Interview with Chef Anne Burrell of Centro Vinoteca – New York, NY

September 16

Antoinette F. Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Anne Burrell: When I was 3 years old, I went to my mom and told her I had a friend named Julia – she had no idea who I was talking about…but it was Julia Child. When I went to college I was cooking and eating a lot, and that started to spark that interest, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef.

I started out as a waiter and it was so great – work is over at night you’ve got a bunch of cash in your pocket, you go out get drunk, come home, sleep late and then start all over again. Then my parents told me it was time to get a real job. A visit to a job recruiter confirmed my decision to never work in an office, and soon after I had an epiphany. I remember where I was, what I was doing, what day, everything. I knew I was too young to be so miserable – so I decided to go to CIA.

AFB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
AB: Along with Felidia, La Bottega del Trenta in Tuscany was my most influential work experience. It's rustic and done well but, not pretentious. It was spectacular learning about the ingredients, and freshly pressed olive oil. They made me wait for the new olive oil to arrive before I left for my new stage, and the day it was released, everyone gathered at the restaurant and we grilled bread with bruschetta and ran across the street and poured the new olive oil over it. They told me: “get it all over your face!” – and to this day it was the purest flavor I've ever experienced (along with truffles).

My first job in New York was as a sous chef at Felidia – they even speak Italian in the kitchen there! That experience solidified my Italian foundations and French technique. Then I went to Savoy, which was my first foray into chefdom. I then went to teach at ICE, and then to work with Mario [Batali] at Italian Wine Merchants, doing all the events. He is so freakishly smart that it's great being around him. He asked me to do Iron Chef, and I of course obliged. I was going to be chef at EU and then I found home here [at Centro].

AFB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
AB: I went to CIA and culinary school was the first time in my life that I was at the right place at the right time. It was also the first time I was a good student because it was something I cared about. So many people go to school because they want to come out to be a chef, but you should go for the education. If your goal is to get an education, then go! It's great! But it’s not essential – neither my chef de cuisine nor the majority of my cooks have done it.

AFB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
AB: Lidia Bastianich – I loved to see how she cooked and how she dealt with people. And of course it’s great to see a woman cooking – though you don’t really focus on the difference in the kitchen. Mario Batali is also a mentor.

AFB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
AB: I ask two questions: what's your favorite cooking technique, and what’s your favorite ingredient? I like to hear about braising and bacon. If they say black pepper, then they don't have a job here – I don't cook with black pepper.

AFB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AB: Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. Be a sponge – if you open your mouth it better be for a question and not an opinion.

AFB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
AB: Bacon is my favorite ingredient, but it’s not underutilized. Beans or any legume are homey and comfortable – I like the mouth-feel. Eggs, too.

AFB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
AB: Fava beans and bacon. Ramps and bacon. Ramps are one of the last truly seasonal things that we have, along with white truffles. I like parmigiano and anything mushy. And eggs and bacon with a bit of hot sauce.

AFB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
AB: A wooden spoon.

AFB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
AB: When I’m braising, instead of dicing the sofrito, I puree it. I don't braise in stock – I use water and a lot of pureed vegetables and I brown everything. It’s all about the vegetables becoming the base of the sauce [instead of a fat]. That makes it clean – and you can eat a lot of it without that weighed-down feeling.

AFB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
AB: I love the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcela Hazan and The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl.

AFB: Where do you want to go for culinary travel? Why?
AB: I'm dying to go to Sicily, Tunisia, or Greece for the olive oil cuisine.

AFB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AFB: Food provides sustenance, but it also provides pleasure. I feel like I’m a professional pleasure provider. That makes me so happy.

AFB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
AB: To cook for me: Julia Child. To cook for: a comedian or something.

AFB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
AB: I have no idea. I'd die if I weren't a chef!

AFB: What’s next for you?
AB: 5 years from now I hope to still be working in this industry, and have the respect of my peers. Five years ago, if you would’ve told me that I would have a restaurant in Greenwich Village and a TV show, I wouldn't have believed you, so I don't know where I'll be. Though Centro isn’t new anymore, it’s still my baby – and I want people to keep coming here!