Chef Tony Mantuano: “Do your best to stay balanced”

Do your best to stay balanced. When I was a young chef, I worked, worked, worked and worked some more, to the detriment of my well-being and my relationships. If you don’t have a semblance of balance between your work and home lives, you simply won’t perform at your best in either area. Traveling to the […]

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Do your best to stay balanced. When I was a young chef, I worked, worked, worked and worked some more, to the detriment of my well-being and my relationships. If you don’t have a semblance of balance between your work and home lives, you simply won’t perform at your best in either area.

Traveling to the source of the cuisine you’re cooking is really important. No one gave me this advice, and it was out of our own curiosity that Cathy and I took a leap of faith and got on a plane to Italy in the mid-80’s. That trip (and in countless trips in the years that have followed) opened up our world. It shaped our future.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred Chef Tony Mantuano, who represents an exceptional brand of Italian cuisine.

As Food & Beverage Partner with The Pizzuti Companies, Mantuano directs the food and beverage program at The Joseph, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Nashville alongside leading wine and hospitality expert Cathy Mantuano. Together, the husband-and-wife duo guide conceptual development, creative direction and design, menus, execution and the spirit of hospitality for Yolan, featuring refined Italian dining; Denim, a stunning rooftop lounge; Four Walls, an intimate cocktail bar; and the sophisticated property’s in-room dining and banquet offerings.

Midwest-born and raised, Mantuano first brought fine Italian cuisine to Chicago’s award-winning Spiaggia — one of the country’s most revered Italian restaurants — and has built a reputation of excellence for both himself and the restaurants he has opened in the decades since. A world-renowned chef with a passion for fostering raw talent, he and Cathy trained in Italy in the early 80s, when it was rare for Americans to stage overseas. They have returned almost every year, learning in various kitchens — from small family trattorie to three-star Michelin restaurants. These experiences culminate in restaurants that evoke la bella figura — an expression commonly used to describe the beautiful way of life in Italy — experiences that are genuine, gracious and rich with culture.

A decorated culinary icon, Mantuano has received 12 nominations from The James Beard Foundation, winning Best Chef Midwest in 2005. A loyal supporter of causes close to his heart, he was also honored by President Barack Obama for his culinary contributions to diplomacy.

Mantuano is often recognized for his participation on BRAVO’s “Top Chef Masters” and on several national broadcasts, as well as his appearances at prestigious culinary events and symposiums worldwide. Inspired by their love of Mediterranean cuisine and their travels worldwide, Tony and Cathy co-authored Wine Bar Food — allowing readers to create and share their favorite recipes with loved ones.

The Mantuanos live in Nashville and are proud to call the Music City home.

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?

Food has always been integral to my family. Growing up, my fondest memories are of our gatherings around the dinner table — which was filled to the brim with home-grown vegetables, freshly made pastas and perfectly roasted meats. The conversation, the laughter, the storytelling, the milestone anniversaries and birthdays — I associate all of these times with food. I knew from a young age that I wanted to replicate those feelings as often as I could, not just for my own family but for others, as well so building a career as a chef was a foregone conclusion. Everyone should experience that magic.

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?

Italian cuisine has been my career-long focus. I was drawn to this genre as a youngster in large part because of my family heritage, which is Italian. My earliest memories of food are extremely fond, especially when visiting my grandmother’s house. Every meal was special there. My grandfather grew everything at home, and my grandmother cooked it — “farm to table” in the truest sense of the concept. And as a boy, I learned quickly that cooking could be so simple, but delicious! The flavors shined through both because my grandmother stayed true to the ingredients and because of the emotion she put into making our food. She was cooking with love. You could tell she was happy, and my mom and my aunts — who often cooked alongside her, rolling out fresh pasta — were happy, too. When you’re surrounded by those good feelings, you don’t want to lose them. So in a way, my decision to pursue a career as a chef stemmed from those memories and a desire to foster those special moments for others.

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?

