Chef Jason Neroni
10 Downing | New York
Chef Jason Neroni has spent half of his life in the kitchen. At 16, Neroni started his career near his hometown of Orange County, CA at Disneyland working at Blue Bayou and Club 33. While these first exploits were undertaken mainly to get free entrance into the park, Neroni soon recognized a natural proclivity towards cooking.
Beginning with a move to San Francisco in 1997 to work in the famed kitchen of Chez Panisse, Neroni developed his skills along with an understanding of the importance of working together with local farmers and producers to promote sustainable agricultural practice. Neroni returned to Los Angeles to help open Wolfgang Puck’s Spago before moving to New York City. He quickly found his footing in the big city, landing gigs at some of Manhattan’s top restaurants, including Tabla, Blue Hill, and Essex House. The last experience led him to work for Alain Ducasse in Monaco and Paris, where he honed his skills (and his French) at AD Louis XV and AD Champs-Elysees.
Returning to New York, Neroni worked at The Tasting Room before getting the itch to travel once again. In 2004, after traveling and working in Spain where he staged with the likes of Juan Mari Arzak, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and Ferran Adrià, Neroni came back to New York with a fresh arsenal of skills and took over as executive chef of 71 Clinton Fresh Food. Neroni then worked as the Chef Spokesman for Glaceau Vitamin Water, touring schools nationwide to promote healthy, conscientious eating habits through cooking demonstrations and competitions.
In September of 2008, Neroni was opening chef at 10 Downing Food & Wine. The restaurant’s philosophy reflects Neroni’s ongoing commitment to supporting local farms and producers along with the skills he has garnered throughout his travels and career. Neroni recently announced his amicable break with 10 Downing and plans to move back to LA.
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Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jason Neroni: I was inspired when I was 16. I’m from Orange County and I grew up on Taco Bell and surf food. I got a job in Disneyland and they put me to work in a kitchen making scalloped potatoes, etc. I took a liking to it and the chefs told me I was good. They put their arms around me and guided me on my way.
KM: Did you go to culinary school?
JN: I didn’t. They put me under the apprenticeship program at Disney from ages 16 to 19.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
JN: That’s a sticky question. I didn’t go to school so I always thought on the job training is better. But it’s a double edged sword because a lot of people won’t let you in [to their kitchens] without training. It definitely opens doors.
KM: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
JN: Read and eat. Eat as much as you can, wherever you can. I know most cooks are broke but you can go to Chinatown and get noodles or go to Jackson Heights and get Indian food. And read about your elders and what they’ve done, like Escoffier and Bocuse. Those are the founders and they set the foundation.
KM: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JN: It’s harvest season and we’re using so many different tomatoes right now. We’re doing smoked tomatoes with garlic vinaigrette and dehydrated parmesan. We’re doing a very beautiful golden tomato gazpacho that has spicy yogurt and mint pesto. I like things like that. I’m definitely a chef who relies heavily on seasons.
KM: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
JN: I love black pepper. I think a lot of people don’t think about it and how they use it and how it works well with tomatoes, or if you use to much you can destroy it. I hate white pepper.
KM: What is the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JN: At 71 Clinton one of my cooks called out sick because one his family members died. So I had to cook everything by myself that night—garde manger, meat, fish, pastry, everything.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JN: I think of food as life. Life is a bunch of different experiences and food is a bunch of different experiences. So many people have so many different styles and I love to experience those things. That includes dining. It’s all about the experience.
KM: What is your favorite tool?
JN: My pasta Machine or my knife (a Missono carbon).
KM: What tool do you wish you had?
JN: A C-Vap steamer.
KM: What is your favorite cookbook?
JN: Jeremiah Tower anything!
KM: What is your favorite food resource?
JN: Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli
KM: What is your most important kitchen rule?
JN: Be clean.
KM: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JN: I was just in Maine last week and that’s always fun; I like to hit all the fish shacks. I love crab and fresh lobster so I can never get enough. I love the burger culture of southern california. And of course there’s always San Sebastian.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JN: I’ve done demos with FCI and taken stagiers from FCI. I’ve done charity work with City Harvest. I support my local farmers that set up shop in the West Village. I try to support them as much as possible.
KM: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant?
JN: Yes, we recycle everything! Grease, food scraps, bottles, and we reuse paper. We do our best to source locally.
KM: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JN: We’re pretty busy. One challenge is that we’re going to lose the patio when it’s winter so we’ll lose 40 seats. We’re trying to open a wine bar next door.
KM: What are you doing to survive in this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
JN: I guess it helps to have a beautiful patio on Bleeker Street and 6th Avenue. We serve food with focus. Sixty-five percent of our sales are food so we’re doing something right. Serving fresh, local good food that people want helps. There’s no pretense to this food.
KM: What steps have you taken to become a sustainable restaurant?
JN: All of our meat comes within a 90-mile radius. Most of our fish is from Long Island or New England. Most people don’t know that we have our own farm, our own chickens, squash, etc., and that we’re doing our own greens. It’s in New Gloucester, ME. The owner of the restaurant bought a 300-acre farm. It’s a completely and totally sustainable farm on its own. We recycle and we compost.
KM: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JN: I went to acting school in LA and I also went to art school, so I’d either be an actor or a graphic designer.
KM: What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
JN: Probably 10 Downing. I got into this project in 2007 and it was a raw space; I saw it from inception, I designed the kitchen. When someone gives you half a million dollars to design [a restaurant] and see it from the ground up and to still be open and get the accolades we do—that’s a very large accomplishment.
KM: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
JN: My wife and I have a two month old son now and we’re very family oriented. I look to the west. I don’t know if New York is in my future. I’d like to be in the West Coast. My family is there. I’d like to open my own place somewhere out there.
KM: In your own words, what is “American Cuisine” to you?
JN: It’s international. It’s a melting pot and I take my influences from everywhere, whether we’re using peppers or Irish paprika. It’s the utilization of everyone-and-everything techniques, from roasted chicken to dashi broth.
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