Gemma is the restaurant inside The Bowery Hotel, a hotspot for locals as well as visiting celebrities. Executive Chef Chris D’Amico and I sit down for what I think will be a short interview, and an hour and a half later, we’ve talked about everything from our family life and our neighborhoods to the meat industry, the secrets of olive oil manufacturers, and the lies behind organic food labels. Mixed in with our chit-chat is the real stuff: his passion for food, structuring the menu at Gemma, his love for his family, and the blessing and the curse of having an Italian last name.
Chef’s Connection (CC): There’s not a lot of stuff about you on the internet.
CC: Yeah, why are you hiding? Where are you?
“I didn’t start cooking for any of that. As you can see, I’m sort of a clean cut type of guy. I shave, I get my hair cut. I don’t have tattoos everywhere.”
CC: Do you have any?
“No. Just a normal guy.”
CC: We’re like the last two people on earth without tattoos.
“I’m just a normal guy. And I got into cooking because I needed money. My Dad was at one point, he was underemployed. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. And so I went to work with my uncle who had a pizzeria. That’s how I really started, I was doing whatever he needed me to be doing. ‘The job description is, whatever I need you to do.’ Wash dishes, clean the dining room, bus tables, run a delivery, anything. So that was how I started.
“I was doing well, academically. And at around 16 when [my] friends start driving, I’m like, I want a car. I need money. You want to go out and do things. Forget school, forget it. Lost interest. I didn’t drop out, I graduated, but that was … I was in restaurants.
“So my uncle said to me, he said, ;You’re 19 years old.’ And me and him were watching the Yankee game, it was a slow day in August, summer day, we’re watching TV, and we’re standing in the kitchen, and he says, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ And I’m, ‘I don’t know, what am I gonna do? I don’t know.’ And he’s says, ‘Well you gotta do something, ‘cause you can’t stay here.’ I’m like, ‘I guess, I don’t know. What am I gonna do, take the police officer’s test, or something like that?’”
CC: That’s what April Bloomfield wanted to be, you know.
“Police? Yeah. What else can you do? As a kid growing up, New York City, before it was the New York that it is now, you had to figure it out and nobody was really going to push you into it. So as we were watching the Yankee game, a commercial comes on for New York Restaurant School. And I said, ‘I could do that.’
“And so I called New York Restaurant School, which used to be on Varick Street. I think it’s ICE now. And I went there, and it was on the 16th floor at 75 Varick, and I said, ‘This is bullshit. What the fuck kind of bullshit is THIS? Look at this, this is nothing. What is this, this is a school? What are they teaching people here?’
And then I did a little research, and I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be either Johnson & Wales, or CIA.’ I picked CIA because I could drive home on weekends because I needed to work. I needed money. So I would go to school Monday to Friday up there. And then Saturday and Sunday, I would go to work at the pizzeria. So while I was at the pizzeria I would practice the things I was learning. It was like a laboratory.
“And then after I graduated I left the pizzeria, started working for nice restaurants, got the experience, met a lot of good people. And then—I wasn’t really in love with Italian food. I grew up eating it, people are like, ‘I love pasta,’ and I’m like, ‘Not again? I can’t look at this. I just can’t look at it anymore.’
“And I wound up doing French, Asian style stuff, American style stuff, and that was more what I had an interest in. But then, I was working at the Soho Grand, with a guy named John Belluci, and John was like, ‘I’m opening a new hotel, I want you to come with me, can you do this?’ [He mimes himself cooking something.] “‘Can you do this?’ [He mimes himself cooking something else.] “‘You can do all that, what are you doing here?’
“This was after 9/11, I needed a job. All those fine dining jobs, they were gone. By and large. Everybody was struggling, a lot of restaurants closed. You just had to take whatever was available. So a job that paid $16 an hour with benefits? That was good. I’ll take that.
“He said, ‘You’re overqualified for this job.’ I said, ‘I understand that I’m overqualified, but I need the money.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come with me, we’ll open up this place, you can be my sous chef.’ I’m like, ‘It sounds good.’
