For much of the past decade, John DeLucie has been New York City’s most sought-after chef. As founding chef and partner of The Waverly Inn, DeLucie and his take on classic American cuisine attracted both the celebrity crowd and serious food fans, who were wowed by his original and eye-opening offerings. The Lion, Crown, Bills Food and Drink and now Bedford & Co has solidified his stature as both a serious chef and restaurateur that has New Yorkers clambering for a reservation.
The Lion has been called “eye-catching” (W Magazine), “the latest addition to the power pantheon” (Time Out New York), and “the edge of the volcano” (Gael Greene) that “has the media, fashion and pretty folks out in force” (Women’s Wear Daily). But it’s not the celebrity clientele that demands the most attention. In the end, it all comes down to John’s simple cooking—a passion that was instilled in him as a little boy.
DeLucie’s Italian grandfather owned a fruit and vegetable market, and would bring home a bounty of fresh produce for his grandmother to turn into meals showcasing fresh seasonal flavors. Those early taste lessons left a lasting impression: Although John tried his hand at a few 9-to-5 jobs after graduating from NYU, he eventually gave in to his natural culinary curiosity, first taking courses at New York’s New School for Culinary Arts, and then getting his first food job, chopping 40-pound bags of onions in the back room of Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street. After a tour of Europe’s great cuisine centers—France and Italy, DeLucie began to sculpt his own cooking style, fusing modern and European cooking techniques. Upon returning to the States, John landed a job in the kitchen of the groundbreaking Southwestern eatery, Arizona 206 which received 3 stars from the New York Times. In 1996, he took over as Chef de Cuisine at the venerable seafood restaurant Oceana under the tutelage of Chef Rick Moonan. Today, DeLucie’s style remains as distinctively simple as it is universally praised. – Source
Interview and Photos by Avery Whyte
The Chef’s Connection: Did you go to culinary school? If so, where?
John DeLucie: New York’s New School for Culinary Arts
TCC: What restaurants have you worked at?
JDL: The Waverly Inn, The Lion, Bills, Crown, Bedford & Co, The Empire Diner
TCC: What was your first job in food?
JDL: My first job in food was as a prep cook at Dean and Dulce, a really fancy food store on Broadway and Prince. It was my first foray into the food world. I was 29. I was working in prepared food, I was working with these really interesting, insane characters that were working there. Ex-cons, marginalized people.
TCC: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JDL: I wanted to be in rock and roll. In high school I was in band, chorus, orchestra, I played guitar. I wanted to be Jimmy Page. I have a whole studio at my house, I sample and I write. I spend a lot of hours doing a lot of nothing.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing about being a chef?
JDL: My favorite thing about being a chef is that everyday is a brand new set of challenges. No matter how horrible today can go, and all the shit that can go wrong, and a lot can go wrong, it all starts again tomorrow.
TCC: What are your coping skills for stress?
JDL: I meditate; I read a lot of books on Buddhism. I try to meditate 15 or 20 minutes everyday. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I did a long weekend silent meditation in Tarrytown, New York. It was a three-day silent retreat. You wanna kill yourself. It feels good having done it but it’s completely excruciating. You wanna jump out the window. But I think that’s the point of it, to not jump out the window. Most people cannot shut up for 5 seconds, try it for three days, it gets interesting. Finally you reach a point where you’re like, ‘ok, shut up, calm down, it’s a few more days,’ and you get through it. The more you do it the easier it gets, but there are still days when I can’t do it for one minute. It’s definitely made me less reactive.
TCC: What’s an example of problems that arise?
JDL: Cooks don’t show up, food comes in wrong, ovens break, people cut themselves. There’s not a day that goes by that there’s not some calamity between the places. There’s so much you can do, you try to do everything you can do, and that’s it.
TCC: What is the best advice you ever got?
JDL: I’ve had a lot of good advice over the years. My teacher at New School for Culinary Arts pulled me aside and she said ‘look, you’ve probably gotten away with murder in your life. If you bat your big brown eyelashes and think you’re gonna get somewhere in this world you’re wrong, my friend.’
TCC: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
JDL: I don’t eat that much strange stuff, it’s not my thing but I did eat live squid.
TCC: What’s your favorite ingredient?
JDL: Garlic. I like garlic a lot. I like garlic and watercress a lot.
TCC: What ingredient turns you off the most?
JDL: Kale. I’m sick of kale. Sick of it, sick of it, sick of it. I don’t wanna look at it, I don’t wanna eat it, I don’t wanna talk about it, I don’t wanna say the words.
TCC: What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen?
JDL: My microplain.
TCC: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking?
JDL: I like to play on my guitar, I like making music, I like sampling. I do all that stuff my house, to my wife’s chagrin. I like to go and eat. I do it a lot. I like to go out and have a nice meal and talk and I like live music, Jazz, and taking rides on my Vespa.
TCC: Tell us a deep dark secret (doesn’t have to be food related).
JDL: I cry at sappy commercials. I do. I hide it from my wife. If there’s a horse in a Budweiser commercial I’m toast.
TCC: Tell us a funny story from the kitchen.
JDL: One day, years ago, I’m expediting at a very busy place, hundreds and hundreds of covers. I’m calling orders to the grill and there’s a strange voice that I don’t recognize calling the orders back. I look over and there’s a guy on the grill that I don’t recognize. And I ask him, “what are you doing, who are you?” He said, ‘I’m Jose.’ I said, “where’s Enrico?’ He said, ‘Enrico’s my brother, he went back to Mexico, I took his job now.’ He worked the whole station without missing a beat.
TCC: Who would you like to meet?
JDL: Jimi Hendrix. I loved his cadence, the way he spoke. Intelligent and thoughtful. I’d like to meet and cook for him.
TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn? Or is there something you just can’t get right?
JDL: Haha, so many thinks I can’t get right. Patience. Even with all the meditation and the books I’m very impatient. I’d like to slow down, slow my mind down.
TCC: Is there some little something you do for your family to make up for the time you’re not with them?
JDL: I wish I could do more. I’m very guilty about the time I don’t spend with my family.
TCC: How did becoming a chef change your life? Your direction.
JDL: Being a chef is not a job or career, it’s really a lifestyle. When you become a chef you’re there at night, you’re there in the morning. You’re there all the time. You’re there on weekends, holidays, birthdays, communions, and weddings. You miss out on so much. It’s a huge sacrifice. So it does change your life. So you deal with all the guilt, all the stuff you don’t get to experience. But would I trade it in? No I probably wouldn’t. The gratification of this business is like no other.
TCC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
JDL: It’s been a long career, 25 years. Robert De Niro put me in a headlock once. I thought ‘this is great.’
TCC: Please give us a cooking tip that people might not know like “adding a little bit of oil to butter so it doesn’t burn.”
JDL: People who cook at home never season enough. So if you’re making soup at home, put in a tablespoon of kosher salt at the very beginning. It draws out albumin in bones and it will make your soup richer and taste better. And for god’s sakes use salt and pepper.