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.

Who is the most important American-born cookbook author of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?
Julia Child; she had the ability to appeal to serious food people and those folks who thought they had no interest in food beyond sustenance and bring them both to the same table. She was a mix of food professional and entertainer; without her, it would be quite a different culinary landscape in cookbooks and all recorded media.

Who is the most "mischievous" chef you have ever known?
Jean-Louis Palladin. He completely changed French food in America by freeing it from almost any traditional constraints and really celebrating great American products that were available and pushing producers to forage, harvest, and grow those products that they might not have known were within reach. He was one of the best pure cooks I have ever seen; he was almost effortless in the kitchen, never wasting a motion. I think he transformed the way a generation of chefs looked at ingredients and what they strove for. As focused as he was in the kitchen, though, he was always ready to play. He completely energized anyone around him and you were quickly drawn into his circle. He was an instigator, like the kid in high school who says "Wouldn't it be cool if we..." and the next thing you know you're jumping off the bridge.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with a "food person," living or dead, who would it be and why?
Fernand Point. His book, Ma Gastronomie, which I purchased in the early '70s, was like a magician's book with all the answers buried very close to the surface. I scoured over every word and built the perfectly proportioned layers of the marjolaine and reduced the heady blood-thickened grand veneur sauce for the saddle of venison all in my head before I had a chance to prepare the actual dishes years later. To spend an evening partaking in his magnificent cuisine, drinking from his great cellar, and most of all conversing with this chef who was not only at the forefront of cuisine at this time but also had the ability to pass on that knowledge to a generation of the best chefs in France — Chapel, Bocuse, Troisgros, Bise, Outhier — was unforgettable. But as we know, some of the best tales are from the front of the house, and I'm sure he could tell many tales laced with the humor and irony he was famous for.

Do you feel the cooking life caused you to sacrifice having a "normal" life?
It has been so long that the cooking life was the only "normal" that I knew from the age of 17 through school, apprenticing, and my early jobs in New York City. My wife, Angie, and I met back in 1980 in Milwaukee at John Byron's Restaurant and worked together for nine years. I was the chef and she was the assistant dining room manager for our last five years there, which was a helpful prelude to opening our own place, Sanford, in 1989, and Coquette Cafe in 1999. So for our 30-plus years of marriage, our "normal" was the restaurant life — Sunday off and the rest of the week was sporadic lunches and many, many late-night dinners/snacks surrounded by libations. Our only mainstream normality was vacation, which was usually spent either eating or in transit to eating. I never really thought of our life as abnormal and, even after we sold the restaurants, to this day I have a problem going out on the traditional Friday/Saturday nights even though we can. It just doesn't feel right.

What food or ingredient do you adore?
The ingredients are rhubarb and plums, my first backyard harvest as a kid, which are tart enough that you can completely control the desired sweetness or lack of sweetness in sweet or savory preparations. Anything Sicilian, breaded and sautéed to a crisp turn in olive oil, especially pork and veal. Spiedini of beef rolled with pork tomato sauce and infused breadcrumbs and skewered with slightly charred melting onions and bay leaf. Fried clams with chunky tartar sauce and any version of a Big Boy burger, a triple-decker layered with Thousand Island. Both wreak havoc on my aging stomach, but they are so worth it!

What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?
Those orange abominations, Circus Peanuts. I start to gag a bit as I'm typing the words! We used to have a huge jar near the check-out counter in my dad's grocery and every time the top was lifted I would get a waft of their disgusting odor. 

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
St John, Fergus Henderson's place in London. Still dreaming about my last time there. It was the most satisfying overall restaurant dinner of my life. I was actually sad and a little mad that we were not spending another day so that we could have another dinner before we left. Food, service, wine, setting, all exuding a simple confidence. It was the perfect sumptuous comfort zone that everyone tries for and very few achieve.

Music in the kitchen or no? If yes, who's on your playlist?
No, although some of my cooks thought it was because I started working in kitchens before they had radios. The truth was the only kitchen that played music was my first job. They played a Dionne Warwick tape that replayed throughout the whole day. It became like dripping water torture as I would "Say a Little Prayer" that the tape would break! The French kitchens that I worked in would barely let you talk, let alone listen to music, which was fine with me. I really embraced the rhythmic sounds of a professional kitchen and by the time I had my own kitchen, music was not even in the equation as I wanted everyone to focus on the sounds and aromas encircling them.

