I’m so saddened by the fact that no one has dinners as a family anymore. Most of my friends, their kids are in 10 different sports, and no one comes together for dinner anymore, and I think that it has contributed to the breakdown of the family system. I would love to put a movement together with the idea of sitting and eating together as a family, even if it’s just once or twice a week. I know it sounds basic, but it’s very rare to find a family that does that anymore and I try to continue to do it with my own family. The advantages of sitting down as a family, speaking and gathering around a meal is really so important.
I had the pleasure to interview Donatella Arpaia. Donatella is the trailblazing attorney-turned-culinary mogul who has become one of the most influential women in the world of food. Donatella opened her first restaurant, Bellini, in 1998 and then subsequently opened a string of successful and highly acclaimed restaurants in New York City, including the newly re-opened Mia Dona, Anthos, Kefi — as well EOS and bistro e, in Miami. She opened her ninth restaurant, Donatella, and her first bar, Dbar, in 2010. Zagat crowned Donatella as “The Hostess with the Mostest,” Crain’s named her one of its “40 under 40” and the New York Post named Donatella one of the “Most Powerful Women” in Manhattan. Recently, Donatella became a recurring guest judge on the Food Network programs Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef. Her first cookbook, Donatella Cooks: Simple Food Made Glamorous, was released April 13, 2010.
Thank you so much Donatella for joining us. It’s really a delight to have you. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a chef and restaurant owner?
Donatella: I took a little bit of a circuitous route toward this process, but I was born into a restaurant family. Both my parents were born in Italy. I was definitely surrounded by a food family from the beginning. My mother still has her farm in a pool yard where we press our own olive oil, so I spent every summer growing up in Italy. My father came to this country when he was 19 as a busboy and has worked his way up to become a very prominent Restaurateur.
His first restaurant he opened was the year when I was born. So you know, when they say you grew up in the business, I mean I literally grew up in the business. My crib was next to the dishwashing station. My backyard was my dad’s restaurant and people always say the restaurant businesses is not a job, it’s a way of life and it gets in your blood. Well, it definitely got in my blood. Food for our family is an art form, it’s not treated as something you just have to get on the table.
I was always surrounded by food and my father wanted me to become a lawyer. He did not want me to go into the food business because he knew how difficult it was. I became an attorney and about four months later I quit and opened my first restaurant. I was 26 and I knew that that’s where my passion was, but, you know, the law was a very good business background for me. After my first restaurant, Bellini, I then opened davidburke & donatella, which was a massive success for me at a very young age. I decided that I wanted to master the culinary side, and so I went to culinary school. At the time, to be frank, I didn’t want to be completely beholding to a chef. So I wanted to master that aspect of it as well. I kind of did things in reverse but, it works for me.
Yitzi: Can you describe briefly, your journey from when you first stepped foot into a kitchen, until where you are now?
Donatella: I didn’t have the traditional route. I didn’t start by peeling onions and potatoes and working my way up in the kitchen. I didn’t because I started as an owner of three restaurants and then I went to culinary school really to master the basics and the art form. I knew I really never wanted to be a chef working behind the line, but I wanted to have the ability to create my own maze and execute. I’ve been in the kitchen from a young age ever since I was a child. My first memory in the kitchen was at my dad’s first restaurant. Our house was right next door to it, so that literally was my backyard, hanging out with the chefs in the kitchen. My memory of childhood was growing up in these kitchens being surrounded by so many talented people along the way. When I finally graduated from culinary school, I spent a lot more time in my kitchen, working in my own restaurants and perfecting recipes. I worked with people directly, which allowed me to better and assess talent better. So that was really, really important because that’s always a challenge with restaurateurs and chefs in general.
Yitzi: Donatella, do you have a specialty? And if you do, can you explain to us what drew you to that type of food?
Donatella: I’m Italian, Italian, Italian. I’m a 100% Italian. I spent my summers every year growing up in Italy. I have memories of the first time I had Neapolitan pizza, which inspired me to open a Neapolitan pizza restaurant at one point. I opened a Napoleon themed restaurant, so my specialty is definitely southern Italian food, but I really love to master now all aspects of the regions of Italy. I find it very fascinating. They’re very regionally based and very different. So I kind of think of it as Sicilian, Neapolitan, tough skin. They all have their very different styles. I always go back to Italian. It’s my heritage, it’s my blood. So that’s kind of a no brainer for me.
Yitzi: So, Donatella, how do you define success?
Donatella: You know, when I just started in the business, I wanted to make a name for myself and I had a lot to prove. I really wanted to be successful and I was one of the very few females. As you get older your definition of success changes. I love to continue to master my craft and do good work alongside people and partnerships that are very important to me, where I feel good about going to work every day. I just feel blessed that I get to do what I love every day in a business that allowed me to expand into different areas, not only in restaurants but through media and social media. I get to connect with a lot of people. In my opinion, success is just loving what you do every day and I’m very lucky. I worked for someone for three months once, as an attorney, and I’ve been my own boss ever since. I’m very happy that I get to do what I get to do every day and to continue to grow in this business as it keeps changing. It’s never the same, which I love.
Yitzi: Have you had any failures along the way? And how did they turn into a success?
