Cooking with Don Pintabona
New York City, New York
When Don Pintabona was the chef at The Tribeca Grill my nonnina paid him a visit and left raving about the cooking. This is the biggest compliment I can give Don since my Italian grandmother doesn’t like eating out and as a great cook herself she is a harsh food critic. Throughout his esteemed career Don has enjoyed traveling the globe and experiencing various cultures in France and Japan while appreciating those countries respect for food, which he has applied to his own cooking. He is now embarking on his biggest professional challenge with the opening of his own restaurant, Dani. The Mediterranean cuisine served there will celebrate his Sicilian family heritage with the restaurant a fulfillment of a dream.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
DP: When I was in college I was a Business major, started cooking on the side to pay for school. My interest in cooking was a hell of a lot greater than my interest in business and rather than sort of pigeonhole myself into a Wall Street job cooking offered a more portable profession. Since I loved to travel it was a way to just throw your knives in a bag and go jump on a plane. My two passions are cooking and travel and they seem to go together pretty well.
CCB: Was your first professional cooking job at The Sea Wolf (a seafood restaurant) in Florida?
DP: Yes. It was a hell of a learning curve because it was a total immersion into the business, very high volume, high energy, and I thrived on that sort of craziness.
CCB: Apart from what you learned from your family, did your cooking experience really begin at The Culinary Institute of America?
DP: The Culinary Institute offered me a foundation. It didn’t offer much for the passion of cooking, more the mechanics of cooking. It was through travel and working in France and working in Japan that I really learned more than just how to cook, I learned why people eat the way they do. I got an appreciation for different cultures and why foods and recipes evolved, how through the centuries the cuisines evolved. It was a lot more in depth and interesting.
CCB: Did growing up watching cooking within your family inspire you to pursue it as a career?
DP: Certainly growing up in an Italian-American household you are surrounded by it. I grew up with my grandmother in the house and she was an amazing cook. My father ran a supermarket for years so I worked with him and worked with the butchers, surrounded by food. It was always a conversation piece. When you go home, what did you eat yesterday? What did you have the day before? What are you going to eat tomorrow? Everything revolved around meals and it was a very important part of the fabric of the background.
CCB: Did you learn about food working at your father’s supermarket?
DP: I spent a lot of time at the butchers and I learned how to butcher. That’s when we used to get sides of beef nowadays everything is already packaged and distributed. Ten years before Rocky came out, my brothers and I would be in the back boxing the sides of beef. It certainly was an appreciation. I spent a lot of time with the produce manager who taught me about different produce and how to check for ripeness. So being surrounded by it was interesting.
CCB: What is it that you love about the field now? You mentioned traveling, experiencing new cultures.
DP: I love the energy. It’s a very social atmosphere. I get to see everybody and friends can come to visit. I love the interaction. I love the art of it, being able to create and being able to hopefully see people leave with a smile on their face and with compliments.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a chef?
DP: It’s an ongoing thing. In the morning you are sourcing products, maybe going to the fish market, maybe going to the vegetable market. There’s a certain part of the day where there is a creation of menus, new recipes, and dishes. Then there’s service. It’s a progression. It is long days, long hours, and very physical. It’s a difficult field but very satisfying.
CCB: What’s your role in the kitchen like today as opposed to when you first started?
DP: At this point it’s more like the conductor of an orchestra. You’re not actually playing an instrument but you are telling everybody else what to do and hoping that it flows like a piece of music, especially if you are in a large restaurant with high volume. When I was at Tribeca (Tribeca Grill) we’d do upwards of 600, 700, 800 dinners in a night. You have appetizers, main courses, desserts and you have a progression and a flow. It’s a lot about timing. It’s really the timing that is the most important aspect and once you understand that you can almost put yourself in the place of the guest. For example, if you have six people sitting at a table and only one of them ordered an appetizer put yourself in the minds of the five who are saying, "Jesus I want my food! I don’t want to wait for my friend to linger over his appetizer." It’s a game and it’s all about timing.
CCB: Can you give a quick overview of your career.
DP: Started working at The Sea Wolf, which was a job I had to pay for college. Then when I realized business wasn’t the way I wanted to go I transferred to The Culinary Institute of America. I used to drive a cab on the weekends to pay for The Culinary Institute of America. Then when I got out of there I worked at the River Café in Brooklyn. That’s when I said I really want to get out there and immerse myself in different cultures. I want to go to places where people have a respect for food the way I did growing up. You know Italians are very passionate about their food. The French are. The Japanese are. I really wanted to learn and experience in France and Japan so that’s what I did. For about a ten year period I would travel for about a six month period until I ran out of money. I’d come back to New York, get a job, save up some money and go out again. In France I worked for a year, Japan I worked for a year. Everything else was just for traveling, experience, and tasting.
