Chef François Kwaku-Dongo: “Don’t go into it for glamour”

This business is hard work. Don’t go into it for glamour. It is about making good food and making people happy. Be flexible. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing François Kwaku-Dongo, a nationally-recognized executive chef known for creating innovative menus with multi-cultural influences. He has a record of outstanding financial management, consistently earning profits […]

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This business is hard work. Don’t go into it for glamour. It is about making good food and making people happy. Be flexible.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing François Kwaku-Dongo, a nationally-recognized executive chef known for creating innovative menus with multi-cultural influences. He has a record of outstanding financial management, consistently earning profits at each of his high profile restaurants. A protégé of Wolfgang Puck, he was selected to launch Spago in Chicago, and he was Executive Chef at l’escale in Greenwich, Connecticut from 2005 to 2010. He also worked at The Jhouse in Greenwich and the Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan. Frequently quoted in the press, his media experience includes Iron Chef America. He has been invited to cook for the James Beard Foundation four times. Forbes Magazine named him one of ten up-and-coming celebrity chefs.

As Executive Chef at l’escale, François more than doubled revenues to over 8 million dollars. Directing a kitchen staff of 25, he creates seasonally-changing menus for a 7,000 square foot restaurant with an outdoor terrace and a spacious piano bar. The menu celebrates Provençe, with impeccably fresh seafood and specialties ranging from silky house-cured salmon, foie gras, tartare de thon frais, and bouillabaise in saffron anise broth. New York Times restaurant critic Patricia Brooks awarded l’escale Excellent, its highest rating.

Born in the Ivory Coast, François arrived in New York at age 24 and delivered pizzas for Famous Ray’s. During a dish washing job at Italian restaurant Alo Alo, he was noticed by Venetian-born chef Francesco Antonucci, who took François to the glamorous Remi restaurant. François worked the salad station, while Antonucci trained him to craft pastas. He rose to sous-chef.

Wolfgang Puck offered him a job at his celebrity-studded restaurant in Los Angeles, Chinois on Main. He became sous chef to Makoto Tanaka at Spago West Hollywood, where François learned to make a delicate pizza crust and added Japanese influences to his culinary repertoire of classical French and West African. Promoted to Executive Chef for six years, he was voted one of the best upcoming young chefs in Los Angeles. In the Los Angeles Times, Food critic Ruth Reichl credited François with introducing artisan pastas, making it a fixture in California cuisine.

Puck chose François to open Spago in Chicago as Executive Chef and Partner, but first he went to France for an eight-week culinary exchange to refine his craft with the finest French chefs. He opened Spago on-time and on-budget. A few months after it opened The Chicago Tribune wrote: “Superior cooking lurks in every corner of the menu.” Multi-lingual, François instructed his staff in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and English. He expanded Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events for The Academy Awards, The Museum of Contemporary Art and leading corporations.

François has generated media buzz by attracting celebrities to multiple restaurants, including Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, King of Morocco, Madonna, Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Leonardo Di Caprio. He has cooked private meals for notable newsmakers including Hillary Rodham Clinton, and in the homes of John A. Morgan of J.P. Morgan and Betsy Bloomingdale.

François works with inner-city youth and Meals on Wheels, The Ronald Mcdonald Foundation, and The Rita Hayworth Alzheimer’s Association. He was a James Beard Award Nominee in 2008, the subject of a full-length feature in Gourmet, and been frequently quoted in the press including The New York Times, Nation’s Restaurant News and Wine Spectator.

François lives with his wife and two children in Connecticut. Sometimes he calls his sister in Abidjan to consult on recipes.

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?

I felt into cooking while studying English with the hope of becoming a translator at the United Nations. Language was my passion then.

I got a job at an Italian Restaurant Alo Alo in Manhattan. Francesco Antonucci was a young 32 years old chef from Venice, Italy and he ran a very tight kitchen. I was hired as the night cleaner/dishwasher responsible for the cleaning of the kitchen and the dining room after service. It was a brand new restaurant everything had to be spotless the next day for service. Later, Francesco hired me to work at his second restaurant, Remi. During that time, I came in contact with 3 young sous chefs; Giovanny, Fabrizio and Fabio, respectfully from Modena, Bergamo and Milan, Italy. They were sixteen and eighteen years old, and were working 18 hours/shift and still burning with passion at the end of each service. They were comparing sauces from each region of Italy, sharing tricks they learnt from their “nonnas” and their mothers. During those exchanges, they taught me how to make the sauces, how to cook al dente pasta and risottos all in between my dishwashing job — -this was multitasking at its best.