“Long story short, it was an Italian restaurant, and I’ve been making Italian food ever since. I feel that because of my last name, I got pushed into a certain direction where … I love Japanese food. I love cooking Japanese food. I like cooking Chinese food. But I would have a difficult time, with my name, being who I am, being that and moving up through any sort of ranks. There are some cultural barriers: ‘What do you know about this? This isn’t for you.’
“It’s sort of discrimination, it really is. And it worked in my favor to get jobs like this, worked against me because the things I really love, I’d be making minimum wage in those places.”
CC: Do you make any of that food at home, then?
“I do. My wife’s Filipino; we cook Asian food. I’ve introduced her to more Chinese ingredients, and things like that. Filipino food is stews and soups, things like that. So we’ll make wontons, egg rolls, that sort of stuff that my daughter will eat too. So it always has to have some kind of noodles. Stir-fries, things like that. I don’t really like to eat Italian food, but my daughter loves Italian food.”
CC: Of course! She’s three.
“We have to put tomato sauce on everything she eats, basically. On the cornflakes, there’s tomato sauce. Crazy kid.
“But me, it’s not something I ever crave eating. Never. Never. Never. My wife will go [high-pitched soft voice] ‘Can we have a pizza today, can we have a pizza?’ And I’m like, ‘Ugh, fine.’ I don’t want to see another pizza for the rest of my life. But I’m stuck with it.”
CC: You could take your wife’s last name.
“No. I’m not gonna do that.”
CC: No? Is it a manly thing?
“It’s a manly thing. It’s a pride thing.”
CC: I don’t think anybody’s done it yet. But we’ll get there. One day.
“If you say so.”
CC: So what were you like as a kid?
“Oh probably not good.”
CC: What do you mean?
“Naughty. I believe that certain people have a propensity towards certain behavior. I wasn’t in trouble, necessarily, but there were a lot of fights.”
CC: With other kids?
“With other kids. Almost every day.”
“Almost every day, there was a fight.”
CC: Did you get hurt? Did you come home with wounds?
“Not so much. ‘Cause back then, the big thing was the WWF, we were practicing our wrestling moves on people. Jumping, headlocks … that kind of thing. When we were kids, that was what we’d do. We fought all the time.
“So like, on Friday night, let’s say you’re 10 or 11 years old. I was in my house, next door was my friend Eddie, next to him was my friend Joey. Eddie was a Chinese kid, Joey was a Polish kid, it was a mixed lot, all different kinds of ethnicities all lived together in Brooklyn. And Joey’s mom would go to bingo on Friday nights down at the Catholic church, and so, what are you gonna do? So we’d be playing cards or whatever, and then we’d say, ‘Let’s do something fun.’ We’d turn off the lights and just start hitting each other.”
CC: [laughs] That’s how you’d spend a Friday night?
“That was Friday night fun. Turn off the light, everybody’s hitting each other.”
CC: Well, that was before the internet.
“The cool thing is the brains, now. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg … kids want to be like them. It used to be, the kids wanted to be like Hulk Hogan or Don Mattingly. It’s a cultural change, what happened between when I was growing up and the kids that are growing up now.”
CC: Did you have an ‘aha, food is my thing’ moment that you remember?
“I fell into it because I was in restaurants since I was 14. I never worked at a Gap, I never worked at a car wash, I never ever had any of those jobs. Every job I’ve ever had was food. It’s always been food. And my dad was a butcher, so he’s always been food. My uncle had the pizzeria, he’s always been food. It’s sort of like genetic predisposition to food. I could’ve chosen something else but I don’t think I would’ve been doing what I would’ve liked to have done.
“I like food. It’s the type of food that’s the interesting thing. I like to do research. I’m interested in history. And you know how Wikipedia is, you click on one thing and then you click over and click here, and you can go from Abraham Lincoln to how to make a proper soufflé. That’s the great thing with the internet now, it really cultivates that curiosity. When we were kids, we had the Encyclopedia Brittanica, right?”