CCB: How did you end up as a sous-chef at a French restaurant in Japan?
DP: There were a lot of Japanese cooks training throughout France. I had a very close friend of mine Mokoto Ono who spent about seven years in France. On our days off we would always go to three star restaurants, we were inseparable. Then he was subsequently sent back to Japan after seven years. So we celebrated. We went out, got drunk. During that dinner I said, "I really want to go to Japan. When you get back there try to find me a job and I’ll come over." About three days later after he returned to Japan he called me in the kitchen in France. I barely remembered the conversation we’d had. He said, "Well I found you a job when are you coming?" I came back to New York to save up some more money. Then I went to Japan. I was planning on spending two or three years there but the government had a different outlook and I got deported. I spent about three hours less than one year. I took the last flight out.
CCB: What did you learn in places like Japan and France apart from the culture? What did you learn about food?
DP: There again it’s all about the respect. When I was in France I was in a very small town outside of Lyon. Lyon is really the capital for traditional French cooking. We were surrounded by farms and vineyards. Growing up on Long Island around metropolitan New York I barely knew which end of the cow the milk came from. For me it was a fantastic experience to be in the dirt, to be in the earth and see where the food source comes from. Experience that and the way food should taste. In the States you go to the supermarket and buy a peach. You know it might be OK, but if you’re in Italy or France and you taste a peach it’s dripping down your arm into your armpit and down the side of your chest. You realize this is what a peach is! You realize what food is and what it should be.
CCB: That’s just a cultural thing?
DP: It’s a cultural thing and it’s interesting to see how people treat food and how they bring it into their lives. I can’t stress it enough the respect for food. I think in America we lack that. We’re getting much better. If you look at the restaurant scene twenty years ago versus ten years ago versus today, people especially in New York City, are very knowledgeable, very restaurant savvy. Twenty years ago we weren’t out comparing sushi restaurants. We weren’t out experiencing different ethnic cuisines. It was a very meat and potatoes type of culture. I think we are catching up with a lot of the rest of the world.
CCB: Is working at the Aureole restaurant where you first met Robert De Niro?
DP: Yes, actually I met him in the kitchen. He was taking a little tour of that kitchen. I was leaving for Bangkok the following week and I was planning to spend four or five months in Southeast Asia. He told me he was doing a restaurant downtown, we spoke about it. We sort of negotiated quickly over the next week and then I knew I had a job to come back to. So I went off, came back about six months later and we opened Tribeca Grill.
CCB: Can you talk about some of the experiences you had at the Tribeca Grill working for Robert De Niro?
DP: It was a very intense period. We got more press before we opened than most restaurants have in their lifetime. So that upped the ante in a lot of respects for expectation levels and just the sheer volume of business. Every time I thought about the first chef job I would take it’s almost like jumping into a pool. Dip your toes in first, then up to your knees, ease into the pool. When I had this offer I said let’s just go for broke. It was like screw it let’s just go off the high board and do a cannonball and really try to make a splash. In all respects the ante was up. It was a huge challenge and it was a lot of fun. All the celebrity parties, activities, and paparazzi. I got to meet some amazing people and do some very high profile dinners from everybody from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton, from top sports people, actors, and artists. In that regard it was spectacular. It’s not often that you can expose yourself to that world.
CCB: It’s interesting how you say your grandmother brought her Italian traditions to the US and then incorporated them into her meals here. It seems that is what you have done with all that you have learned from your travels abroad.
DP: Definitely when I opened Tribeca I just returned from Japan. I have a great love of Asia. I incorporated that into the cooking at a time when not a lot of people were doing that. I created my own style of fusion cuisine if you will. When we opened Nobu I started to back away a bit because that was a strictly Japanese restaurant. When we opened Tribeca my head was in it and that was part of the fabric. From my experiences in France and Japan and the classical foundations that I learned at The CIA (The Culinary Institute of America) I created my own cuisine. Subsequently a lot of people started doing a fusion style and fusion became confusion and it almost became like let’s open up the cupboards and whatever falls out you throw it into a dish. It became a bit bastardized and I pulled back. I went back to the roots a little more. So, I’m doing strictly European style cooking now and I do very little Asian. Although I still love to eat that way. Professionally I don’t really do Asian. Someday I’d like to do an Asian restaurant but it would be a pure concept.
CCB: What makes something fusion?
