Take a basic accounting course so you can have an educated conversation with your bookkeeper. Know the difference between a debit and a credit, how to read a balance sheet.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Anthony Caturano, owner and chef of four Massachusetts restaurants — Prezza, Tonno Wakefield, Tonno Gloucester, and The Blue Ox — has been producing top-rated Italian meals for over 20 years. The talented chef and business owner grew up in Revere, Massachusetts and Danvers, Massachusetts, and draws from his rich Italian heritage and New England seafood to create simultaneously unique and comforting dishes. Chef Anthony Caturano’s passion for cooking and connecting to customers have made his restaurants in Boston, Wakefield, Gloucester, and Lynn well-regarded community favorites.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Growing up in an Italian family, food was a central part of our lives, so when I left home and went to college, I was horrified by the food. I would cook for my dorm-mates and after a year and a half I realized I wasn’t cut out for the accounting world. My dad was doing some accounting work for Todd English at Olives and got me a job as a prep cook. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I had to pursue the opportunity. I worked alongside some great chefs, they all went on to great opportunities in the cooking world. The camaraderie there was ruthless, passionate and fun. We would talk about food, restaurants, and what we were going to cook on our days off. From there I went to the CIA in NY, I moved to Miami for three years and worked in restaurants down there. The one take away from my first job at Olives was just appreciating how fresh and creative the food was, especially for that time. We made everything from scratch, we butchered everything, and everyone there was really passionate about the work.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I would not say I have a specific type of food, but I do like to research and learn different methods, which ultimately leads to some sort of crazy obsession. For example, this past year I got obsessed with making a really good venison sausage. I had never really made it before and a lot of the stuff I had gotten from other people was really bad. So, I set out to try and come up with some good ways to process the deer I harvest.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I think customer feuds provide the funniest stories. Usually, they know each other, and things escalate as the night goes on. We had one lady throw a plate of ravioli at the guy she was with. We had another guy that was so obnoxious and wouldn’t leave we told him we were going to call the police and coincidentally there were two undercover officers right there that were secretly checking us for liquor violations. They intervened and removed him. We have learned to not let it escalate and try to get to it early.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
We have been lucky at Prezza, we have been busy since we opened. But over the course of the 21 years that we have been open, we have gone through highs and lows. 9/11 happened a year after we opened and that was a scary time for the city. Luckily for us we had a dedicated and loyal local neighborhood crowd that kept us going. We had cultivated a feeling of a fun and safe place to be, and I think that paid off for us then and continues to do so this past year.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
I think the key to customer favorites is a lot of luck. We have some dishes that we just put on as a last minute special that made it to the menu and 20 years later they are still there.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal for me is mostly about who I am with, usually it includes some sort of adventure or travel to tie it together.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Creativity gets harder as you get older and open more restaurants. Your focus goes from “food” to “what the heck am I doing here.” Travel and going out to eat at other restaurants are always high on the inspiration list. I never really got into the gimmicky or trendy things, for instance I never put foam on a plate. But I think as my style has evolved over the years, I now tend to get inspired by the more classic dishes and the purity of those dishes. I also like to see what my Chefs are coming up with, for the most part I let them write their specials now and try to help guide it a little, so it stays on point with what we are trying to do at the restaurants. I find a lot of inspiration in that because I work with these Chefs every day.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Right now, I have no new projects, I am just working on rebuilding with the right people. There were a lot of people out of work for a while and that allowed us to pick up some great talent and hardworking people. I have really tried to take advantage of that. Hiring people smarter than me has worked well so far and knowing what people can do better than me and hiring them to do that is a good game plan as well. Just surrounding myself with the right people as we get back at it. I am really looking forward to the next evolution.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
I think to make it long term you cannot sweat the little stuff, you will burn out fast. You have to have discipline, you have to have a plan and high expectations, but when things don’t go right you have to leave it behind and move on. Things happen, how you deal with it will greatly affect your longevity. For me, trying to keep another passionate hobby to get your mind off the main one helps.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Don’t read your own press, good or bad. It inflates your ego or deflates your motivation.
2. Take a plumbing and HVAC repair course. It’s not that hard, and it could save a Saturday night. The air conditioner goes out at 4:00pm on a Saturday night more often than you think. It never goes out on a Monday night.
3. Take a basic accounting course so you can have an educated conversation with your bookkeeper. Know the difference between a debit and a credit, how to read a balance sheet.
4. Learn how to park a car in a chef’s coat. You never know when the valet is not going to come back, especially on a Saturday night. They never walk out in the middle of a Tuesday
5. Learn to code, you don’t know when the next pandemic will hit.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
It’s tough to pick one so here are three — people go crazy over the Pork Chop, the Crispy Shrimp has been on the menu from the beginning, and I eat the Grilled Squid and Octopus once or twice a week.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Weirdly enough this has nothing to do with food — I’m not an outspoken political guy, at all. But I spend a lot of time outdoors. I would like to ban dog waste bags or find a biodegradable alternative. I saw a man thrown one in the woods the other day and there is nothing worse than seeing them along a trail. Something that is supposed to help eliminate waste is creating greater waste instead. So, I’d like to see someone find an alternative or solution, and maybe this will spark someone else’s interest in the issue.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!