Bliss at the Salumeria: Catching up with Chef Cesare Casella

October 2010

Emily Bell: What was it like when Beppe first opened up?
Cesare Casella: I built Beppe upon a foundation of true Italian philosophies. It was the first place I owned on my own. It was a very exciting time! When Beppe opened, I learned that while it is important to stay focused on the job you are doing and the business you are running, you must never forget to focus also on whether you are enjoying the work you do at your business. Without enjoyment, you cannot invest enough of yourself in anything in order to make it as successful as it can be.

EB: You made Beppe the successful Tuscan trattoria that it was for so many years. Why did you leave?
CC: With anything, you must know when it is the right time for you to move on to something else. It is very hard to let go of something you have worked hard for. But if you are to progress and grow, you must allow yourself to move on to the next stage of your career. For me, I knew it was time for me to move on because I had other opportunities presenting themselves. I was offered the position of Dean at the Italian Culinary Academy for the International Culinary Center and was ready with a new business plan for another restaurant concept.

EB: What made you decide to open Maremma?
CC: Maremma allowed me to explore an idea for a new concept that had been in my head for quite awhile. I wanted to develop this concept and when I found a space that I fell in love with, I decided it was the right time.

EB: The concept at Maremma was so unique. You had some extremely creative, and also very rustic, hearty cuisine. Tell us about what you were going for with the restaurant and menu.
CC: My work at Maremma was all about concept development. I had always dreamed of introducing and exploring an important part of the Italian tradition that is often overlooked in American restaurants: the Italian cowboy. I wanted to try and convey the experience of the Tuscan cowboy through a menu with which an American palate could identify. Americans have an immediate and specific relation to the word “cowboy” and the idea of an Italian or Tuscan cowboy might at first seem comical, but it actually conjures a very similar gastronomical experience: big, filling, warming, hearty dishes made from great ingredients, cultivated from the lands the cowboys work.

EB: Why do you think it didn’t last?
CC: With much sadness, I realized that while I was getting the right response on the cuisine, the location was not working for me at all. I fell in love with the space, but failed to properly account for the location of the space. It just didn’t work for my concept and I had to admit that and move on to something more appropriately situated.

EB: What do you think informs your choices as a chef and restaurateur?
CC: When I was younger, I was inspired by my instinct—what my gut told me to do, I did. And I made a lot of mistakes! Now I know that while my instinct is still very important, I must also consider firm business concepts and models in order to measure whether what my instinct wants me to do is in the best interest of my business. Now that I am older and more experienced, I see that the idea of balancing instinct with business sense is something my family always did at the trattoria I grew up in, Vipore. My parents and their parents before them were skilled at knowing how to do that.

EB: How do you know when something isn’t working? How do you make the hard choice to move on to something new?
CC: Honestly, you mostly just feel it. Then you look at your P&L [profit and loss statements] and the bottom line shows you that the L is taking over and you realize that what you’re feeling is right. It’s like with any relationship. Sometimes you just feel that it isn’t working. “You’re a great restaurant. And someday you’re going to make people very happy. I just may not be the one to help make that happen. It isn’t you, it’s me.”

EB: Well in comparison, Salumeria Rosi is very successful—a “keeper” in relationship terms. What makes it work?
CC: All of the things that went wrong in the past have been made right with Salumeria Rosi. I have a unique concept, in a great location, with a beautiful space, a great team, high quality products from my partner, Parmacotto, and the P is winning on my P&L. I have followed my instinct with Salumeria Rosi, but also made some of the wisest business decisions of my career with the project. I am very proud of the Salumeria and of the work we do there.

EB: What was the main idea behind Salumeria Rosi?. How did you know it would work?
CC: The main idea was probably spontaneity. This was probably the easiest of my projects because I tried to model it on Vipore, my family trattoria in Lucca. All the elements came together at exactly the right time in my life for this to be a successful and progressive endeavor, so I decided spontaneously to just do it.

EB: You led a tour of the space of Eataly on their opening day video–what did you think of it?
CC: Eataly is a great place! Like the Salumeria, it is a simple concept executed by tremendous professionals who intimately understand the true soul of Italy. Salumeria Rosi is “Little Eataly”. Get it? Like Little Italy, only Eataly! The main difference between us is that they have a lot more seats!

EB: Do you feel like you’ve risen from the ashes, or are you simply making the same choices many chefs make when faced with a sometimes fickle or indecipherable market like New York City?
CC: I feel like both are true in many respects. Like anyone involved in any business, I started out with not much more than passion, ambition, and drive. Notice that business smarts is not in that list! That means I ran headstrong into the wind and made a lot of mistakes. I tried to learn from those mistakes to improve my business approach, without losing the passion, ambition, and drive that got me started in the first place. I make the same choices I always have where the beauty of a dish, recipe, or ingredient are concerned, because those are the things that make me who I am and serve as the foundation for everything else I do. And I believe those are the things that the market will always respond favorably to. Passion for food, quality ingredients, and the personal touch are never bad elements. Now I add a better understanding the market and I do my best to please both.

EB: How has the industry affected your lifestyle? What is it like now being a chef of such prominence?
CC: I grew up one way. I have tried to stay true to who I am and how I grew up. I just know more people now than I used to. What I have learned is that the industry doesn’t change your lifestyle, you do. And if your life does start to be dictated solely by the industry, it’s time to get back to your roots and remember who you are.

EB: How much time do you spend at Salumeria Rosi?
CC: I try to be at the Salumeria everyday when I am not traveling. It is strange if a day goes by when I am in New York and I do not go to the Salumeria! I may not always be there all day long and into the night, but I want to be present there a little everyday. It is important for the people who work there to know I am as committed as are they, and it is important for the guests who come in to know that I am involved and not sitting in an office somewhere.

EB: Is it important to try new things as a chef—even if they’re never guaranteed to work?

CC: It is critical to try new things! It is indispensable. And then you have to be able to admit when it’s not working and be willing to move on. One of the most important lessons to learn is that it’s ok to walk away, as long as you walk away for the right reasons, not just because it’s hard. Hard work always pays off. A little suffering can reap tremendous rewards. But listen to your gut, balance strong business principles, and make sure you enjoy the work!