In the Beginning.

Cooking for me started like it does for many, with a family that loved to eat. From my Italian grandmother making the Sunday gravy to my dad’s special cholesterol-laden breakfasts, my mom’s love for having vegetable gardens, to my stepmother who was a foodie and ran a health food store in the 1970s. At the age of nine, I was eating sushi and rare burgers.

My career started in the “dish pit” when I was 15. One day, when the prep cook didn’t show up, desperate cooks who had to open for service at 5 p.m. thrust a peeler and a knife into my hands. I never looked back.

I earned an associate degree at a flagship culinary school (FYI – you’re not a chef when you graduate!).

Right Place – Right Time

I spent the first ten years of my career in the San Francisco Bay area. This was the early 1990s, and Nouvelle Cuisine was nearing its timely demise.

Alice Waters’ spot, Chez Panis, was down the street from me in Berkeley. She and Thomas Keller were leading the charge by Bay Area chefs to the fertile farms of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Chefs started working with the farmers, turning sparsely known working family farms into boutique enterprises that still thrive today.

Thus, the term Farm-to-Table cuisine was born. With the chefs mentioned above leading the way and the internet boom helping, the rest of the country started buying local and promoting this simple, healthy, elegant way to sell their food. Most didn’t understand that restaurants that cared in Europe had been operating that way for a century.

At the restaurant where I worked, we called it “Farmers Market Menu.” Being at the beginning of this movement at such an early juncture of my career was crucial to all my future endeavors. Seeing the products come out of the ground and from the field onto our plates was a magical feeling that became the foundation of my craft, which I continue to hone today.

Seeing the World

I believe the job of a chef is more about problem-solving than cooking. You can be obsessed with the craft of ingredient procurement, cooking methods, balanced flavor, and even presentation. Still, it is hard to succeed if you do not learn how to make resolute decisions (right or wrong) on the fly multiple times a day. You will have a hard time achieving your goals.

Nothing else could have taught me these skills and taking a position as the head chef on a motor yacht feeding 40 passengers and 30 crew daily. Not only was it my first time on a ship (let alone cooking on one), but the cruise company was based in Athens, Greece, and the trips were one and two- week voyages through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, porting on Greek Islands, Turkish and North African coast. I had to procure all ingredients at markets, where we ported and cook in a smallish galley while the boat was at sea with two staff members.

I pulled it off for an entire six-month contract. To this day, I have no idea how I accomplished this. My day was a constant barrage of tasks that involved places I’d never been with me not speaking the native language anywhere we were.

I learned to “make it happen,” well, “on the fly.”

My greatest mentors were not just great cooks but savvy leaders. That combination can be rare in our field.

Now, with time comes perspective. I unquestionably believe this was the most important developmental period in my career that had little to do with food.

A Magical Adventure

Missing my family and the change of seasons, I moved to Vermont and became the head chef of Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms is an education nonprofit on a 140-acre Vanderbilt/Webb property. Its programs, places, and products inspire and cultivate learning for a sustainable future. Home to the Institute for Sustainable Schools, the historic campus is a 1,400-acre diversified farm. The education and resources they offer are outstanding.

On this property is an Inn that was the Vanderbilt home. The farm also had a working 2-acre vegetable garden and greenhouses, a dairy farm, a cheese-making operation, a sugarhouse for maple syrup, and a lamb program. As the head chef, I worked with the full-time garden staff and grew vegetables for our menu. We also incorporated all the dairy, cheese, and lamb operations products into the mix.

This was a magical time for me. I spent my mornings digging around the gardens and harvesting veggies at their peak that were on the menu that night.

Since the Inn had no heat, my position was seasonal. I spent the winters in Manhattan working for Dan Barber at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village. Dan is a highly talented chef and a genius in sustainability in agriculture.

It all Comes Together in New York City. Where Else?

I moved to Manhattan as the executive sous chef at Eleven Madison Park. Two significant events highlighted this time: I met my wife-to-be, with whom I have a family of three children, and worked for Danny Meyer, whose presence taught me the true meaning of hospitality—anticipating guests’ needs through information, active listening and honest empathy.

Finding my Niche

My life as a personal chef has taken me through different families in Manhattan, West Chester County, across the ocean in Saint-Èmilion, France, to summers in Newport.

Education never ceases. Instead of five seasonal menu changes, cooking dishes chained to the style of cuisine the restaurants represented, I was cooking recipes from around the world, using ingredients I’d never really had a chance to use correctly. The freedom I experienced was like a breath of fresh air.

I have worked for wonderful families. I get tremendous satisfaction from the relationships I build, becoming an integral part of people’s lives through feeding them. It is not necessarily the food creation but the act of supplying daily nutrition. It’s a more intimate and egoless commitment to my craft than my time in restaurants.

I could not be happier with the direction my career has led me.