Interview and photos by Allyshia Hamilton
AH-What was your first job in food?
AH-Did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
RO-There were two: One is when I moved to Boston, I had a band and was playing my underground, groove-funk music in the early 80’s and a friend of mine mentioned that a friend had a job for a waiter at a place called Harvest. I had been working in food and playing music for a while and backing myself up. They had a daily menu and they bought from local farms and it was a very cool place. And that was when I realized that you could be in the food industry and not be a just a slump. The second came when we had our second kid, I was living in Queens in 1988. I was still playing in the band, still working managing restaurants in the city but we moved to Albany to get out of the city. I was looking for jobs but I wanted to keep playing music and somebody offered me a chef job. I had never had a chef job…I’d been a cook, I’d managed restaurants, but I never said I’d be the guy in charge off the kitchen. Somebody had lost their chef and offered me the job and I took it. I was about 28 years old. I took the job and I was like, ‘Uh, oh…Aha. I like this.’ I like the sense of autonomy. I fronted bands so being a chef to me is like fronting a band, I talk to my drummer, bass player, my pastry chef…it’s like engineering and mixing; it’s very similar.
AH-What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
RO-Hard call…I don’t even know what’s strange anymore. I mean, grasshoppers aren’t even really strange to me anymore
AH-Can you tell me what prompted your ‘Clean Eating Initiative?
RO-It comes from me being a person who buys food for two restaurants (Orlando owns New World Cateringand
and manages New World Bistro Bar in upstate NY) that has seen this downward evolution of quality of products that restaurants are being offered in the name of cutting labor costs. And by the late 90s, it began to really alarm me, what these sales people were bringing me. I’m like, ‘I don’t want this stuff.’ It got to the point where at the beginning it was novelty items and by 2002-2003, it was 70% of the catalog. It was made somewhere else, processed somewhere else…I mean, it’s so bad we have this big egg thing w/all this bird flu and no one wants to say, ‘Oh, yeah – we started shipping our chickens to China to be processed,’ and suddenly we have bird flu – again. Somebody’s gotta speak up. As for clean eating, nobody’s a saint. My family goes to the diner every once in a while, but we normally cook fresh and we but local as much as we can, make sustainability choices as much as we can. When you out on the road, you buy that Krispy Kreme donut, but you try not to make a habit of it. You do your best.
AH-Tell us a funny story from the kitchen (video).
RO-So, growing up Italian in New Haven – and New Haven is the pizza capital of the world basically – and the world “pizza” in the Calabria starts with an “a” (apizza) so it’s “Ah-beets! Ah-beets!” I think I was in the second grade and there was a kid who was having a pizza party and I said to my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to Walter’s pizza party! I don’t think I like pizza!’ She said, ‘What?! You eat pizza all the time!’ I didn’t realize ‘ah-beetz’ and ‘pizza’ are the same thing.
AH-What was the hardest food to make?
RO-Baking is always hard because you gotta get it right. But you know what? I can do anything! Most intricate might be delicate presentation because I’m a guitar player and my handwriting is like a hammer and chisel so I always make sure that I hire people that have delicate presentation nuances so that I could design a flavor profile to say, “I want it to look like this…” Umm, I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m going with this s— right now (big laugh). Lately I’ve been making charcuterie because you can screw it up and loose it. It’s not my favorite thing in the world but it’s very trendy. But I mean like, people’s great-grandma is making that stuff, like people that don’t even speak English. It’s like charcuterie, bread, rice…Those are things that culinary students are going to school to learn and it’s like, you can go to any village or any peasant town in the world and people are making this stuff. The simple things are the hardest.
AH-Do you have any plans to expand your business?
RO-We’re in a period right now that by the springtime we’re gonna start pondering again. Our youngest kid is out now so we have the empty house now-me and my wife. We had an opportunity to go into the city in the early 2000’s but I had teenagers and my son was, like, nine and I said to my wife, ‘If we do this, you’re not gonna see me!’ And I chose not to. I decided to stay and raise my kids and be normal – a normal 80 hour week guy!