CC: All of ‘em!
“Right! And if you wanted to find something out, you had to take out the encyclopedia, and then search.”
CC: And then it was 20 years out of date.
“That’s exactly right. I was surprised to find out Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore! The whole world happened, and I was busy flippin’ pizzas while it happened. I missed it.”
D’Amico talked a little bit about the place he’d like to own someday, and how he’d like it to work, which leads him to the subject of the working hours of an average chef, and trying to juggle family life.
“To work in a place where you can manage your hours a little bit better than what is required here is an ideal situation I think for everybody. I think to work 50 hours a week should be enough. It should be enough. It’s not enough. To do the job that most chefs are doing, I think, is at least a 60 hour job. 12 hours a day, five days a week. And a lot of guys do more than that. A lot are doing 70 hours, they’re doing six shifts. It’s hard. I wouldn’t recommend a career—people ask me: ‘My kid’s interested in being a chef, too, I told him maybe I should go to CIA …’ I’m like, ‘Do yourself a favor: Don’t do it.’
“They say, ‘But he loves to cook!’ If he loves to cook, then spend your money on a kitchen. [Pause] You’re interviewing a lot of chefs, right?”
“A lot of guys right? And a few girls.”
CC: A few. Very few.
“And the reason is, not to be sexist about it, but women have this urge to produce a child before the time has passed, but it’s just as the career is just starting to hit. That number comes up quick. And so they’ve gotta get out.”
CC: Let’s talk about the restaurant a little. Do you shape the menu yourself? Is that part of your responsibility?
“Yes. I don’t have the final decision. So basically what we do is, we do four menu change, summer, spring, fall winter. But people come here, they want the branzino, that’s what they want.”
CC: Do you have people who come here a lot, just for that?
“Yes. A lot of regular guests. So if I took branzino off the menu, people would be walking into the kitchen, [saying] “Where’s the branzino?” So I just leave it. Because the chef’s urge, a lot of chef’s urges, is to take those dishes that are too popular, and get rid of ‘em. You bury them. You hide ‘em. I want people to eat pork, I want them to eat this dish or that dish, and they’re not ordering it because they come in, and order branzino.
“When we first opened, I had a branzino and a gnocchi dish. They dominated menu sells to the point where other dishes just weren’t selling. And I’m not moving the product, and we’re dealing with spoilage. And this isn’t good either.
“So now I’d say we’ve been through at least 30 menu modifications since I’ve been here. I’ve found the sweet spot right now where certain spots on the menu never change, or are tweaked, just tweaked. And then other spots are those seasonal items. So butternut squash will go off, and fava beans will go on.
“You build your repertoire through your specials, so you have a chance when you do your daily specials, you call your fish guy, and you say, ‘Okay, what’s good?’ So you know what vegetables are in, you know what fish is coming in, so you see how things roll, and then you look at your menu as a whole. You step back, you look at the paper, and say, ‘Maybe this dish isn’t performing as well as it should be, because people don’t like radicchio. American people don’t like radicchio, maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I just change the side dish, or maybe I trash the whole dish, and go in a different direction.’
“I start thinking about summer menu as soon as we are finished with spring tasting, even before the menus are printed, I’m already on summer menu. And for the specials I have autonomy, I can do anything I want with specials that’s within the parameter of what the restaurant really is. An Italian restaurant.
“I don’t have ultimate decisions, but I’m steering the boat, if that makes sense. I don’t decide where the boat’s going, but I can decide how it’s going to get there.”
CC: What’s one of your favorite items on the menu right now?
“I have a few favorites.
“I enjoy sandwiches. So on the lunch menu, we don’t do the panini at nighttime, it’s only at lunch, but the paninis that we’ve got, we’ve got one that I personally really like. There’s this Italian cheese that’s not a well-known cheese, but it’s a truffle cheese and it’s soft and melty. So you take the bread, you brush a little olive oil on there, and you put the cheese on, and I take a thin, thin slice of pear, and just put a little of the sliced pear in the middle and put the cheese on top, put it in the machine, and it’s like … a grilled cheese, but the greatest grilled cheese you’ve ever had. If you like truffles. If you don’t like truffles, you would not enjoy this. I enjoy it.”
