Under the Radar: Chef John Amato of The Park Café

Staff Writer
This up-and-coming Charleston chef has an interesting background
The Park Cafe

Chef John Amato works his magic in the kitchen at the Park Cafe.

Chef John Amato spent the majority of his childhood in northern Virginia, where he grew up helping his mother in the kitchen. It was where he credits beginning to cook and developing his passion for food. His first job was at a Jewish deli and bagel shop called Bagel Buddies when he was 13.  He was there for several years throughout high school, and worked his way up from washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen to managing the sandwich line, and eventually making bread from scratch.

Ed Schiffman, former owner of Bagel Buddies, was the first person who ever told Amato that he could be a chef, and lead him to apply to Johnson and Wales University in Norfolk to attend their culinary program directly out of high school. Throughout school, he was constantly working, trying to take in as much knowledge and experience as possible. From ages of 17 to 20, he worked in eight restaurants as a line cook. From fish fry joints, to authentic Italian, to a Greek place, a sports bar, and “whatever the hell fusion is,” he had them all covered.

Based on his interesting background and prospective on food, The Daily Meal thought he was perfect to profile as an "under the radar" chef to learn more about his culinary career.

The Daily Meal: Tell us about your first few jobs after culinary school and the influence they had on you as a chef?

John Amato: I decided to pursue "fine dining" after school, and moved to Washington D.C. I got a line cook position at Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern where I learned the true meaning of what being a chef was all about. I got to play with new ingredients I hadn't seen before, and over the course of a few years I worked every position on the line. Funny, I look back now, because both my sous chef and chef de cuisine at Colvin Run were from, or had previously worked in Charleston.

I then moved to Millie's Diner, a landmark restaurant in Richmond, VA. Working in this tiny open kitchen, helped my transition from cook to chef. Having to explain what I was doing to every self-proclaimed "foodie" that hung out by the hostess stand (our kitchen), was a whole new ball game for me. Also, Millie's changed the menu every month, which did wonders for my arsenal of dishes and techniques.

I left Virginia for Charleston in 2008, landed a job at FIG, and worked with an amazing team of guys who now are leading kitchens throughout Charleston. Chef Mike Lata was definitely influential to my career, and above all else, taught me about the pursuit of perfection. Never settle, because we as chefs can always get better.
What was the history behind the Foodie Truck and why did you decide to do it and then not do it?

I opened Foodie Truck in 2012 with two friends from Johnson and Wales because I felt like it was time to venture out on my own. I loved the idea of starting something from nothing. I am happy that I created it, and wouldn't change the fact that I did it.  If I could go back and reopen, I would change a few things, but it has played a wonderful role in my development, and by the way, I actually still own it. Pop-up, anyone?

Foodie Truck is just one chapter in my book, and I hope to open many more food establishments in the future. I stopped with services, because I wanted more out of myself. I felt that I built up a cool following, served some awesome dishes, and worked some great events, but I knew that Foodie Truck was on a really long road, and I was ready to make moves a little quicker in my life. Foodie Truck shaped me as a chef, and a dishwasher, and a mechanic, and a bookkeeper, and a manager, and above all, it steered me in the right direction.
What was it like when you were at FIG? How long where you there? What was the coolest thing you did while there?
FIG in 2008 started to become unstoppable. We started winning City Paper’s Best Restaurant every year, Lata got a James Beard award, and easily 10 executive chefs were born. Those guys and gals are my friends, and I love the restaurant inside and out. I just wish I had more time to sneak in a grab a bite these days, because they are only getting better.

The coolest things I did when I was at FIG was high five Wylie Dufrense, chug a beer with Daniel Boulud, and get the cold shoulder from Bobby Flay. There are a lot of cool memories from FIG, like Cochon 555, my two New York Trips, watching the Iron Chef, the Field Feasts, or just the many occasions of setting the record for number of items sold on any given station. Basically being a world class mis en place ninja.

How did you and Xan and Karalee hook up? Why the Park Café? What is the concept that you want for the place?

Karalee and Xan came to me at the perfect time in my life. I was considering many options at the time, and after a couple of talks with them, I was sold. the Park Cafe is located in my favorite neighborhood in Charleston, Wagener Terrace, and the concept fit well with my style. A casual place where anyone can come at any time of the day to grab a bite and a drink. Simple plates, complex techniques, using great ingredients is what we are all about. I love street food and sandwiches, as well as composed dishes, and the Park Cafe offers both. We're doing everything but bread in house, including smoking ham and bacon, fresh sausages and hot dogs, charcuterie pickles, and cheese just to name a few. I love the process, but as a chef, creating smiles is the best part. People should know that at the Park Cafe you will find a menu consisting of approachable items, crafted by a great team that loves what they do. We are open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on the weekends. We also have a great to-go program, so come on by for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, seven days a week. 

What is your favorite thing to serve there?
I love it all. It's like picking your favorite kid. I would have to say that my personal favorite things to serve as a chef, are always the most labor-intensive. Based off of that it would be our hot dog, but I love the simple things in life too. Roasted cauliflower with some toasted nuts and a mustard vinaigrette, and assortment of house made pickles would hit the spot for me if I were coming in for lunch. Our country pate sandwich, pork loin hoagie, pork biscuit, and ham melt are all in a battle for best pork sandwiches ever!

What are you most excited about?
Lyndsay Laprad. Pasta, cheese, candy, pistachios, juice.

Any cool facts (can be non-food related) that would be cool for people to know about?
I can spin anything on my finger, whistle five different ways, and can touch my tongue to my nose. I mean those three and cooking, that's really all I got.

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