— My first job objective after college was to hold on to the job I had while I was in college. It was at Stuff Yer Face, a landmark stromboli and beer joint on Easton Avenue on the Rutgers University main campus. It was my first restaurant job, and I liked it. I started out washing dishes and eventually became the fastest line cook in the place. On second thought, Mitchell Ostrander was faster. But I had more flair.
Anyway, what I got out of that first job — besides a serious addiction to the adrenaline rush of working at full tilt in a restaurant kitchen that I never recovered from — was a sense of confidence about who I was. I learned that I liked working extremely hard. I learned that I could handle stress by kidding around and keeping it real. And I learned what may just have been the most useful piece of knowledge of my entire career to date: how to clean a blisteringly hot deep-fat fryer filled with stinking grease and detritus — and why you have to do it, disgusting as it may be.
I’m not kidding. It turns out to be a metaphor. Cleanliness is next to tastiness. Cook with a dirty fryer and you cook garbage. Start with a clean fryer and you get something perfect, simple, and poetic. Just like all of cooking, and all of life. Garbage in, garbage out. Truth in, truth out.
One day, not long after I graduated from college, I woke up and realized that I’d learned all I was going to learn from cleaning that deep fryer at Stuff Yer Face — and that I was hooked on the idea of the restaurant business, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. So I took off for London and signed up for cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu. Whatever. I got a job working at a pub, where the chef was this crazed Brit named Marco. At the time, he was just a cook with a nasty temper who threw things at people — a working-class half-Italian kid from the slums of Leeds. But I could tell there was some kind of weird but formidable genius there. So I stuck it out and learned what I could from his inventive, balls-of-steel cooking style.
We were both in our early twenties. In the next few years, he morphed into Marco Pierre White, one of the most famous, flashiest and wealthiest chefs in the world. He’s a brilliant, media-savvy entrepreneur, and he’s always known how to make himself larger than life. I hated the guy, but I have to say, rubbing shoulders with him just when I did taught me how to think on a much larger scale and got me interested in becoming a chef with a real, bold point of view. Working under him also taught me the value of not being an asshole, and I’m actually still grateful for that. But, most of all, what I got out of that experience was: You gotta get a brand.
Stuff Yer Face and Greasy Tony’s were my two hangouts when I was at Rutgers, and looking back, I realize they were the first places I ever had brand loyalty to. I would walk half a mile at night all the way from the River dorms — Campbell 614 — just to spend four bucks on a boli or a cheese steak. You see, the thing I knew back then, just as now, is that brand loyalty is all about truth and heart.
I buy a lot of stuff, usually on the Internet. I buy what I feel like buying, and I don’t think much about who I’m buying it from. I fly on whatever airline is going where I want to go. Who cares? But when it comes to restaurants, that’s where I feel brand loyalty. There are restaurants all over the world that have me exactly where the marketing people at Coors or Nike or Lexus would love to have me. And that’s because those restaurants have carved out a little corner of my heart and my mind and planted something true, real, consistent and creative that makes me want to come back.
That’s what Marco Pierre White figured out. And that’s what I learned along the way, too. For better or for worse, I’ve got a brand. The orange clogs, the ponytail, the attitude, my seeming fluency in Italian. It’s instantly recognizable. But what matters to me is it’s not fake.
What I started figuring out after I left school and began poking around the world is that you’ve got to pay attention to the truth. It’s not an intellectual thing — it’s a gut thing. My truth is that I love real, honest, passionate, intense experiences. Experiences that don’t apologize for themselves or claim to be something they aren’t. That’s what I want to give people when they eat in my restaurants or watch my shows or read my books. Truth, passion, intense hits of joy. That’s my brand. Trust me. It sounds cheesy, but it’s not. Sooner or later, you’ve got to get a brand. And I’m not talking about marketing or focus groups or giving a second thought to what anyone else thinks. The kind of brand I’m talking about is nothing more — and nothing less— than your own truth, expressed consistently by you.
