Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Sanford "Sandy" D'Amato
Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the fourth in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.
Sanford D'Amato, known to everyone as "Sandy," was brought up in Milwaukee, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and went on to hone his craft in a number of New York City restaurants. He returned to Milwaukee in 1980 to work at John Byron’s Restaurant, during which tenure he was named one of the country's top 25 “Hot New Chefs” by Food & Wine. He became Milwaukee's best-known chef–restaurateur with Sanford, which he opened in 1989 with his wife, Angie, on the site of a grocery store that had been run by his grandfather and father. Ten years later, the D'Amatos opened a second restaurant, Coquette. Over the years, D'Amato and his restaurants won many honors — he was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 1996 — and he was one of a dozen chefs Julia Child asked to cook her 80th birthday dinner in 1992. In the early 2010s, the D'Amatos sold first Coquette and then Sanford, and moved to Hatfield, Mass., next door to Amherst, where they run Good Stock Farm, a small cooking school.
Norman Van Aken’s “Kitchen Conversation” with Chef/Author/Teacher Sandy D’Amato:
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?
Sandy D'Amato: I was in my high-chair in our apartment above my dad's grocery store. I was just served a steaming bowl of pastina blanketed with creamy Wisconsin butter and a sprinkling of grated pecorino romano, a Sicilian kid’s first mac and cheese.
Are you the first chef in your family?
I'm the first "formal" chef, but my paternal grandfather had some serious skills and was a chef at heart. He was not an overall pleasant man as he had a huge mean streak and did most of his communicating with the back of his hand. But when he was cooking it was the only time he was truly happy and was the grandfather that we all really craved.
When did you start cooking?
Informally, when I was about 12. The first recipe I made was inspired by a Julia Child TV crêpe. I used the crêpe recipe from my mother's "bible," The Settlement Cookbook. I cooked it on a 12-inch-square skillet and filled it with summer strawberries, a full can of Reddi-wip, and blackened (not intentionally) sliced almonds. Formally, I was 17 and it was at Kalt’s German Restaurant in Milwaukee. I started as a lunch helper working the hand pump steamer to reheat the sandwich fillings and cutting cabbage on the slicer for two days for the Friday night fish fry and eventually working my way up to the fryer station and spending most weekends buried under orders with my hands looking like breaded mittens.
When did you realize that cooking was serious to you, and where were you cooking when that moment took place?
I was working in kitchens for two years when I started at a restaurant called First Place. The lunch chef unpacked these huge hunks of meat, the thickest ribs I had ever seen. He browned them in a large black roasting pan and covered them with a brown liquid he had been cooking on the stove from the previous day. When he let me try the finished dish, it was my first taste of braised short ribs and I decided at that moment that I knew nothing about real-deal cooking. That led to me starting night cooking classes at a local free program put on by the Jewish vocational services. After a few months of classes, I was really discouraged as I was the youngest one in the class by a good 10 years and the only one who didn't need a shave. I knew I was really out of my league when the instructor, chef Radcliffe, pulled me aside after class. He said "You're really interested in cooking aren't you?" I said "Of course, isn't everyone here?" He replied "Oh my, you don't know — you're the only one who doesn't have to be here. All the rest of these fellows are on work release from prison!" He then recommended a few cooking schools around the country and told me about this small school in New Haven, the Culinary Institute of America [the school moved to Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1972]. He gave me a letter of recommendation and I was off.
What was the first dish you made you felt proud of?
It was a night when my sister and I where home alone and I made Pastorelli Pizza from a box. You mixed the pre-portioned flour and yeast with water and let it rise, then pressed and flipped out a pizza like disc and coated it with the supplied sauce, but then it was up to me. Pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, mozzarella, and romano, baked to a crispy turn. It was a masterpiece of fast food, and I felt like a magician!
What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?
Hands by far, from cuts to burns, stiffness and arthritis — they took the brunt of the abuse.
What was the closest you came to quitting the business and finding something saner?
Actually, we are quitting and starting a new life in Hatfield, Massachusetts. On our 25th anniversary, my wife, Angie, and I took our first substantial time away from the business since we had opened, a 32-day cruise through Asia. We came out of it as different people and decided to change our lives, and an exit plan was born. We sold Coquette to two former employees, Nick and Chris, in 2010, and sold Sanford in December of 2012 to our chef de cuisine, Justin, who had worked with us for 10 years. This enabled us to start our new life at Good Stock Farm on the banks of the Connecticut River, where we are doing personal hands-on cooking classes in our newly built place. It's my dream kitchen in Angie's dream home.
What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career?
In the beginning, it was a struggle between my mother's "Midwest Succulent Mastery of Pork" against my grandfather's "Southern Italian Brilliance" from the first bite of his meatballs with mostaccioli. But I was swayed for years by his ethereal beef spiedini. When I started cooking school in the early ‘70s we were shown a movie, The French Lunch, about a day in the kitchen at La Caravelle in New York City. I was seduced, but at the same time completely frightened, as this was something I just had to do but I didn't know if I could ever be that good. Upon meeting and starting to work for chef Peter Van Erp at the C.I.A., a whole new world of exotic cuisine was opened up to me. His range and depth of knowledge could whisk you around the world faster than the Internet, all the while feeling like you were actually visiting those exotic ports of call; he was truly an unmatched visionary of ethnic cuisines that were almost untouched by Americans at that time. The combination of his tutelage along with the precision and repetition of working in classic French kitchens of New York City shaped my food vision of modern ethnic cuisine. This became the blueprint for the food at Sanford. But after 45-plus years of cooking, when I just want to be soothed, I always go back to a red sauce palette.