I guess it comes as no surprise that I spend a lot of time in professional kitchens. Usually - well, pretty much always - I’m there to create visual stories surrounding the executive chef, who, by nature, is the key player of the show.
However, no general can win a battle without a trusted hardworking army, without foot soldiers who are ready, willing and able to do the “dirty work”, often with little or no credit. At least not from the diners. Not that there’s anything odd about that, per se. The exec has paid his or her sweaty and exhausting dues at the meat station and earned the praise, often serving as great mentors for the next generation of super stars. Nothing comes from nothing.
The presence of a photographer can cause some added tension in the kitchen, because a photoshoot often takes place during prep for service, and interrupts everyone’s routine. I’m very well aware of the fact that me being there can feel invasive, so I make it my damn business to distribute hugs and high fives equally among everybody. I believe that everyone has a unique story to tell, and are of great worth in their own right.
And this is how I met Dennis Stella. I was doing a shoot at Viaggio Ristorante in Wayne, NJ, headed by young prodigy chef Robbie Felice, when Dennis came up to me and asked a simple, yet so obvious question: When are you going to do a story about the line cook?
Where and when were you born?
I was born in the city of Hackensack, NJ, in June of 1979.
What did you do before you started cooking?
I've been cooking my whole career. Starting from the age of 16, in professional kitchens, to the present.
When did you decide to go into cooking and what brought you to this path? Did you meet someone who inspired you? Did you grow up around cooking? Was cooking always an interest of yours?
I'm the only person I've ever met that knew what they wanted to be at the age of 5. I was constantly in search of information. I live to attain knowledge and put it to use. This has helped me grow into many roles in life and in the kitchen. I grew up in a half Italian second generation family originally from the Piemonte region. You may be familiar with the past Winter Olympics nearby in Torino and my personal favorite Barolo wine from the Piedmontese region. Also a mostly Polish part Estonian home. Both sides of the family were very good in the kitchen, well to me at least, and to others. I definitely grew up around cooking and I still have my first written recipe from the age of 6. Cooking was and has been my biggest interest and my family was the beginning of my inspiration. As I grew older and gained experience I looked to those who knew food inside and out, for instance Mario Batali and Jean Louis Palladin. Without these culinary greats, food as we know it would be suffering today as would more people with health issues.
You told me that you grew up in Asbury Park, NJ. Tell me about your childhood there, and your relationship with the place today.
As a young boy my father used to listen to local bands, some of whom are still around today. We would usually go at least a dozen times a year, arriving at or before sunrise and enjoying the whole day and night. Asbury was such a beloved place for those who loved music, as the venue the Stone Pony was the place where many artists began their careers, such as local heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, who my uncle coached nearby in little league. I spent countless hours exploring the boardwalk and all the attractions and to mine and my fathers delight there was a mini golf across from his favorite small venue, for me to enjoy while the bands played the music I grew up on.
One time I gave a quarter to a guy who had asked me for it to make a call on the pay phone outside the Stone Pony. “That was Bon Jovi who I just gave a quarter to”, I told my father. “He's a rock star”.
I remember there was a show where they didn't serve alcohol, as it was a show for kids to hear Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and many other great local rock artists. For the first time I got to see the inside of the place I'd spent countless hours outside of, with very cool people playing familiar songs.
Since then I've been back to Asbury Park only a handful of times to reminisce, though it still is very dear to me. The boardwalk has been built up and some of the houses I hear have been bought by Mr. Springsteen, and both him and Bon Jovi have invested in the community and will visit unannounced to play at local restaurants. I have yet to see them play again, though.
Who are your biggest heroes, both in and out of the kitchen?
I guess I'd have to say my biggest heroes have been those who push through and work for what is good for more people to be happy, informed, and healthy. Some chefs include Jean-Louis Palladin who was a pioneer in the American food industry, working tirelessly to serve amazing cuisine and changing the way American people and chefs see food. He was one of the first to say no to the rather unhealthy ways we as chefs purchased food, often buying the processed, bulk, and unnatural foods we as a country were accustomed to, and yes to local, fresh, and healthier foods.
Mario Batali is another chef who has been a hero with his extensive knowledge of the origins of the truly Italian recipes, and how to stick with something people may have found much different from the Italian-American versions served everywhere else. Lastly Terrance Brennan who has taught me to source the finest ingredients and treat every one of them with respect. I cook carrots with the same care I cook foie gras.
My biggest heroes have been my parents who since my childhood have supported me in my culinary journey. Both having struggled with injury and illness, they are still having the great attitude of being positive impacts in not only my life and career, but also many other’s lives. My father was paralyzed in his early twenties and my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after. They have shown me what it is to overcome great obstacles in life and be a kind and strong impact in other’s lives.
Do you cook on your days off?
Throughout the years if there was a technique, ingredient, or recipe I was interested in I would always cook or test at home for family and friends. I've been cooking on my days off for longer than some of my colleagues have, and it always makes me and others happy. And it improves my skill so everybody wins!
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I look forward and see myself owning and or running a restaurant similar to Viaggio. People may not know that eating local food with good local bacteria can boost your immune system. As well as being cheaper, local food tastes better. With over 20 years of experience I know I can teach younger cooks a skill they can live a happy life with, and to become something great if they choose to. Ive done the homework and it's worth every minute spent.
Now, how’s this for a smart, lovable, and insightful line cook? If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of 1055 Hamburg Turnpike, Wayne, NJ, go say hello!