CC: Do you have any ingredients that you just don’t want to cook with?
“No, not really.”
CC: You like everything?
“Kind of. I mean, my wife’s Filipino. There’s this one item, it’s not an ingredient necessarily, it’s a fertilized duck egg. And they eat it. I never tasted it.”
CC: But it’s fertilized.
“It’s fertilized. And I have a couple of Filipino friends who work here too, and they were like, ‘balut, balut,’ and I’m like, “Don’t come near me with that.’
“To me, that’s a terrible injustice to do to something. At least let it come out of the shell, and then I’ll eat it. I’ll cook the duck. I’m not against eating duck. But eating something like that … that’s so inhumane.”
CC: But do you think that’s just your perception of it? Because, you know, people eat veal, and all those … babies.
“They do. We do.”
CC: That’s why they call it veal, so you don’t think about what it is.
“Yes. Look at—goat, right? You got to the Caribbean, goat is one of their staple proteins, right? They love goats. Americans hate goat. Can’t sell it here. But if you ever tasted a baby goat, you’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I like goat.’ [laughs]
“But once they get older, they’re gamey. Oh my god, it’s intense. And that’s why they put all that spice, and all kinds of flavoring to mask it. But they’re okay with it, they love it. But for me, it’s too strong.”
CC: Okay, that’s ingredients. Next: what’s your favorite kitchen tool?
“There’s a few things. You can’t work in a professional kitchen without a dry towel. If you think you’re going to pick up a hot pan that just came out of an oven with a wet towel, you’d better have some thick skin. It’s very important that your towels are kept dry, and that you have at least one really thick heavy-gauge towel.
“Spoons. Lots of spoons. You need a lot of spoons because you’re tasting. All the time. Because otherwise you’re sticking your fingers in everybody’s dishes and you don’t want to do that.”
“Okay so spoons, a dry towel—it sounds ridiculous, right? But these are things you can’t do without.
“Um … shoes. You have to have a really comfortable pair of shoes to stand on your feet for 12 hours a day. High arch supports, good for your back. Really important.”
From there we end up talking about the importance of a good clock, and timing your cooking even when it’s meat. That leads us to steak.
CC: A lot of people like their steak rare, but I don’t.
“Like my wife. My wife likes it well done.”
CC: I like medium well. And my salmon, I want it cooked all the way through. So chefs hate me.
“No. Not on salmon, so much. But on steaks, yes. We hate you when you order a well done steak. We don’t hate you for a well done salmon.”
CC: I assume people are spitting in my salmon.
“No no no no no. But on a steak, what’ll happen is, they’ll try to give you the shittiest cut they’ve got. They’re like, ‘for well dones, I’m going to give you the best. Obviously you know nothing about meat, so I’m going to give you the shittiest piece.’”
“But on salmon it doesn’t really work the same way because there are no real inferior cuts. Chicken too.”
CC: I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone how to cook chicken.
“I get a lot of requests from people who say they want the chicken well done. Or very well done.”
CC: I mean—I like it cooked a lot, but, I wouldn’t tell a restaurant that. There’s a point at which you don’t get to tell people how to cook things, when you go to a restaurant.
“Well, me I like it just on the edge of cooked.”
CC: And I like it a little dry, but I would never request that.
“Well a lot of people do. That’s why I think white meat is so much more popular than dark meat. I love dark meat, and most people like white meat. They love it. I eat chicken breast, I’m like, ‘That is some dry shit. It’s like cardboard. How do you eat this stuff?’
CC: And I’m like, “Mmm!”
“But if you give me a chicken thigh? It’s fatty, it’s juicy. It takes a long time to cook. And you can’t really overcook a chicken thigh. It’s beautiful.”
Interview by Laurie Ulster
Photos by Battman