In 1983, my wife Cathy Mantuano — who has built her career around wine expertise — and I traveled to Italy to stage in various restaurants. It was a little practiced concept at the time, Americans traveling abroad to cook with foreign chefs. We were living in a small neighborhood just outside of Milan, and the first restaurant we staged in was comical. The chef and his wife lived upstairs from the dining room and were constantly at odds — we could audibly hear their raised voices, which were filled with Italian emotion, in the kitchen and in the dining room. That volatility spilled into the restaurant. The chef was temperamental and spastic — he would puree things in the Robot Coup, forget to place the lid atop and contents would splash all over the walls and the ceiling. And he’d actually use a spatula to scrape up the contents and put them back in the blender! The servers were untrained, almost always spilling trays of beverages and food on a nightly basis. Lots of yelling. It was a comedy of errors, and nothing changed. What’s worse is that everyone working there thought this was all completely normal!

To make matters worse, we were living in an apartment building about a half a mile away that tended to draw men and their mistresses. I’ll spare you the details.

Cathy and I were young — and we looked at each other wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. We came all this way for this mess? After a week, we knew we had to get the hell out of there. We left our first post and thankfully found another restaurant willing to take us. That restaurant was called Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio, Italy — just south of Mantua — and to this day remains one of the most inspirational restaurants of our careers. It is a three Michelin-starred destination with kind, talented owners who live and breathe genuine Italian hospitality. We had found our foundational training ground, and we’ve returned time and time again over the decades. The owners’ children now run Dal Pescatore. They and their parents, our mentors, are some of our most treasured friends.

The moral of the story? Despite the discouragement (and slight trauma) that came with our first stage, we weren’t ready to give up on our dream. We knew that somewhere, what we were looking for was out there, so we pressed on. And we found it.

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?

When I first moved to Chicago in 1981, I took a job cooking at a restaurant called Pronto. The executive chef and the maître d were gruff, tough Italian-Americans and to put it bluntly, they were terrible to me. They bullied me, tried to keep me from succeeding and in general, made coming to work every day highly unpleasant for a young chef.

I spoke with the owner of the restaurant about my concerns, and he encouraged me to keep my head down and just focus on my work. He said he saw something in me and didn’t want me to give up too easily. So I carried on, enduring some of the worst treatment I’d ever experienced. What killed me was that while the restaurant was busy, the executive chef was lousy — he took shortcut after shortcut with the food. He was robbing guests of a true Italian dining experience.

A few weeks later, the executive chef went on vacation, and the owner pulled me aside to tell me that he planned to fire the chef upon his return and wanted me to step in.

So I became the executive chef at Pronto. But I still had a problem with the maître d’, who despised me even more once his buddy was gone. Constantly trying to undermine my authority, spreading rumors, trying to get my cooks turn against me…the list was endless.

One evening during service, he came into the kitchen and started in. And I’d had it. In an almost out-of-body experience, I picked up my French knife, pointed it right at him, and said, “Get the fuck out of my kitchen, get the fuck out of this restaurant, and don’t ever show your face here again!”

We never saw him again.

In that instant, I learned that sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to do with bullies: You have to stand up to them. When you do, they will generally back down. And I was justified in telling him to leave — since accepting the chef role, I had been working harder than ever, bringing freshness, quality and authenticity to the menu, earning the respect of my colleagues and our guests. They respected me for eliminating his toxic energy and then followed my example of working hard and focusing on our guests.

Pronto was never busier.

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

For me, it’s always been about trying to replicate the cuisine of Italy without adding my own “spin.” Authentic Italian cuisine is what I’ve spent my life’s work producing — discovering heirloom recipes that speak to generations of history, culture, family and love. We don’t overcomplicate. We stay humble to the past and humble to our guests.

When people tell me that their food reminds them of Italy, it’s the highest compliment I could ask for.

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

A charcoal or wood grill, and beautiful piece of protein — I’m not picky; it could be beef or chicken or fish — and a vibrant salad made with farm-fresh ingredients. The perfect meal always involves a bottle or two of quality Italian red wine, and plenty of San Pellegrino. The perfect meal is as much about simplicity as it is about sharing it with the people you love.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I was a music major in college, and music inspires me daily. I find it exciting to hear kids in their 20’s today playing music in the style of Motor City and other genres that were popular when I was growing up. It’s amazing how people of all generations can gravitate towards the same classic sounds.

