With her spiky blonde hair and signature cowgirl skirt, chef Anne Burrell doesn’t quite fit the part of supporting character. Yet, until 2007, that’s what she played as Mario Batali’s sous chef on Iron Chef America. Before that, she trained in Tuscany, then returning to New York, worked under Lidia Bastianich at Felidiaand taught at I.C.E. for three years.But 2007 has been a very good year for Burrell: She not only made an impressive debut at Centro Vinoteca, but also inherited Gusto’s kitchen. Amidst a new wave of Italian trattorias, Anne distinguished herself with her “piccolini,” featuring truffled devil eggs, fried cauliflower wedges and eggplant cakes dabbed with ricotta. She also delivers an excellent fennel pollen-crusted pork chop and rabbit involtino.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What was your first job in food?
Fry girl at the McDonald’s in my town.
What was it like working with Lidia Bastianich atFelidia? How did you acquire the sous chef position at such a prominentItalian establishment so quickly?
When I came to New York I was 27 and had just returnedto the US after spending a year in Italy. I was really hungry for a work experiencethat I could use what I had learned in Italy. The opportunity to work for a woman also appealed to me. I guess Lidia recognized that I really wanted to work hard and learn a lot, or maybe I was in the right spotat the right time – who knows.
Working at Felidia was one of the toughest jobs I haveever had, mostly because I put so much pressure on myself. It was my first job in NYC and I was the only girl in the kitchen beside the pastrydepartment. I was determined to work harder than the guys in the kitchen.I was really uptight about the whole thing because I wanted so much to do agood job. The funny thing is I probably would have done a better job andhad a LOT more fun if I had just relaxed about the whole thing. I was pretty bitchy. Overall it was an incredible experience and I learned a tremendous amount. Lidia and Dodo are incredibly talented.
Early on in your career you took an unconventionalsabbatical from restaurants to teach at ICE for three years.
I took a job teaching because I was really burnt outfrom restaurants. I needed a change of scenery, but something stillinvolved with cooking and it definitely made me a better cook. It really made me question cooking techniques and ask myself a lot of “Why do I dothis…” sort of thing. I was able to answer these kinds of questions formyself. It made me decide what kind of cook I wanted to be.
What compelled you to return to the restaurant scene?
I missed restaurants. After three years of teaching I realized Ihad a LOT more to do with my career. Teaching is really a finish your careerkind of the rather than start your career kind of thing.
Tell us about your experience working as Mario Batali’ssous chef on Iron Chef America?
Iron Chef is really a stressful experience. It IS every bit as stressful as it seems. My philosophy is: I want to help as much as I can and I am not going to be the reason Mario loses. That being said, I love doing it. It really is a blast.
You recently made your first solo debut at CentroVinoteca. How did cope with the delayed opening and where did you create therecipes and your signature piccolini?
The delay was tough, but I think it all worked out very well. I tested recipes in my apartment for 9 months before theopening. Every week I would have my bosses Sasha Muniak (Centro/Gusto/Mangia owner)and George Elkins (VP of the company) and my publicists to my house for a tasting dinner. It was really fun but a lot of work. I don’t have a dishwasher (not so much fun) and I had to shop for everything. I think my arms stretched from carrying so many grocery bags. Piccolini came from my own desire to have little “snacky” things when I am looking over the menu & wine list when I go out for dinner. I miss them when I go to other restaurants.
You’re somewhat infamous for wearing a cowgirl skirt in the kitchen. Is this a good luck charm?
The cowgirl skirts are a good luck charm when we doIron Chef. I wore a kitty skirt one time and we lost, never again! I do wear a skirt everyday in the kitchen. Ifigure if all the old ladies in Italy wear dresses in the kitchen, why can’t I wear a skirt in NYC? I have been doing it for so long nowthat I don’t think I could go back to pants.
Centro Vinotecawas recently under review by numerous publications. What’s your reaction to the flurry of articles?
It is really a nerve-wracking experience. It is so hard to have something that you have worked so hard on and put your blood, sweat and tears into get picked apart by the public. I would read, reread and deconstructevery review, article or blog about Centro. I would go crazy overit. I think it is better to read them, take them for what they are and make changes if you need to, or not. That is really easy to say and impossible to do. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself – Do I really believe in what I’m doing? Am I making good food? Do I have the confidence in what I’m doing to be able to make my bosses, staff and the public believe in it? If I can answer yes to these questions then I can feel like I’m doing a good job.
You’ll be taking over in Gusto’s kitchen following Amanda’s Freitag’s departure. What do you envision for the new menu?
I want to keep the feel of Gusto. It is more upscale, elegant and refined than Centro. I really don’t have any specifics yet but I know that it will be fun and sexy.
How do you feel about pulling double duty at both Centro Vinoteca & Gusto?
I feel pretty great about it. It gives me a chance to do lots more stuff and really get creative.
What’s your favorite dish on Centro Vinoteca’s menu right now, and why?
They are all my favorites, but if I had to pick a favorite plus, it would be the porkchop or the pici pasta.
What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must pick one)?
I can’t pick one. All of the dishes are like my babies, I can’t and won’t say that I don’t like one or don’t believe in it. If I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t be on the menu.
What is your junk food of choice?
Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
What culinary trend do you most embrace?
What trend do you wish would die already?
I’m not super-psyched about chemical cookery. I respectit, but it’s not my cup of tea.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Are there any plans for future restaurants? Spill the beans…
My next restaurant project is Gusto. I really can’t wait to sink my teeth into that project. Beyond that I can’t really say- as far as I’m concerned the sky’s the limit!
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Until we eat again,
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