Donatella: There’s been so many, but I don’t know if you want to call them failures, I guess it depends on how you define it. But sure, bad partnerships, restaurants that you put so much time, energy and love into and it just failed for reasons out of your control. I have learned from all of them and the most important thing is I started to master the things that I didn’t or wasn’t interested in like numbers. Now I really am interested in the restaurant business. I’ve really studied the business side. I looked closely at all the numbers, I found all my checks, I learned. I really do a lot of research in terms of selecting my partnerships because it’s so important.
All those were lessons for me and thankfully now, hopefully, I’ve learned all my lessons and I have good partnerships and things are going really well. I remember Bobby Flay once told me, sometimes it’s more important what you say no to than what you say yes to, because you go through periods where you’re in the media a lot and everyone wants a piece of you. I’m much more focused and deliberate with my choices and at times I think I spread myself too thin and I don’t do that anymore.
Yitzi: So are you working on any exciting projects today?
Donatella: Prova Pizzabar is my first upscale, quick casual concept that I launched in Grand Central, a little over a year and a half ago. We are definitely planning on expanding. We have a second location in the works that is being built as we speak. I’m actively looking to expand, hopefully across the country eventually. I’ve just become a brand ambassador for Galbani Cheese, which I’m very excited about, because Galbani is the number-one cheese of Italy and it’s the cheese that I grew up with as a child. Coincidentally, when I was doing a blind tasting for selecting my cheese at Prova Pizzabar, I chose Galbani not knowing. So it happened in a very organic way, for which I am very proud of now. I’m going to be working with them, creating recipes and hopefully visiting their factory in Italy. I’ve already visited a factory in Buffalo, New York. I’m excited about Prova Pizzabar expanding, working with Galbani and continuing on growing my social media presence.
Yitzi: Do you have any advice for young people that they look at you and they want to emulate your career. Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
Donatella: With the influence of social media, a lot of young kids now think they want to bypass the hard work and just become famous. You have to stay humble and work hard. There’s a lot to learn from everyone and it’s amazing. Sometimes I meet these young chefs that feel they’ve learned everything and then I’ll talk to some chefs that are my friends, like Éric Ripert or Geoffrey Zakarian, and we all feel we constantly have something to learn. I think that aspiring chefs need to remember that it’s a lot of hard work, but if you really master the technique, stay humble, don’t believe the hype and you stay focused, you can do really well. Gotta love what you do, though. It’s not easy, not an easy business.
Yitzi: So for the people, who want to try this at home, can you share a key to creating a perfect dish? Can you share an inside secret?
Donatella: The secret to a perfect dish? It goes back to the technique all the time, whether it’s roasting a piece of meat or following a recipe, there is technique behind it. Why does my spaghetti with tomato sauce tastes so much better than a friend of mine’s? There’s little details of mastering techniques, so I would say ingredients first time really, get the best ingredients possible, especially if you’re not a trained chef. Ingredients are so important. Look for the best ingredients possible, which is harder and harder to do today. I feel like nothing tastes the way it should be anymore. It has been engineered so much. Also, shop in season. Keep it simple and try and learn a couple of techniques. Google is a great tool. Simply research the tips and techniques for roasting the perfect chicken and try to follow along. Don’t forget to use fresh herbs, salt and pepper, as well. People tend to under salt and over salt. It’s an important detail.
Yitzi: It is common knowledge that food brings people together. In your experience, what does that say to you ?
Donatella: For me, one of my biggest memories from childhood was surrounded by food and family and that’s what drove me to quit the law and to go into business because I really love to feed people. I’m happy cooking for friends and family. I’m really happy doing that and I think it’s a lost art form today. People nowadays either order in or eat out and no one cooks together anymore, and there’s something very, very special about sharing a meal. I think it’s so significant and more important than ever today because I feel like we’re so technology driven. There is the smallest art form of just slowing down, stopping to cook and sitting down with family and friends to enjoy a meal, without watching TV or checking your phone. I grew up with that culture and I think that I’m blessed to have it because it’s very special.
Yitzi: Are there 5 things that you wish somebody told you before you started? Before you started being a chef.
Donatella: You really want to constantly practice to master your craft and technique. Once you master your techniques, then you can form your own identity. What is your personal brand on the food? You don’t want to be a copycat. As a chef in a kitchen, you want to maintain familiarity because you’re working together and you have to be aware of people that are jealous and have egos. You have to maintain a level of respect and trust in the kitchen. It is so important.
The great chefs that we know of today have paid their dues and are hard working. Mastering your craft never stops. I’ve had the advantage of being the head judge on Iron Chef America where I’ve tasted dishes from top chefs, in over 70 episodes, and whom I’ve seen grow through the years. You have to just constantly love what you do and continue to master your craft, and not to fall behind. It’s a very competitive landscape.
Yitzi: Last question. So Donatella, you are a person of great influence. You can inspire a movement, that’ll bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. What would that be? Because you never know what you’re idea can trigger.
Donatella: I’m going to go back to the idea of bringing people together. I’m so saddened by the fact that no one has dinners as a family anymore. Most of my friends, their kids are in 10 different sports, and no one comes together for dinner anymore, and I think that it has contributed to the breakdown of the family system. I would love to put a movement together with the idea of sitting and eating together as a family, even if it’s just once or twice a week. I know it sounds basic, but it’s very rare to find a family that does that anymore and I try to continue to do it with my own family. The advantages of sitting down as a family, speaking and gathering around a meal is really so important.
Originally published at medium.com