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

I am really pleased to be working with The Pizzuti Companies on their latest hotel, The Joseph, a new luxury hotel in Nashville that opened in August. After spending the majority of our careers in Chicago, Cathy and I joined the team as Food and Beverage partners, where we have opened Yolan, a refined Italian restaurant and Denim, a casual rooftop eatery. Soon, we’ll also reveal Four Walls, a speakeasy style cocktail lounge with innovative bar snacks.

We’re at a very significant time in the lifeline of a city. Nashville has long been famous for its honkytonk bars and fried hot chicken — and those are wonderful things. But there are many layers to Nashville. There are world travelers living here and people from major cities who now call Nashville home. They know the level of cuisine we’re producing, and they’ve been wanting something like this in their city. We see The Joseph and its restaurants as enhancing the image of Nashville in an exciting way. The culinary community had already been growing in that direction… we want to be a milestone on that timeline.

There isn’t a night that goes by that guests — many of whom are local — don’t tell us how much Nashville needed a place like The Joseph, needed a restaurant like Yolan. It’s a perfect coming together of so many things that makes this city exciting to us.

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

First, align yourself with a type of food or chef that you really admire.

The restaurant business is harder than ever, and if you choose to go that route in your career, make sure you work with someone who wants to help you grow in the right way. Don’t commit to a place where you’re required to work seven days per week; that’s a sign of an unhealthy environment and you will burn out. Spend time with your family and those with whom you have relationships. Take time off.

In the last few years, young chefs have also found that they can make a living without necessarily tying themselves to a restaurant. There are many ways to express your passion — whether through private chef opportunities, leading cooking classes, developing culinary products and more. It’s important to look at the whole picture and explore the diversity of the field. Eventually, you’ll discover what makes you happiest.

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. Do your best to stay balanced. When I was a young chef, I worked, worked, worked and worked some more, to the detriment of my well-being and my relationships. If you don’t have a semblance of balance between your work and home lives, you simply won’t perform at your best in either area.
  2. You don’t have to work with assholes, no matter how important they seem. Work with people you respect and who share your values. Don’t be afraid to respectfully walk away from those that don’t. It took me a long time to realize that. That said, how you leave your positions at every stage of your career is incredibly important. The restaurant industry is made up of a tight knit group. If a place isn’t right for you, don’t leave them in the lurch. Give proper notice. Your last two weeks of service will tell your current (and possibly future) employers everything they need to know about recommending or hiring you again.
  3. Traveling to the source of the cuisine you’re cooking is really important. No one gave me this advice, and it was out of our own curiosity that Cathy and I took a leap of faith and got on a plane to Italy in the mid-80’s. That trip (and in countless trips in the years that have followed) opened up our world. It shaped our future.
  4. Try to live close to where you work. At one time, my family and I moved about 40 miles away from Chicago, and the commute was brutal, it took everything out of me. When you’re already on your feet and you work somewhat unconventional hours, getting in car early in the morning or late at night is the last thing you’re going to want to do.
  5. At some point, someone you’re close to in the business is going to let you down. There will be great disappointment. You’ll be at a loss for words. Let yourself feel those feelings, but then move on quickly. There are always better days ahead.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

People must try the pastas at Yolan! All of our pastas are made in-house and are staples of Roman tradition. The Cacio e Pepe, the Bucatini All’Amatriciana and others — these are just a few examples that express the authenticity of Italian flavors. This isn’t “my take” on a Carbonara pasta — this is how it’s made in Rome.

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.

I would like to attract greater diversity in the culinary industry. It’s incredibly important that people of all backgrounds make up the dining experience. As an industry, we need to let others know that there is always an exciting chance to learn a new skill in the culinary arts. I care deeply about my team; I care who they are and am enriched by the opportunity to share in their stories. If I can successfully teach and mentor those eager to learn — until they’re ready to fly on their own — I will have done my job.

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