In part 1 of this series, we wrote about The Art of Food & Wine Palm Desert, where leading chefs, sommeliers, winemakers, food purveyors and artists came together for an event that took the wine and food festival concept to another level entirely. Rick Tramonto was one of the celebrity chefs on hand to demonstrate his skill and enlighten the audience on the fine art of cooking. We had a unique opportunity to sit down with Rick that weekend to ask about the art of food and wine.
Following a somewhat difficult youth, Chef Tramonto began his career in 1977 at Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers at age 15 to help support his family. Two years later, he was cooking at a restaurant with real tablecloths, but his future really started to take shape at the Strathallan, a hotel in his hometown of Rochester, where he learned classic French cooking techniques from Chef Greg Broman and met his future business partner, pastry chef Gale Gand. In 1985, Rick and Gale moved on to the Gotham Bar & Grill in New York City, where Rick worked under Chef Alfred Portale. He also worked at Tavern on the Green, Charlie Trotter’s and several other notable restaurants, before being asked to move to Europe to transform the kitchen and cuisine at the Stapleford Park hotel outside London. For that effort, Rick earned the coveted Michelin Guide’s Red “M” after only a year, a feat not accomplished by an American in five years.
During his three years in Europe, Rick cooked alongside some of the world’s greatest chefs, including Chef Pierre Gagnaire, Chef Anton Mosimann, Chef Michel Guerard and Chef Raymond Blanc. He and Gale Gand then opened a string of popular restaurants in Chicago, including Trio, Brasserie T and the Vanilla Bean Bakery, getting married to each other along the way. They joined with restaurateur Rich Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., in 1999 to create their dream restaurant, Tru, which won The James Beard Foundation Outstanding Service Award in 2007. In his spare time, Rick opened Osteria di Tramonto, Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood and RT Sushi Bar & Lounge. He has received many awards and has been recognized as one of Food & Wine’s Top Ten Best New Chefs (1994) and the Best Chef: Midwest Region (2002) by The James Beard Foundation.
Chef Rick also finds time to appear on TV programs, including “Oprah”, “Today”, “CBS This Morning” and “Iron Chef America” on Food Network. He has also been a judge on Bravo TV’s hit reality program “Top Chef” and “Simply Ming”. When he’s not cooking, teaching or appearing on TV, Rick creates cookbooks. He’s authored six so far, his most recent being “Osteria”, focusing on the cuisine of Osteria di Tramonto. When we sat down to speak with Rick, we found him to be a very approachable, genuinely nice guy with passion for food and family. It was apparent where he drew some of his inspiration for Osteria di Tramonto and his latest cookbook “Osteria”. “I’m Italian. My mother is from Naples; my father from Abruzzi.” What was the last meal you prepared at home? “Linguini and clams. My kids love that. We usually have some kind of pasta and salad for dinner.”
What’s the most surprising trend you’ve observed in the food industry during your career? “The impact of multi–media. Things were much simpler when I started out. Now, you’re not just a chef. Chefs now have restaurants, write books, appear on television, endorse product lines. Another interesting trend is the increase in the science of cuisine—food science—in such a dramatic way. I didn’t see that coming.” Speaking of multi–media, you have a relatively new blog of your own at cheftramonto.com. What prompted you to start your blog? “It’s a sign of the times. Reach more people. My goal is to keep people up to date on what I’m doing and what I’m thinking about for food, what I’m seeing on my travels around the world. I can communicate and educate people through that medium.”
When you create a new dish, do you think about the wine you’d pair with it? “I come from a traditional Italian household. If my grandfather ever told my grandmother that he was going down into the cellar to pick out a bottle of wine for dinner and she had to cook for him—cook to that bottle of wine—I think she would have thrown that bottle of wine at him. I didn’t grow up cooking for wine. I cook for the ingredients and the season and then match the wines to the dish. First and foremost, it’s all about the food—the flavor and the technique, and what I’m trying to express from that dish. And then I go and search for wines that work with that dish. The wine is secondary, but it’s extremely important. I try not to let the wine choice influence the dish, because I want it to be about the food.”
With so many great wines available now, how do you go about choosing which ones you offer at your restaurants? “It’s certainly trial and error and budget. It’s also very much about the restaurant. It also about going to wineries and different vineyards and relationships with winemakers and what they are all about, talking with sommeliers and exploring new regions—exploring, tasting, and going to auctions—and looking at whether I’m going to lay the wine down for years or I need it drinkable tomorrow. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”
It you hadn’t become a chef, what occupation do you think you would have chosen? “I think I would have gone into some type of ministry or teaching. I love studying the word of God. I had struggles as a youth and I think teaching or some ministry to help folks who haven’t had the opportunities I had. I’d want to make a difference in kids’ lives; kids who are confused or are going down the wrong road.”
Married for the past six years, Rick met his wife when he was just a teenager. “We’ve been friends for nearly 35 years; we grew up together, dated and then lived apart from each other. For a time, we were both married to other people, but we remained true friends. Later in life, I finally got around to marrying my best friend.” With one boy from his previous marriage and two boys from hers, they have their hands full raising three teenagers. “Teens are challenging. You try to be a positive example for them, to inspire and encourage them. You spend the time with them.” Do any of your children show a great interest in cooking? “We don’t push their involvement in cooking, but it is a life skill and we expose them to that. They need to be able to make a meal when they go away to college. They do jump in and help out in the kitchen. We give each of them chores—dishes, garbage, cleaning rooms. Making dinner is part of the things you have to do to run a household and they need to know that.”
If you had to pick one person to prepare a meal for, who would it be? “Jesus Christ.” What would the meal be? “It’s funny, I just did some research on foods mentioned in the Bible for another book I’m working on, so I’ve given it some thought. I think I would serve a baked, salt-crusted fish, like a branzino, with olive oil and lemon. I’d slow bake it. And I’d serve a simple salad and fresh vegetables, because that’s what they had around at the time. Hearts of palm and fresh lettuce salad; and Greek or niçoise olives.” What wine would you serve with the meal? “I’m a huge Barbera and Barbaresco fan and I know a lot of people wouldn’t serve red wine with fish, but I think the richness of the fish baked in that salt would be a very interesting combination. It would have to be some kind of beautiful, big red—just because that’s what I drink.”
We attended Chef Rick’s cooking demo and he is as entertaining as he is instructive. He whipped up a crabmeat crostini with lime–infused salt, red bell pepper and various fresh spices. Rick explained that the lime–infused salt can be used to replace olive oil for people who need to limit their fat intake. The infused salt really brought all the flavor layers together nicely. On a personal note, when asked, he showed the audience the tattoos on his arms—one arm holds a scripture passage (Philippians 4:13); the other a cartoon–style spoon, fork and knife running toward a plate. “The scripture passage is my personal life scripture. The other shows the struggle and hard work of being a chef.” It seems he wears his life story under his sleeves.
Note: Rick Tramonto’s business partner at Tru, Gale Gand, got her television start on fellow-chef Sara Moulton’s show on the Food Network. It’s a small world. Part 3 of this series is our interview with Sara Moulton.