I’m Italian. It’s a huge part of who I am. I grew up in a big family of brilliant home cooks who had that Italian killer instinct about food and celebration and connecting with people. And I spent a lot of time in Italy growing up. So after cooking in London and San Francisco and Santa Barbara, in places like the Four Seasons Hotel, I figured something out. Just as college-level econ courses can prepare you only so much for the real world, cooking schools and hotel kitchens can teach you only so much about cooking. The rest you’ve got to find and experience for yourself. And, of course, there’s no right answer. It’s about finding what’s true for you, and you know it when you see it. Me, I had a hunch that Italy was where I ought to look.
I asked my dad to write to some of his buddies in the restaurant business in Italy to ask if they knew about apprenticeships, jobs, dishwashing opportunities, whatever, and he sent out a bunch of letters. He got one response. It was from a tiny family-run trattoria in a town way up in the hills between Bologna and nowhere. That was all I needed to know.
I showed up a few weeks later with a small duffel bag and a guitar. The town, Borgo Capanne, is not much more than a few crappy little houses on either side of a windy mountain road. But there it was. Trattoria La Volta. Twenty-five seats. Fine crystal stemware. Exquisite table linens and silverware. And the kind of country elegance that is (a) quintessentially and uniquely Italian, (b) totally unpretentious, and (c) perfect. I had agreed to work there for a few months. I wound up staying for three years.
For me, La Volta was the ultimate cooking school and the ultimate window on the world. I’d been a sous-chef. I thought I knew how to cook. But Betta and Mara — the two women who ran the kitchen at La Volta — they were cooks. They knew truths they didn’t even know they knew. And, as I worked and goofed around and hung out with them over those years, I didn’t so much learn as internalize those truths.
I hardly even want to tell you what kind of truths they were. They sound like clichés. Things like the best food is the truly simple stuff of home cooks, made with perfect ingredients that reflect that place and that one moment in time. Or great Italian food comes not from opulence and extravagance but from poverty, invention and honesty. I could go on all day. But what I’m really saying is that spending three years in the hills of Emilia-Romagna at that point in my life was the experience that made everything gel for me.
I hung out. I watched. I made an ass of myself. I became the only man in Emilia-Romagna to learn how to roll pasta by hand in a hundred years. But ultimately I made that experience my own. At some point, what you’ve taken in turns into your take on things, and comes back out as something original. I kind of knew it was happening and I kind of didn’t. But the Mario I am today is the Mario I figured out I was at La Volta.
I came back to the U.S. and opened a restaurant in New York, where I took the ideas behind what I’d learned at Trattoria La Volta and reinvented them. I wanted people to feel like they were eating food that the kind of great Italian cooks at La Volta would make if they moved to New York and had really good local ingredients to work with. That’s all. Just that simple idea. Well, it worked. And it still appears to be working.
The more fake and commercialized the world gets, the more people respond to things that have a real core of truth. I believe that every human being is hardwired to recognize that. Whatever you choose to do with your life — whether it’s running a company or cooking dinner — stand for something you know is true. If there’s a recipe for success, it’s staying real and true.
Which reminds me: Life is not a recipe. Recipes are just descriptions of one person’s take on one moment in time. They’re not rules. People think they are. They look as if they are. They say, “Do this, not this. Add this, not that.” But, really, recipes are just suggestions that got written down.
You want a recipe? Boil some spaghetti in well-salted water. While you’re doing that, heat up some good extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet and throw in thin slices of garlic and some red-pepper flakes. When the pasta’s cooked, toss it in the skillet. Throw in some chopped parsley and a little of the pasta water. Toss it around. Put it on a plate. Grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Congratulations, dude. You’ve just made spaghetti all’aglio e olio. One of the greatest simple truths of humankind — and a damn good emergency dinner. That’s a recipe. It’s an idea. It’s a dish. It’s an icon. It’s an experience. It’s not rules. As you cook up your own life, never let anyone else’s recipe for success intimidate you or get in your way. Know your own truth, and live by it.