What famous guest(s) have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
The Dalai Lama. When I was asked to cook for him in 2007 in Madison, I assumed that, being a Buddhist monk, he was vegetarian. I was told that the monks were free to eat anything as long as it wasn't specifically killed for them — a tasty loophole! Local Wisconsin veal was suggested so I made a roast veal loin with grilled escarole and rhubarb essence, along with a chocolate dessert, and we supplied all of the bread, from our bakery Harlequin. When we were all going over the lunch menu we had a short tutorial on accepted protocol around the Dalai Lama. First, never approach or speak to him unless he asks and never turn your back on him. And as far as pictures went, he may happen to stop near you, but he won't pose. Because of heavy security, we had a window of lunch starting somewhere between 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. I was set up by 11, and an hour and a half later I was getting antsy, so I took a walk down the back stairs to the basement kitchen. Halfway down I was met by a blast of radiant red and gold robes as the Dalai Lama himself was leading an entourage of monks up the stairs. I froze in place and almost uttered a greeting but caught myself and, remembering protocol, started to moonwalk back up the stairs. I scampered back to my place behind the food set-up tables adjoining the dining room. Within seconds, the Dalai Lama appeared at the doorway, hesitating slightly to acknowledge bowing followers. He then came to a full stop looking our way and exclaimed, "Oh, the cooks! You want picture?" He then walked behind the serving table between all the cooks and sidled up right next to me, grabbing my hand as the photographers snapped away. My hand was sweating as he asked me "What's for lunch?" "I'm making roast veal with rhubarb," I said. "Oh, I love veal!" he replied, as smiley and giddy as a young kid. Since he fasts 'till the next day after his lunch, he was not a shy eater. He chowed throughout the luncheon, supplementing the plated food with nine slices of our black olive sourdough bread, not leaving a speck of food on his plates. At the end of lunch, he signed a book of his that Angie and I had brought along. He inscribed, "I hope you two have wonderful success and wonderful happiness in all your lifetimes." The experience of cooking and listening to the Dalai Lama really affected Angie and me. He spoke of compassion and love and ridding yourself of anger. You create the life you live in, so make it right and better. It made us realize that, as lifetimes go, we should be so lucky as to repeat this one!

Which guests, famous or otherwise, will not be welcome back and what did they do to get "fired"?
An unnamed all-male wine group who took over the entire restaurant and became so abusive to the female servers that we pulled them all off the party and kindly told the group to never return.

What's your favorite food movie (or food scene) of all time?
That would have to be a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, Goodfellas. The scene where Ray Liotta is in prison and they are putting together a feast with smuggled-in products. Watching Paul Sorvino slice wispy thin wafers of garlic with a razor blade for their pasta, well, my box of popcorn just wasn't cutting it! A brilliant scene in a perfect movie. Scorsese was "robbed" by the Academy as Dances With Wolves had no right to be best picture against this masterpiece.

Is "molecular" or "modernist" cuisine something you feel has made food better? Is it misunderstood? Is it a real thing?
I think any new technique or product that results in really delicious, interesting food is all right with me. I remember the anguished outcry during the '70s when nouvelle cuisine was starting out. The loudest critics where usually the most threatened. I think it's fascinating to see what is happening with food today and the best ideas are becoming commonplace in chefs' repertoires, as it has always been. The chefs that understand the history of food are the ones that really know if they are innovating or just recycling.

If it all came down to the world knowing your life's work through a single dish, as we sometimes know an author through a single book, what would that dish be?
I always have had a problem with the word "create," as the only time I did not have any outside influences was probably in the womb. I feel my food is a continual evolution of perfecting my craft. The one dish I would pick, though, is my Sicilian burger with green olives schiacciate and black olive semolina bun. Inspired by my grandfather, it tells you where I came from, who I am today, and how I got here. It's a memory on a bun and, as chefs, I feel memories are what we do best.

If you had not made it as a chef, and money were not an issue, what profession would you have chosen?
A film reviewer. Being in a dark theater, nestled in an overstuffed mohair seat with a huge bright screen playing a brilliant movie in front of me is perfect peace and fulfillment.

Would you want your children to become chefs? 
I would want them to have a profession that gave them the freedom to really enjoy cooking, drinking, and eating. Non-professional cooks have that blissful naïveté of what running a kitchen or restaurant is about. I personally found that to be successful in the business you have to get away from the part you love most — cooking.

If you wrote a book of advice for aspiring chefs, what would its title be?
Never Stop Learning.