Chef Carlo Middione Interview

He's a former Upstate New Yorker who's made quite a name for himself in the world of cooking.

Carlo Middione is the chef and owner of the popular San Francisco restaurant Vivande Porta Via, and considered an authority on authentic Italian cuisine.

Chef Middione stars in his own t.v. series called Carlo Cooks Italian shown exclusively on The Learning Channel. The show is based on Chef Middione's award winning cookbook, The Food of Southern Italy (William Morrow Books).

Described as a virtual walking encyclopedia when it comes to Italian cooking, we decided to talk to Chef Middione about his life and work and you may be surprised at some of his answers to our questions.

Q - Mr. Middione you are regarded as an authority on authentic Italian cuisine. How do you get to be an authority on such a thing? Is it your past experience, your past training?
A - Its past training, experience, and also the fact that I come directly from roots that were in the food distribution business and restauranting in Sicily, Italy. I just grew up a part of it. I think when you grow up with something and have learned it besides the experience of just doing it; you get to know what you're doing. Also, it's my hobby as well as my job, so that means I get a double shot at it.

Q - You were born in Buffalo, N.Y.
A - I was.

Q - Your parents packed up and moved to Glendale, California. How come?
A - That's pretty simple. Being Sicilians, even in the dead of winter in Sicily which would be December and January you could probably walk along the seashore. You could probably walk along in your shorts and eat oranges, and have very fresh green things to eat and some terrific fish. So, when you go to Buffalo, and I don't know why so many immigrants have ended up in Buffalo, including Polish immigrants. It seems to be 'the' place. You know those winters were pretty severe, and the biggest problem is there was no space to grow anything, nor any real season to have the kind of food one would want all year around. You could grow lots of really good things in the summer. I picked up the strawberries from upstate New York, around Buffalo, and they're better than what we got here in California even in the peak of the season. There's something about them that seems sweeter and more of what I think a strawberry should be. When you have winters that can easily last into Easter, (laughs), that's the draw.

Q - Since you were the youngest of 13 children, did any of your brothers or sisters enter the restaurant business?
A - Well, they all had to work in it. When we had our restaurant in Glendale, I don't think there was a family member who wasn't pushed into service, but I was the one that sort of stuck with it, 'cause I was more or less made to do that. I came from an era of not only coming from an immigrant family, but one that's highly disciplined. My father made all the decisions about who was going to do what. My mother wanted me to be a priest. I just think I was too dumb and not so motivated. So, my father said then you're going to be a cook. So, that took care of that.

Q - Before you opened your own restaurant, you were in a public service position?
A - Yes. When I was 20 or 21, 1 had just had enough of the rough, hard life of being in the restaurant business with so many family responsibilities. I was the youngest, and it didn't matter whether you were the youngest or the oldest, you worked hard. So, I wanted to get away from the restaurant, and I did. Eventually I ended up in what you might call public service. I worked for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. I liked that, but I always had my finger in the pie so to speak. I never totally lost it. It would be very hard to completely shake loose from such an intensive, long-drawn experience, as cooking.

Q - The pull was so great, that you left the redevelopment agency?
A - Yeah and I don't know whether that was the most wonderful decision, but, it's one that was made, and I've enjoyed most of it. It's very hard work, but, I've liked it.

Q - You apprenticed in your father's restaurant for eleven years.
A - Yes.

Q - You say that system is still respected in Europe, but not the U.S.
A - Yes.

Q - A degree from a culinary institute is respected more in this country.
A - Yes.

Q - You say a degree does not prove that someone has learned or cared to learn anything. So, if someone walks into your restaurant looking for a cooking position you would have that person cook something for you?
A - Yes. I would ask them to appear dressed up for work, the way they think they should look and come equipped with what they think they should have. I'd look at them and that tells you a lot right off the bat. If someone is wearing sneakers and a baseball cap, you know it could be a genius or it could be a real good hot dog cook. Also, it tells you something about tradition. If they are not traditionalists, they're not going to dress up like what I think industry standards sort of dictate. It sort of gives you an insight into their personality. It could be a maverick. Now, that's not bad, but, it may not be what I want. If you had a classical symphonic orchestra, you might not want a violinist who really wants to be a rock star, and as a result doesn't wear the tuxedo and doesn't really care to listen to the conductor. So, that would be the one thing I would do visually. I would also do some basics. For instance a bell pepper is a good indication of how much waste you allow in your own technique of cooking. I don't believe in waste. You've paid for everything; you might as well use it. Along that same line, I don't really care to cook for people that only want the choicest part of anything and the rest of it must be discarded. I don't think that's a valid way to cook. I wouldn't want customers like that. So, I would give them a test on that. I would also ask them to squeeze some lemon juice or orange juice for me, and cut an eggplant. I would see if they would go over to the sink and carefully wash what they were about to cut, first. I don't want you to slice my tomato straight out of the box. I don't know where it's been. So, this tells me a lot of stuff. Even in culinary schools, they don't teach you a lot of that. Now, I have a lot of good cooks that work for me that have never been to culinary school. The ones that I like are the ones that are willing to buy into my system and it's not 'cause I'm a control freak. By the way, I happen to be one, but, that isn't the motivation. The motivation is to get it done right as I've seen it done and have done it. I do everything by analogy because I don't seem to get anybody to understand otherwise. If I ever need a brain operation, I hope that I have a control freak who's the surgeon and who's going to make everything go the way it should go. I don't see why cooks aren't as valuable as brain surgeons, and ought to be just as careful and as proud of what they do.

