James Distefano discovered his culinary ambitions as a teenager growing up in Northvale, New Jersey, where he was surrounded by a family that was always cooking on weekends. As a young man, Distefano enrolled in the Hudson County Community College Culinary Arts Program, where he discovered a natural affinity for pastry. After working several jobs at local New Jersey restaurants, Distefano got a big break when he was tapped by a friend to work at Park Avenue Café in New York.
At Park Avenue Café, Distefano assisted pastry great Richard Leach and was eventually introduced to Chef David Burke. Burke was roundly impressed with the pastry chef’s work, and in December 2003 he asked Distefano to join him as executive pastry chef at david burke & donatella. With the pastry program at david burke & donatella, Distefano exhibited a remarkable ability to conceptualize and execute desserts that have since become signature items on the david burke menu—no small feat for a kid from the wilds of suburban New Jersey.
In 2008, Distefano was hired as executive pastry chef at Rouge Tomate, the New York outpost of a Belgian-born fine dining concept that combines the sophistication of haute cuisine with a progressive dietary philosophy. As executive pastry chef, Distefano must keep the ingredient- and technique-driven menu adherent to the philosophy of S.P.E.®, or Sanitas Per Escam (Health Through Food), a nutritional charter that offers a balanced approach to sourcing, preparing, and enhancing food for the sake of good health. But even without unlimited access to the buttery, sugary staples of the pastry chef’s traditional cabinet, Distefano is able to produce creative, satisfying desserts that showcase a skillful combination of textures, flavors, and sweet-savory balance with an emphasis on purity of flavors.