“I didn’t kill nobody, I didn’t hurt nobody,” Executive Chef Anthony Ricco of Spice Market tells me as he recounts growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn back when bus passes were a thing and rent was affordable. A man who commands respect, from his charming smile to his professional demeanor, Ricco acknowledges that his experiences growing up have absolutely carved the path to the life he currently leads. Those of us who are familiar with his timeline know of his transition from the Institute of Culinary Education to where he currently leads at Jean‐Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market. However, if we dig deeper, we discover that his “normal childhood” is all about trial and error, self-discovery, and finally buckling down at the right moment, just like the rest of us.
Ricco recalls Greenpoint as a “tough neighborhood” where he “got robbed a few times,” but admits “[it] builds character; wouldn’t trade that for the world.” He was not the bully, though. Even after getting robbed and catching his assailant later with his brother and friends in tow, he hesitated before pointing the kid out because he “didn’t want what would’ve happened to that dude to actually happen to him…didn’t want the kid to get stomped.” Conscious not to cause more trouble for himself or his brother, his decision saved both of them.
So, what were Anthony Ricco’s biggest hurdles growing up? Number one: alcohol. Drinking since the age of 13, but more heavily at 15, Anthony would drink “vodka out of the bottle.” Looking back, he says, “I was drinking at least two 40s of bud light every night…anything was fair game; whatever I could scrounge up.” At some point, even his buddies tried to intervene. “When I was in high school, we were sitting at lunch and a couple of my friends confronted me…I just stunk like booze…I told them to beat it,” he recalls. “I was doing a lot of drinking at night and a lot of drinking during the day,” he confesses. Not only was he drinking, but also he was doing so every day of the week.
Culprit number two was partying. “I would come home [trashed] most of the time when my father was leaving for work [at 5am] and I always felt like a scumbag,” he tells me with a nostalgic grin. “He would leave the coffee on for me.” Number three: cutting class. Cooking instead of attending school, Anthony chuckles as he recounts, “[at 16] I once braised a bunch of venison…had the whole house clean and got the whole venison smell out before my mother got home from work at 3:30 in the afternoon.” Even when he was in culinary school, “I had 100 classes and I wound up missing, like, 18 of them…I missed almost all of my Friday classes so I could get an early start on the weekend.” Partying and staying up until dawn for an extended weekend, every weekend was his chosen path during those years.
The irony of it all is that the same hardheaded and determined attitude behind partying and drinking was what got him out of his life as a line cook when it was redirected. Early in his career, he got heated after being left alone by the chef to train all of the staff during service after a menu change in Long Island City. When the chef returned, Ricco made a snide comment and, after a sizzling confrontation, quit his job with an applause from the staff, called his friend who was working at Jean‐ Georges’ at the time, and took his place working there.
Ricco admits, “I always put cooking off because I knew it was something that would make me have to grow up,” shedding light on something his fans and supporters have known from the beginning: this guy’s got a gift. The conscious decision for a change in lifestyle was made only recently, according to Ricco; “once they gave me [the executive chef role] is the day I stopped going out…partying until 4 or 5 in the morning…if I fuck up, it’s going to be a big fuck up.” He’s glad to have all of that behind him now and thankful to spend his days cooking and his evenings with his growing family.
During moments where we, as humans, struggle to figure out our path in life, living in New York City among millions of successful people can be especially daunting. Luckily, it’s refreshing to discover people like Anthony Ricco, who hasn’t had the straightest path to his goals, but managed to achieve fulfillment and success nevertheless. Humbled by his past and feeling blessed to have achieved so much, he now embodies the essence of non‐stop innovation and quality. When asked if he has any regrets, Anthony Ricco looks away, takes a long pause, and issues a confident “No. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to.” Our sentiments exactly, you culinary genius.