I started learning how to cook through my mom. It might sound clich√© — a lot of people say that. My dad would work and my mom would take care of the house and cook. At an early age, I actually would cook pancakes and always help out in the kitchen. But you don’t realize it, I guess, until later and it sparked that, “hey, this is something that I really, truly love to do.” So I decided to do it professionally.
Before I took the leap to go to culinary school, I did some research. I would actually work in a restaurant and see if that’s what I really wanted to do. The reality is if you don’t like doing it, you’ll know within the first day.
I liked it. So I went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After graduating in 2000 first in my class, first class of 2000, I decided to get right into the game and was brought into Windows on the World by Mike Lomonaco.
How did that come about?
I was involved in the Gourmet Society. It was one of the largest clubs at school. We had the largest budget, so we had the opportunity to invite a lot of chefs to come and do celebrity-type chef tasting event. We had a handful of chefs that we would invite in and we were the meet-and-greet and so it was great connections, great ties, and he (Lomonaco) came and took a liking to my personality. He was the first chef I contacted of many chefs and I decided to take his position at the Windows of the World.
So you were a chef at Windows on the World?
I started just as a cook. You don’t get out of Culinary Institute and become a chef. You have to start as a cook and work your way around the line, so to speak. And the line is basically all the stations. And then if that’s something that you shine at, then you get the opportunity to become the next in line, which would be sous chef–something of that sort.
When did you leave Windows on the World?
I worked at Windows on the World until the Towers were devastated. And not to touch on the subject too much, I was going in that day for work. So when the Towers fell down, I didn’t just want to sit back. I always have a drive and I always have to keep moving, so I had a contact through school that one of my first instructors, I thought, was working at this restaurant on the Upper East Side. When I went there to try to meet with him he wasn’t there, but his overseeing executive chef was there — her name was Marta Pulini — and she worked with the Coco Pazzo organization for Pino Luongo. She hired me on the spot two days later after the Towers fell down. I was working at Coco at 74th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, and there was nobody on the streets.
Did anybody come into the restaurant?
That first day, two days after the Towers fell down, interestingly enough, I was basically feeling it out and I wanted to see where the dining room was. I like to get a vibe of the place, so I peeked in the dining room and there was a gentleman staring at me and we were glancing at each other back and forth, so I didn’t know who it was. I went back in the kitchen and my executive chef who was working there at the time said to me, “Oh, did you meet Mr. De Niro “and I was like, “Oh yeah,” and I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t know who that guy was, but apparently, it was him and so he was my first customer.
Do you remember what he ordered?
I came to know him because he became a regular. He usually ordered pasta and broccoli rabe. And we had our own homemade pastas, so that is something he would choose. He usually came with his sons. I became quite friendly with his wife at the time, Grace Hightower, who is a great lady.
What inspires your menu items?
You have to take little pieces of things you found along the way — it’s part of creating. Nothing is new. I’m not inventing the wheel here; I’m just trying to make the wheel a little bit better. And it’s just a matter of whether you work with so-and-so’s chef or you’ve seen some cuisine you’ve tasted and you’ve picked a little flavor profile and if you’re like me, you try to add that to something because I really enjoy it.
In the end it’s really about what I enjoy, so that’s how the menu is here. It’s mostly what I love or some people I know love and then I put that on the menu. You have to bring things from other cultures and other experiences you’ve had.
Where does The Orange Squirrel name come from?
It really comes from a lot of reasons and no reason, if that makes sense. It could be something as simple as an animal and a color together. In hindsight, this place used to be called Oak Tavern, so oak trees–acorns–oak trees–squirrels–acorns. We have Orange Street on the corner — I love the color orange. Squirrels are zany. They run around sort of like we do in the kitchen. They’re always scrambling and efficient. What other creature will put food and store it in a spot and find it somewhere down the road and hatch it up and eat it?
It was a name that somebody could remember. How often have you eaten at a really great restaurant and you don’t really remember the name of that restaurant? How could you not remember the name of a restaurant that was so amazing? I was hoping that this was a name that was more familiar and someone could relate with and remember.
It falls in line with sort of the gastro type of places in Manhattan, such as — and I don’t say we’re on the same level — the Spotted Pig. Really loud, really obnoxious, great food, cool caliber place. I just dined at Little Owl. Again, maybe 27 seats, small kitchen, cool name. There are those similarities.
What other restaurants do you like to go to?
This past Sunday, my wife and I went to Brooklyn to Roberta’s on Moore Street. It’s a really, really creative place. They have a garden in the back, which is insane. They make really great pizza. But do you find horrible pizza in Brooklyn? Most pizza is great in Brooklyn. The vibe of the place is really artsy. We hit Moto after that. Then we hit the Little Owl.
If I was in town, I’m a big fan of Blu and Zod (the owner) . We’ve become quite friendly in the business and he was my lead to Roberta’s, which was a fabulous lead.
What do you like to cook for your family when you’re home?
Not easy — it’s not often. I enjoy doing brunch. I love doing breakfast. When we did have more family time, it would be early on Sunday, around 11ish and we would do pancakes and waffles. I’d make some spiked syrups. Different butters — a squash butter, a pumpkin butter. Of course, we do the home fries, sausage links.
If I would have my way, I would have this place open seven days a week and have brunch here on Sunday. I’m a big fan of brunch.
Business has been good. We are doing fine. We have great customers. They’re always different. And of course, we have regulars, which is awesome. We have that traffic that’s Monday through Thursday. That Monday-through-Thursday traffic sustains your restaurant.
Who in the culinary world do you look up to?
There are so many obvious ones. Of course the new chefs, Jean-Georges (Vongerichten), Jo√´l Robuchon, Alain Ducasse. I do follow the beginning chefs, such as Fernand Point and Careme. These are the chefs that really made the scene. They were really the ones who started the high-end culinary revolution of doing things in a spectacular way. It’s hard because there are so many great chefs.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who would like to start a restaurant?
I would just say if you really, really love doing something, whatever it is, I suggest you do it and do it to the fullest. Don’t let anybody steer you off the path. Just do everything you can to get to that point. It’s as simple as drawing a line and just keep going towards that direction and don’t stop for anything. Just listen to yourself.