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Q & A: Joe Bastianich

In town to help launch Carnevino steakhouse, the restaurateur talks to Vanessa Yung about quitting Wall Street and giving his diners a warm hug

 

Please tell us about your childhood "My family came from Italy and they moved to the United States after the second world war. In Italy, they made wine and had restaurants. In the US, my father worked as a waiter and they opened their first restaurant in New York City in 1968, the year I was born. I would go to the restaurant after school. I used to work in the kitchen, do my homework downstairs and we'd eat dinner at the restaurant every night."

 

Did you learn how to cook then? "I'm not a good cook, I'm not a chef. I learned more about how to run a restaurant."

 

How has the industry changed over the years? "The restaurant industry used to be one very difficult job. [In the US] It was a job for immigrants - Italian, Chinese and Greek. But now it's different; it's more about glamour, media and celebrity chefs. So it's definitely gone through a big evolution over the last 40 years."

 

You used to work in finance. Why did you quit? "It was my genetic prerogative to be in the restaurant business - I had to go back to it. My family didn't want me to work in a restaurant. My father always said I had to do something else - go to college, get a good education and get an important job. I did that and then realised I really wanted to work in the restaurant industry. My mother and father were both very supportive of what I wanted to do. I quit [Wall Street] and moved to Italy for two years. 

"I was very young - 22 years old. I bought a one-way ticket to Italy, bought a car and just drove around. I would sleep in my car sometimes and go to another winery and another restaurant, and worked all around, from Sicily all the way up to Alto Adige, discovering food and wine. I was picking grapes, cleaning dishes, cleaning artichokes, cleaning kitchens, working in wine cellars and whatever. I guess the more you can experience in life, the better it is. In 1993, I opened my first restaurant by myself in New York. It's called Becco - it's still there, in the theatre district."

 

Is there a difference between running a restaurant in the US and one in Asia? "It's very different. I have restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Singapore and now Hong Kong. Asia has a very strong food culture of its own and an appreciation for great food. Once you understand the food culture, you can adapt your cuisine to suit. Here, we use less salt - maybe half as much salt. Asians like their pasta a little bit more cooked. It's little things."

 

How does your cooking differ from that of Carnevino's Mario Batali? "Mario's food is very spicy and aggressive - it's like getting a punch in the face. If I cook for you, it's more like a warm hug. I cook the best linguine in clam sauce; that's my speciality. I put a little bit of bacon in it. It's not traditional, but gives the dish a smoky flavour. Bacon makes everything better."

 

What's food to you? "To all Italians, food is life. We celebrate; we live our lives at the table with food and wine. It is what keeps our families together."

 

 

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