Q - Have you ever been fooled by someone who came in wearing a baseball hat and sneakers and been an absolutely great cook?
A - Yes. It has happened. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I wouldn't reject anybody right out of hand like that, but, as I said it gives me a clue as to their personality. It's one thing to be an individual on your own time or doing what needs to be done on the job. If you're an airline pilot you have to do certain things. If you're a surgeon you do certain things. If you're a policeman you do certain things and look a certain way. Why is a cook any different?

Q - Probably 'cause they're in a back room and no one ever sees them.
A - Well, my kitchens are completely open, so you have to really be clean and spiffy and move well and show people you respect the food. When you see that, you eat better. If you find somebody who's just been rubbing their nose or scratching their butt, and they're gonna go over and make breakfast for you, I don't enjoy my breakfast as much, as someone who's very careful and visually and professionally together. So, I think it's a big deal.

Q - You say, "In America there has been a re-emphasis placed on pizza and pasta but I think unfortunately they aren't being made better, but worse." Explain what you mean by that.
A - Well, I think pasta and pizza used to be eaten because it was cheap and an ethnic food, mostly confined to the people who knew about it and knew how to cook it. Then I think that all sort of died down when people were able to afford more protein, more meat. I'm talking about immigrants here, and some of the consumption of pasta and pizza diminished. Then, some enterprising souls started selling it, and bingo, we had a winner, in both categories. But, what's happened is that pizza for sure and pasta as a close runner-up has become an excuse for putting toppings on and eating sauce. In other words, the pasta just becomes a vehicle for how much sauce you can get on it, and the pizza becomes a disc that has salami, cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms.

Q - Would the franchise restaurants have had more to do with that than the individual restaurants?
A - Yes, I think so. I think one test of a pizza is, mostly the dough’s are undercooked because they're too thick. They want to make you think you're really getting something and then they're really loaded with stuff, which tends to be wet. For instance, can you imagine somebody going into any restaurant you want, and ordering just a piece of flat bread that's good enough so that if you just poke some pieces of an anchovy into it, scatter it with some black pepper, and then drizzle it with olive oil, would you think that dough is so good? I bet you couldn't sell one. There's a pizza place near where I live and they put about 12 different things on it, just a normal pizza, three cans of cheeses, ground meat. In all the times I've been in Italy I've never seen anything resembling a pizza like that. Now, people tell me all the time, well, you're not in Italy and I say you're right, but the point is maybe we shouldn't be calling those things by those names then.

Q - What should we be calling them?
A - Oh, I don't know. The American Nightmare. (Laughs). The whole purpose of eating pasta has been lost. Almost every place in America, even in some high-class expensive restaurants that are not Italian or trained Italian cooks, the pasta is overcooked. I don't like overcooked pasta and no Italian does. It has to be chewy. I don't care where you're from. When you're a Southern Italian it has to be even chewier. And also when you eat pasta with a fork, which is all you should need, when you finish the pasta there should be no sauce left. There might be the remnants of some, at the bottom of your plate or around the sides. You shouldn't need a spoon to sop up afterwards. Here again, most places have so much sauce, it's like having a soup.

Q - You're critical of t.v. chefs, saying, "There's no point in a big-time celebrity chef fooling around and showing people dishes they can't or won't use." You wouldn't be referring to Emeril Lagasse would you?
A - Well, I'm not going to mention names nor will I even allude to them. I think if a cook wants to show you what he or she could do, it could be amusing, but I need to question why are you doing this? If that's what you're doing, then you're not a cook, you're an entertainer. It's like the vaudeville guy showing you how to do slapstick and how to get hit over the head and fall down. They're not trying to teach you how to get hit over the head with a bat and fall down. They're trying to make you amused. So, I think these cooking shows that are not educational in the sense of showing you how to do something are entertainment.

Q - "Too many people try to be both a host and a chef, and being a host and a chef myself, I can tell you it's not easy and it doesn't really work." You're saying then, that a chef should pretty much stay in the kitchen?
A - (Laughs). Well, what I say, and hardly anybody believes me when I say it, but it's absolutely true; if we have a party here of other than very, very close friends, I hire my own chef. Usually, I get somebody from my own company and pay them standard rates to come in and cook, because I'd like to be a host. If you need a drink or some wine, I'd like to be able to go get it for you, and have a chat, and wander around. If I'm in the kitchen, I can't do that. But, what I also meant by that and perhaps I should've clarified it more is that a lot of people try to serve the kind of meal in their home that you would get in a restaurant, and try to be a host. That's difficult to do. Maybe your meal has to be really easy to serve. It can be pre-prepared like a casserole. Things that are wonderful at room temperature. Things that are easy to handle, so if you're away it's just a matter of a very few minutes as opposed to half an hour. You have to get organized, because if you're in the kitchen all the time cooking, it's really hard to be the host.

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