A year in that kitchen, I was speaking English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese. I was hooked. So much passion in that kitchen and these young cooks were making the customers so happy with the food. I decided right then that this is the career I wanted. Francesco was the first chef that influenced me to explore this new career so he encouraged me to train at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant in California. I arrived in Los Angeles armed with my pasta credentials and worked for Spago as a pasta cook, then sous chef and within two years, I became the Executive Chef of the most famous restaurant in America.

Wolfgang Puck Spago was the Mecca of restaurants; we baked bread on premise, smoked our own salmon, made sausages and lamb pastrami, created homemade ice creams and pastries. The best of all, Spago had a special farmer to grow our own seasonal vegetables-The Chino Farm in Ranch of Santa Fe. Beside food, Spago kitchen was an open kitchen into the dining room, so I learned and participated in the art of service. Spago also was where I did the Academy Award Gala event for seventeen years, learning logistic and financial projections of major catering events. Directing about 20 executive chefs from all over the country who came to assist. Wolfgang Puck was the second chef who guided me to cook food with ingredients that I knew nothing about but also helped me turn profit with each restaurant we opened during the seventeen years I spent with the Spago Family.

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?

No, I like everything-clean cooking, if I have to choose, Mediterranean food is my favorite.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ask my kids, too many to count. However, I told them and myself that “For Any Occasion, I Will Show Up and I will Always Be Ready.

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?

Francesco Antonucci in the beginning did not want any non-Italian to get near the prepared food. So on his only day off (which was every Sunday) his sous chefs would let me in the kitchen to prep and cook with them.

One evening, at Remi, Fabio, one of his cooks fell ill. There was a famous person in the dining room who wanted a simple pasta. I volunteered to make my favorite (Spaghetti, Olive Oil, Garlic, Chili Flakes and Parsley). Trying to impress Francesco and the guest. The guest loved it so much that he asked to meet the chef who made the pasta. Francesco was in a bind and reliantly took me to the dining. I freaked out, I had just made pasta for one of the most famous Jazz musician alive at the time: Miles Davis. Miles looked at me and looked at Francesco and said: this guy is not Italian. Francesco responded that I was Italian but from Sicily…Knowing that Sicily was close to Africa, I could pass for an Italian. From that day I officially became an Italian from Sicily with African roots.

After this funny encounter, Francesco changed his mind about foreigner cooking Italian food. I also learned to have confidence in myself to prove to Francesco that I can cook pasta better than any Italian.

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?

I spoke French all my life and when I came to the US, I had to learn English. However, Learning English in the restaurant industry was a challenge. Not only to communicate with your co-worker but learning and remembering the ingredients, unit of measures, weights for recipes. Also, the restaurant employed French, Spanish, Portuguese workers. Fortunately, language was a passion so I started to speak to each employee in their own languages and they were kind enough to correct each time. Within six months I was fluent in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Fresh Ingredients and making a dish with at least three ingredients.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Food is regional. A perfect meal depends where I am most. My perfect meal would include whole grilled fish, condiments can be regional.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Jovial true farm to table concept with emphasis on well balanced nourishment.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

Focus on the customers. Be passionate. Don’t look for fame.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

Outdoor dining, special events, grocery lists for customers, gourmet meals to go with step-by step instructions, Zoom cooking lessons.

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.

This business is hard work. Don’t go into it for glamour. It is about making good food and making people happy. Be flexible.

In Madison Connecticut, due to a hurricane, I had to cater a big wedding from a garage. The kitchen was out of commission. My goal was to make bribe happy and make it memorable for all who attended the special day. This reception represented optimism after the devastating hurricane. The mother of the bride became a friend for life. That is what being a chef is for me. Make good food, and make the customer happy.

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.

Be kind and considerate. We all have value. Encourage everyone to do their best.

How can our readers further follow you online?


Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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