of my buddies were out partying all night, he wasn’t 16 yet and was driving without a license. It was raining out so when I came in the house I got mud throughout all of the carpets and on the furniture. [Laughs] It was bad! I still will never forget it, my dad was really pissed. It was summertime and for the whole week I was literally on bitch duty at Heaven on Seven, like cleaning out the dumpsters in the alley, you know just having to do the grossest, worst stuff. So yeah, after that I learned my lesson!
You’re married with a 10-month-old baby girl Gianna. When you’re cooking for your wife, what does she usually want you to make for her?
[Laughs] I’ll get in trouble for saying this but I don’t usually cook at home, at all. She’s always like, “You never cook for me!” But when I do I mostly always go to my comfort zone which is anything that has to do with pasta. She loves it.
As the 2014 James Beard Rising Star Chef award winner, has your family asked you to start taking the lead cooking on any holidays?
My dad still won’t give up Thanksgiving so that’s always his holiday. The holiday that I’m gonna be taking over in the next couple years is Christmas Eve. That’s the one I want because we can base it around more of like an Italian Christmas Eve style dinner. It has always been at my aunt’s house on my mom’s side of the family which is all Italian, my dad’s side is all Greek. It’s all based on a lot of fish and that’s the one I’m looking to take over. Soon.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
That’s easy for me. It would be two people, both of my grandparents. They started Heaven on Seven with my father 34 years ago and they both passed way too soon so they didn’t get to see anything that [it became]. To be able to just have them at The Pig hangin’ out, having a little bit of Greek wine, gettin’ to see everything that’s been accomplished [would be my dream]. I know how proud they would be of me and my dad. With each generation things just keep progressing and [in our family] it just happens to be in the restaurant business. If it wasn’t for my grandfather, [we wouldn’t have any of it]. My dad started working for my grandfather when he was like 10 years old and he fell in love with it then so it’s pretty special.
KIRSTEN MICCOLI / A DRINK WITH
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