Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Cesare Casella

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Cesare Casella grew up around his parents' trattoria, Vipore, in the hills above the Tuscan city of Lucca. Dedicated to the idea of becoming a chef, he enrolled in the Istituto Alberghiero [hotelier's school] Ferdinando Martini in Montecatini when he was only 14, then returned to Vipore to work in the kitchen. With his influence, the trattoria gained an international reputation and a Michelin star. Casella moved to New York in the early 1990s, becoming executive chef of Coco Pazzo and launching Il Toscanaccio. In 2001, he opened his own place, Beppe (which closed in 2010). In 2006, Casella began serving what he called "Tuscan cowboy food" at Maremma in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, two years later opening Salumeria Rosi on the Upper West Side, in partnership with the noted Italian cured-meat producer Parmacotto. He subsequently added another Salumeria Rosi on the Upper East Side. He also runs Republic of Beans, importing heirloom beans (Tuscans are known as "mangiafagioli" — "beaneaters" — for their love for these legumes) and other quality food products. He is also Dean of Italian Studies at New York's International Culinary Center.

What's your earliest food memory?

Whole roast lamb with potatoes cooked in the wood-burning oven. I think I was six years old and it was Easter. It was the first time that I connected the holidays with food.

When did you first decide that you wanted to be a chef, and why?

When I was three years old, my family moved into a house outside of Lucca that had a restaurant called Vipore on the first floor. We lived upstairs, my parents ran the restaurant, and I spent all of my time in the kitchen watching my mamma cook. I loved to watch her and eventually I would help her in the kitchen. And when I was old enough to see over the tables, I would help my father take care of our customers in the dining room. I think I always knew that I wanted to cook like my mamma. Also, like every rebellious son, when my parents told me that they did not want me to become a chef and that instead I should be a lawyer or a doctor... that was when I really knew that I would go to culinary school and become a chef.

Who was your most important culinary influence?

My mom. But also my aunts and the moms of my friends. Most young kids probably want to go to the movies with their friends or play outside but I was always happy to be invited for lunch or dinner at my friends' houses so I could watch how their moms were cooking in the kitchen. But really I don't think I realized this until after I finished culinary school. Another big influence for me was my father. He is the person who taught me so much about the importance of the quality of ingredients and to always buy food that looks happy.

What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?

From my father it was about having respect for the ingredients. He taught me to use only the best quality and to always know where my food came from. And he always knew how to find the best product. I remember we would drive for hours by car just to find the best mushrooms at the market. From my mom I learned to always have respect for cooking and for Italian cuisine. She taught me about having love and passion for food.

What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out? [pullquote:left]

To be focused and work hard. Always be curious, ask lots of questions, but also listen and take it all in. When you take a job, think about your future. Figure out what tools and lessons will work best for you but try not to be judgmental. Always respect the chef you are working with. And always remember to enjoy where you are. Be open-minded about new things and new cultures. I always tell young chefs to travel and taste everything. If there is a specific cuisine that you like — maybe Italian food — go spend time eating and working in Italy. But try not to go somewhere too touristy. You want to make sure to experience authenticity.

When and why did you first come to America, and specifically to New York?

The very first time I came to the United States was for vacation in New York. Always I would come to New York on my vacations to visit my friends. After New York I remember that the second U.S. city I visited was San Francisco and the Napa Valley. But really New York is the city that I always loved. The nightlife and the culture in the 90s were incredible and when I was offered a job at Coco Pazzo in New York I was very excited about moving. But still I wasn't ready to leave Italy behind, so instead I decided to be a consultant for Coco Pazzo and I would come to New York for one week each month. Finally in 1992 I decided to move to New York permanently to become the executive chef at Coco Pazzo. Now I have been in New York for more than 20 years. 

How has the Italian restaurant scene changed, if at all, in the years you've been here?

I think it has changed a lot. In the '80s and '90s many of the Italian restaurants were influenced by the Ital-American immigrant cuisine. At the same time there were also the Italian restaurants like Coco Pazzo and Le Madri with Italian chefs in the kitchen making Italian food like we had in Italy. But I want to be clear that Ital-American immigrant cuisine for me is not better or worse than Italian cuisine, it is just different — a different feel, and different flavors and ingredients.

Today I think there is another chapter of Italian cuisine. The chefs are mostly American and they are creating food that could maybe be found in Italy but really you don't find this kind of food in Italy. It is more energized and more creative and innovative. There is a new generation of chefs in the U.S. and they are cooking what I think of as a new Ital-American cuisine. They respect Italian culture, the Italian philosophy and always have respect for the ingredients, but it tastes and feels different. I think these chefs and this new Ital-American cuisine is one of the reasons that Italian food is now the most popular.

What are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about real Italian food?

I think the biggest misconception is that everyone thinks we only eat big portions of heavy pizza and pasta with tomato sauce. But in fact Italians eat very light. We eat fish, meat, and fresh vegetables and we cook based on the season and the ingredients that are available. Also, I think that everyone thinks it's difficult to cook Italian food well. But it's easy. Just be honest, simple, and always use fresh ingredients.

Do restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?

Yes, for sure. It is my responsibility as a chef and restaurateur to inform my customers about how they can be good, healthy, and smart eaters both in my restaurant and in their own homes.

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?

I think I have two. One is more of a traditional food business and the other is something outside of my restaurant work. The first is to continue my work with Italian-style domestic salami. I have spent a lot of time developing my own salami line and now I am in the process of creating my own factory. My other dream project is something that I am actively working on at The Center for Discovery , a residential program for the developmentally disabled in Sullivan County, NY where I am the Chief of the Department of Nourishment Arts (DNA). DNA believes that food is medicine and our culinary, nutrition, and farming teams are together focused on exploring the interconnections between the environment, nutrition, and human health. My goal right now is to make The Center for Discovery completely self-sustainable year 'round. Of course this is a big challenge — especially in upstate New York where the growing season is only four to five months long — but I am confident that we are going to achieve this goal as we work now on extending the growing season.