DP: It’s the blending of different cultures. There’s an argument that could be made that Singapore is the original capital of fusion cooking. Where you had Chinese men coming down to work on the railroads, they married Malay women, and created their own style of cooking called Nonya cuisine. In Singapore you have wonderful influences from India, Indonesia, and Thailand. It’s a melting pot unto itself. They created a style of cuisine there that is a fusion style and it’s very unique to that specific area. Here the restaurant I am opening in December is an interpretation of Sicily. Sicily in many respects is similar. You are in the heart of the Mediterranean but Sicily has been ruled by any number of invaders over the past centuries. By the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracens. In Sicily you’ll find Arabic influences, you’ll find influences from North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia. You’ll find dishes with couscous for example, sweets that came over from other parts of the world. In a lesser degree there is sort of that fusion style that’s evident not only in the food, but in the architecture, the culture, the customs, the language, the music. You can feel those influences from other places. So, what I’m doing here is my interpretation of that. It’s sort of a broad Mediterranean approach to the cooking.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career? If so what did they teach you?
DP: In this business it’s crucial. It’s really crucial to have people that you can learn from. You pick up something from everybody not only the great master chefs. I’m a big believer that anybody that you surround yourself with you can learn something from. If it’s a dishwasher who happens to clean vegetables faster than somebody else I’m going to learn that technique. Professionally I have been fortunate to work with people like Daniel Boulud, whose restaurant is Daniel, arguably one of the best chef’s in America. Charlie Palmer, a very high profile chef. In France I worked with a three star Michelin chef named Georges Blanc, one of the most revered chefs in Europe, fantastic guy we get along incredibly well. It was an amazing experience. From everybody I picked up something different. I may have picked up how they deal with people, how they manage their kitchen. Somebody might be a great sauce maker. Somebody else might be a great butcher. So you identify what their strengths are and try to pull from that and every chef, every cook, is a reflection of who they worked for before, where they’ve been, and what they’ve absorbed. In this field it’s extremely important to put yourself in a situation where you can learn. I think it’s a big mistake a lot of young cooks make, especially out of a place like The Culinary Institute. It’s a fine institution if you treat it as a great place to form a foundation, fantastic. When you leave it’s a starting point. I think a lot of kids go in after graduation thinking it’s the ending point and now they start to reap the benefits and it doesn’t work that way. The advent of television and Food Network and everything else almost works against it because there is a false expectation that if you have the degree you are a chef. That’s where the training begins not where it ends.
CCB: What qualities make a great chef?
DP: You have to be committed to the profession, have a passion for it. You have to be able to eat crow. If it means being yelled at, harped on, almost beaten to a pulp to learn what you need to learn. It’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut for a long period of time. (Laughs) I hate to be so blunt. It’s very important to observe everything. It’s very important to absorb and to be humble. Not be cocky and appreciate what someone wants to teach you.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming a chef?
DP: I would work in the field first before plunking down twenty or thirty thousand dollars. I’ve seen too many people go through schooling, pay ridiculous amounts of money for it and realize a year or two later that it’s a very tough business and after two years get out of it. It’s very important to be positive that this is what you want to do and if you feel you have the passion and the work ethic to do it then by all means go to school and do learn the foundation.
CCB: How do they do that, by working in a kitchen before they decide to go to school for it?
DP: Yeah and when you start out in a career money cannot be a priority. You have to be willing to work long hours for little money if you are learning. If you are working for someone really good treat it like an apprenticeship, treat it like a learning experience, and treat it like you would be paying for school. It’s the extra bonus that they are actually paying you. If you put yourself in the right situation with the right chef where you can learn and you are willing to do that for a few years then that’s the way to go.
CCB: Since you work in the cooking profession does that make it hard for you to eat food out that you don’t prepare?
DP: For the most part I am lucky enough to have a lot of friends in the city and I like to see new restaurants, new concepts. I like to look at design, see who is doing something different. I’m not real critical. It’s all about expectation levels. If you are going to a place and you have high expectations then maybe you are disappointed when you leave. If you realize I’m just going into a local joint for a burger and there no expectations then you leave happy.
CCB: How does it feel the first time you cook a meal in a restaurant?
DP: It’s very satisfying. It’s that immediate gratification, which I like. It’s nice to see people leave happy. It’s nice to see them compliment what you do and it’s a source of pride.
CCB: Have you seen any new developments in cooking in recent years? Are there more trends on the horizon?
DP: There are always trends. I think we are at a point in America where the customer has become so savvy that gimmicky trends that may have worked in the 1980’s and the 1990’s just won’t work now. I think it’s really important to be honest with your customer, give them good value. Give them good service. Win them over so that they come back again, again, and again. I think it’s less important to have a splashy crazily decorated place. People can see through a lot of things that may have been successful twenty years ago. Value is crucially important now and the level and the quality of food must always be paramount.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
DP: I think the most difficult part is the sheer hours you have to work and the sacrifices you have to make especially when you start a family, get involved with relationships. It takes a toll. You aren’t there for holidays. You just work completely odd hours compared to the rest of the world. You have to be able to put up with that.
