Mario Carbone's Vodka Rigatoni will Put His Kids Through College, But He's Not Stopping There
The young chef's eponymous restaurant is celebrating its 2nd anniversary in Hong Kong.
One-third of the Major Food Group trio, Mario Carbone is the 35-year-old chef and restaurant entrepreneur who's taken the New York food scene by storm, thanks to his buzzing, high-energy and no-holds-barred F&B concepts that pay homage to the past. Having recently signed on to take over the space previously held by New York's iconic Four Seasons Restaurant, the Italian American took a week away to pop by Hong Kong for the second anniversary of Hong Kong's own Carbone, with a few new surprises to add to the menu (spoiler: they're almost as good as the Vodka Rigatoni).
Can you tell us a bit about growing up in Queens and where your love of New York-Italian cuisine came from? My dad’s parents were Italian Americans, born in Brooklyn, and my mom’s parents were Italian from Italy, so I grew up seeing both sides... both cultures, both cuisines, both expressions of Italian Americans making their own way in the country. I was always in the kitchen with my grandfather, my mom’s dad, who was one of those guys who always had an apron on no matter what the occasion was. I learned to love cooking without really knowing it. At 14 or 15 years old I started cooking after school and on weekends in local neighborhood restaurants. I went to school for it and then eventually worked for many Italian chefs and worked in Italy for a year in northwestern Tuscany.
Who are some of your cooking mentors? I was really lucky to have some great mentors, people I still call on for advice now. Mario Batali was and is a great mentor to me. Also his right-hand man, a man named Mark Ladner. Then there are the other great chefs that I worked for and I am thankfully part of that community now... people like Daniel Boulud and Wylie Dufresne.
How would you describe your personal cooking style and approach to food? I’m an old soul for the most part. The stuff I like to do, the research I do for my restaurants, and the type of restaurants I like to build are generally of the older brigade. Places like Carbone are throwbacks—it’s not a fresh take, it’s a historical look at the food, but we obviously use contemporary techniques to get the results. While the customer might not notice it, we try to give them something that they are very familiar with but try to make the best version of that thing. Those are the sorts of challenges that I like. It’s less interesting for me to make something a customer has never had before and try to wow them with it, because you can stand behind “Well, even if you didn’t like it, you've never had it before."
Did the concept for Carbone come from that challenge of remaking classic dishes, or was it an homage to your ancestry? It was both. Carbone is me. I’m an Italian American, I'm born in New York, my heritage is Italian. There are not a lot of restaurants that represent that and the ones that exist are getting very old and disappearing. It was important for me to build this restaurant to preserve this style of food I love. I wanted to take that thing that I am, that Italian American ancestry and pit it against all the great cuisines of the world.
Was there any pushback to try and re-create a typical red-sauce joint of that era and reimage it in a fine dining space? Yes, but there is pushback in anything that you do. It's impossible for everyone to love everything and if you were able to somehow make something that was unanimously loved by every body—you probably didn’t make art. Art is about a push and a pull: Someone likes it, someone hates it, someone appreciates it and someone doesn’t.
Did you ever imagine you would open a restaurant in Hong Kong? No, it all happened very organicially. My partners and I had come to Hong Kong as a dining destination, and I happened to know a couple of people at Black Sheep Restaurants who had worked in New York, so I looked them up for advice on where to go. That's how we ended up meeting [Black Sheep founders] Asim and Chris. We hung out during that trip and dined together. Through discussions, we realized that Black Sheep is pretty close to a mirror image of Major Food Group—we’re basically the same age group, same size company, and equally ambitious people. And we like to move the needle. So when we went back home and Asim called us and said "Listen, I have this great location and I would love to bring Carbone to Hong Kong", we didn’t have to think about it for too long. It felt right on every level.
Carbone just celebrated its 2nd anniversary. How does it feel? The 2nd anniversary is a big deal—this restaurant is not that much yonger than the original restaurant so we're growing older simultaneously and I'm taking a lot of what I'm learning in New York and applying it here. Whenever I visit I try and change the seasonal menus, and give the regulars something new to look at. Chef de cuisine Michael Fox is fantastic and I think that the restaurant is definitely in the best place it's ever been.
Can you tell us about the new menu items? We added fried stuffed zucchini blossoms, which is available for longer in Hong Kong than it is in the States. They're stuffed with spanner crab, chilis, bread crumbs and a caper aioli and some shaved baby squash with a bit of mint. The lobster cocktail is relatively new, made with chilled lobster with a tomato aioli and lots of fresh horseradish. We also have a new crab pasta dish called Grancio e Pepe that I'm doing in new York as well. We take wild onions from France and make it into a compound butter with big dried shell pasta from Italy, king crab, and lots of bread crumbs.
So it's a play on Cacio e Pepe? Yeah, I think I’m smart when I come up with these things.
How would your staff describe you in the kitchen? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear it. I don’t yell, I don’t really believe in that. But I’m also not happy-go-lucky. I’m an intense person, I don’t talk or smile that much... so I’d say “stoic” is how I’d best describe myself.
What's your favorite Italian dish or ingredient to cook? I love the new stuff [on the Carbone menu], which I’m really excited about. One of the things that takes all day but I love making is caponata [Sicilian vegetable stew]. I enjoy the process because it takes all day so I can just zone out and be really happy with it. I've also made a fair bit of rigatoni in my life.
Such as the famous Vodka Rigatoni? I’m gonna put the kids through college with that one.
Is there anything you refuse to go near? I have a couple of rules in New York. Carbone there is right across the street from [Mario Batali's] Lupa, which I helped open when I was like 19, so I don’t cook any of the signature dishes on their menu, out of respect.
The Four Seasons is one of the most well-known and iconic restaurants to ever open in NYC, credited for galvanizing American fine dining in the 20th century. Can you tell us about your plans for taking over this space? It's a huge project: we have the challenge of inhabiting this historic space that was one thing for 60 years, and now we have to make it something else, start a whole new tradition and generation there. So it’s a huge, huge challenge for us.
How big of a risk was it to take on this challenge? It was definitely a risk, but one that you just have to be OK with. It's going to be as center stage as humanly possible for a restaurant, I will be under the most scrutiny and criticism ever. For anyone. In the history of food in the United States potentially. So I had to come to grips with that before signing the lease: It’s a 20-year lease so there’s no gray area. Yeah, it’s a big deal and it keeps me up at night. But I love the pressure.
To what extent do you pay attention to restaurant critics and accolades? I'm not that kind of guy who likes cooking for stars or for rankings, but I enjoy putting something out there for myself and for the team, to say: "these are our goals and this is what we should work towards."
Do you have a process in place for when critics come in? We have a protocol, and we obviously want it to go very well. It's sort of like having a fire drill, you work on it in the event that there’s a fire. Then when the critic comes in, if you have worked on your procedures then hopefully it will go well. But you know, a critic is just an elevated VIP and we're always working on our VIP procedures and our customer relations. It all makes sense.
Do you have a fantasy restaurant you'd like to open one day? The thing that I fantasize about is our very first restaurant we opened, Torrisi Italian Specialties, which was a really simple Italian deli and sandwich shop. I would love to someday re-do that, and make that really humble concept into something really beautiful. It grew into other amazing things, but I miss my deli.
What are the future goals for you and the Major Food Group? I look forward to diversifying the company over time. I think we're a smart, young company and we can do anything we want, and someday it’ll be something different. Right now it's about the staff doing our jobs, getting better every day, pushing ourselves, and if good things come from that then that’s great. It's nice to be recognized, but I don't really play the game of what's my world ranking, or how much recognition can we earn. I want a full restaurant, that’s what I want.