Chef Damon Wise
Craft | New York
Damon Wise, a Baltimore native, got his first taste of fresh, seasonal ingredients during childhood summers on the Chesapeake Bay Shore. There Damon enjoyed seafood caught that day by his grandfather and just-picked produce from his grandmother’s garden.
Damon began his professional cooking career to earn extra money while studying at West Virginia University. After graduating in 1993 with degrees in Psychology and Liberal Arts, Damon tried his hand at real estate and sales, but soon realized that cooking was all he could think about. Despite his mother’s doubts in the stability of a chef’s career, Damon enrolled in the Professional Cooking and Baking programs at Baltimore International Culinary College, and graduated in 1996.
After working at several hotels and restaurants across the United
States, including Le Bec Fin under George Perrier in Philadelphia
and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV, Damon
decided to travel through France, staging at both Taillevent
and Apicius in Paris. Damon always knew that New York was
his ultimate career destination, and moved there after his travels
to work in Gramercy Tavern, Lespinasse and Cello.
In 2004, he was hired as chef de cuisine at Tom Colicchio’s
Craft and climbed to executive chef position in April 2007.
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WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
DW: I started at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, then I went back to West Virginia to work in the dining room of the Greenbrier Resort. When I came to New York I worked at Gramercy Tavern, then I left for Lespinasse to work under Christian Dulouvrier. I was the last guy hired and the first guy fired there, but I loved working for him. After that I went to Cello to work with Laurent Tourondel, who was great. Then I came to Craft.
WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
DW: I don’t think
it’s worth it. I already had a foundation for cooking when
I went, I just needed to refine myself.
WB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
DW: Tom Colicchio, from
a business standpoint.
WB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
DW: I traveled through
France and staged at Taillevent and Apicius. When
I was there, the whole 3 Michelin star thing really clicked for
me – I learned what it takes to cook at that level.
WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
DW: I used to ask for a
one year commitment right away. I need to know they’re committed
and they really want to do the job. Line cooking sucks – you
have to love it and work hard.
WB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under-utilized? Why?
DW: Heritage products with
really honest flavor, like Berkshire pork.
WB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
DW: Sweet and sour or salt
WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
DW: A cake tester –
they can control temperature. A lot of French chefs use them. I
really like my Vita-Prep, too, but I still need to really learn
all of its applications.
WB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and used in an unusual way?
DW: I’ve been really
in to using emulsifiers like agar and lecithin.
WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
DW: I’m drawn to
chef-driven cookbooks. I like all the Julia Child and Vincent Price
WB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
DW: Spain for tapas –
I learned a lot about how standard dishes can range in quality there.
I’ve been to Italy and France as well. I’d like to go
to Japan to learn about raw fish.
WB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
DW: When I’m not
in the restaurant, I really like to just eat at home, but my favorite
places in the city are PJ Clarke’s, Casa Mono,
and Room 4 Dessert.
WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
DW: Circus and entertainment-driven
restaurants, which I’m not a fan of. Molecular gastronomy
should be done well and should do justice to the food.
WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DW: Food has to taste good
and the diner needs to feel like they got their money’s worth.
WB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
DW: My father, because
he would be floored to see how far I’ve come.
WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community on a national and global level?
DW: I work with SOS and
Children of Bellevue. I’m interested in any organization that
helps young people.
WB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
DW: I’d still be
working with my hands, maybe a doctor.
WB: What does success mean for you?
DW: It would mean opening
a successful fine dining restaurant in New York, maybe 110 to 120
seats. Fine dining is dying – I’d like to help bring
it back. It would be great to win a James Beard award. Mostly I
think being successful should make you want to spread your wealth
and get involved in the community.
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