CCB: What’s considered odd hours?
DP: Instead of coming home at 5:00 o’clock and having dinner with the family you are coming home at midnight, maybe going out, sleeping late. Chefs don’t do well early in the morning and we probably do too much late at night.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
DP: For me it’s meeting people. I love people. I love experiencing, talking to people from different cultures. It’s a more social atmosphere. Every day there is new clientele. Every day there are new people to experience and it’s satisfying to make people happy.
CCB: People would be most surprised to learn what about your job?
DP: It’s probably not as glamorous as TV makes it out to be. There again I think the Food Network has done great things for industry, but I think it’s skewed the perception a little bit. I think it’s a lot tougher than it appears.
CCB: Is that what surprised you the most as well?
DP: Yes and no. Some parts of it with the travel and if I do TV shows it is fun, it is exciting. But day after day after day the same grind of serving lunch, serving dinner,
dealing with employees, it’s gets a bit monotonous.
CCB: Do you have a favorite meal that you like to prepare or eat?
DP: I’m a sushi freak. Preparing a meal I love, simple pasta dishes. I love working with a brick oven. I had a brick oven in my place in my backyard in Brooklyn. Pizza is a passion of mine. Pizza and sushi you can’t go wrong.
CCB: Did putting cookbooks together just seem like a natural thing to do? Do you find that the Tribeca Grill Cook Book and The Shared Table represent different stages of your career?
DP: It’s not easy to sell them. It’s a very competitive field right now. It’s not a money making venture. You really don’t make much money at all on it. It’s more a labor of love and a passion. The second book, The Shared Table, I just put out. I started that five or six years ago. Pick it up, put it down, pick it up, and put it down. Put it on the shelf. The Tribeca Grill one was more of a straight forward restaurant cookbook. So, that one I wrote in about a year. The second one was a little more personal, a little more from the heart. It took time.
CCB: I’m curious how you put together a menu for your restaurant.
DP: It’s all about balance and trying to identify who your customer is. Who is my customer? What do they like? I identify the style of cuisine first of all. You have to have a certain amount of seafood offerings balanced with some meat items and you have to be sensitive to the vegetarian that might come in. Then you also have to balance styles. You don’t want anything that is overly heavy. If you have a dish with cream you want to make sure you don’t have three dishes with cream. Even sauces you would want some that are olive oil based, some that are cream based. If you have one that has a little bit of butter in it that is fine but you can’t go too heavy. It’s all about balance and sensibility. And being able to know what you can produce. You make a menu that is too large to produce and it takes too long for the food to get out of the kitchen you aren’t doing anybody a favor. They are only going to leave angry. You have to know what your kitchen can handle. When you build a restaurant now for example you start with the menu and then you build the kitchen to execute that menu and you have to know what the customer wants.
CCB: What do you having come up? What can we expect from your own restaurant, Dani, as far as food and ambience?
(Dani is what Don’s relatives in Italy call him as a nickname. It’s also the letters of his kids’ names.)
DP: Well, it’s in Hudson Square (Downtown, New York City) which was an old industrial neighborhood, a lot of printing shops and whatnot. Right now it’s evolving and there is a lot of media, a lot of advertising, a lot of more artistic fields moving in. It’s a very vibrant, up and coming neighborhood. The building that I took was about a ninety year old building, had a very modern looking Italian restaurant in there. I’m doing a Mediterranean restaurant but I’m stripping it clean and sort of rebuilding it in a way to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood and recreate what it looked like ninety years ago. It’s got big concrete columns. It’s going to be very industrial looking, a lot of black iron, and a lot of steel. Nice fabrics, Mediterranean feel, and colors. I’m trying to bring it back so when people walk in they can imagine what it was like ninety years ago when it was built. So, that’s the goal.
CCB: Is opening your own restaurant the fulfillment of a dream of yours?
DP: Yeah, certainly. I wanted to do something to celebrate the foods of Sicily. It won’t be a Sicilian restaurant per se. I’ll have some classic Sicilian dishes, but it’s more my take on the Mediterranean aspect of where Sicily is and to celebrate the lands around it as well and those that influenced the islands over the past centuries.
CCB: You have your menu figured out already?
DP: It’s a work in progress actually. Every day we get a little further. The rest of my day that’s my main focus.
*You can find Don's cookbooks at a bookstore near you.