Since bursting onto the scene at Graydon Carter’s star-studded The Waverly Inn 10 years ago, John DeLucie has become a celebrity himself, opening glitterati-adored & eateries like The Lion, Crown and Bill’s Food and Drink, and publishing a Salman Rushdie-blurbed tome, entitled “The Hunger: A Memoir of an Accidental Chef.” Not that his wild ride has been completely without bumps — in fact, this past year has been positively riddled with them — including law suits, shady financial dealings surrounding his partner, and closures within Crown Group; his multi-million dollar hospitality outfit.
Which is why DeLucie’s recently opened Bedford & Co (a totally independent venture from Crown Group, located within The Renwick Hotel) is uncharacteristically low key, sidestepping signature dishes like Mac and Cheese showered with truffles, for much more simple, affordable fare, such as Berkshire Pork Chops with braised red cabbage, cooked over a wood-fired grill. And while he’s remained expectedly mum about going-on within his embattled hospitality group, DeLucie gamely chatted with us about balancing his lifelong love for the spotlight with his current search for serenity, and how his humble beginnings at a pizza parlor may just have inspired him to come full circle to open up his own pizza joint.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
No, I wanted to be Jimmy Page. I wanted to wear shirts open to my navel and play guitar for 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. That was my very practical plan. Basically, I was taking up a lot of space at NYU. But when I was in school, my brother and I lived in my grandmother’s brownstone in Carroll Gardens, and I took over the job of cooking for us. I tried to duplicate all the dishes my mother had made for us; chicken cutlets, Sunday sauce, spiedini. And I became more and more interested in it. After I left school, I did a lot of different jobs, sold advertising, hustled, acted as headhunter for insurance executives, and realized how unhappy I was after eight years. So I took a class at the New School, and the teacher’s husband ended up giving me a job as a pizza apprentice at a place across from Bloomingdales. And I was hooked.
What do you think it was about your time at The Waverly Inn that pretty much catapulted you to stardom? What stars were aligned?
Well, when you partner with Graydon Carter — the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair — in a beautiful location in the West Village, its kind of a fait accompli.
For a lot of chefs, the big goal is to eventually open a restaurant of their own, maybe get a Michelin star or James Beard award. Were you prepared for or in any way courting the fame and success that came a long with it, or do you think you would have been just as happy quietly stirring your sauces somewhere?
I think no matter what, you’re destined to be who you are. And I liked rock and roll, I liked the spotlight. Of course, I never thought much about it, beyond working hard and having fun and creating a cool place. I wasn’t thinking about stardom, necessarily, because that’s not what lights me up. What lights me up is making sure people have a great time. Fortunately for me, I don’t think too much about what people say in the paper.
As a chef that eventually became a formidable restaurateur, what were some of the hardest learned lessons for you when it came to thinking and acting like a businessman, as opposed to a creative type?
Well, I had those eight or nine years of sales training, which really came in handy when I had to raise money and put across my business plan. I was very clear about the process, which was really helpful. It’s scary to ask for money, but in sales, you ask for the order, and that ended up being really fantastic training for me as a restaurant owner.
So where do things stand now, with Bill’s, with The Lion, with Crown Group as a whole?
Yeah, unfortunately I can’t comment on that at the moment.
So your new restaurant, is in no way connected with Crown Group?
Tell me about Bedford & Co; how does it represent where you are now in your career?
It’s a casual place, not crazy expensive; we came up with a menu that’s really accessible, but totally delicious with focus on a wood-fired grill — I love the way the fat picks up the smoke. Very early in my career I worked with a wood-burning grill and oven at Nick & Toni’s, and I’ve been wanting to cook with fire since then. I was also inspired by my travels to places, like Uruguay, where they cook everything that way. So when the hotel people agreed to put in the grill and hood for me over at Bedford and Co., it was just tremendous.
If you were to dine as a guest, what would you order and why?
I would certainly order the pork chop, but everything’s great on the grill; the lamb ribs, the branzino, the oysters. It’s not a huge menu, so you can get through it in a few visits.
So what are some food and restaurant trends that you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I can’t say I even know what the trends are. For better or worse, I’m in my own little bubble. When this project started, I just really wanted to do something casual; I hate fussiness. But we have a big vegetable section on the menu, which I guess, if that’s a trend, it’s a great trend. We also have gluten free pasta, and a lot of vegetarian and vegan dishes. We’re aware of all the allergies and dietary rules that people are following now. But I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so maybe I’m getting just a bit too old to be hip anymore.
You are famously known for showering mac and cheese with truffles. But what would you say are some of the most over and underrated ingredients?
Mac and cheese with truffles is completely overrated. But listen, when truffles come back, trust me I’ll have them. I’m a man of the people. But I really do prefer the simple things. I’m a pasta guy; I love Aglia e Olio. But it’s difficult to do those dishes in bulk because they’re so simple; it’s so easy to do something wrong. I make a spaghetti with cod sauce at home every weekend, which I would never put on a menu because people would probably complain that it was too simple, and am big on baking bread; it’s just yeast, flour, water and salt. Four things coming together making this incredible product that can sustain life. It kind of blows my mind.
Besides your own places, where are some of your favorite spots to eat in the city when you’re really looking to treat yourself, and what are some of your favorite cheap, down and dirty places?
I go to Café China quite regularly. Yakitori Totto. I like to go to Marea. I live in the West Village, so I love my neighboring places like Morandi and Via Carota.
What next for you, and for Crown Group?
The TV adaptation of my memoir, “The Hunger,” is still bouncing around a bit, it may or may not happen. I’d like to work on another book. And I’m sure there will be projects down the road that I’ll just be more patient about choosing. I’d like to have a pizzeria someday and come full circle. That would be pretty cool.
You’ve already achieved so much in your career, is there anything else you’re really striving for, any remaining brass ring?
Serenity now! That’s basically it.