Interview with Chef Giuseppe Tentori of Boka – Chicago, IL

May 19

Heather Sperling:What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Giuseppe Tentori: I started cooking at age 14 because I thought I’d make money and travel, but in real life the opposite happened! Really, I fell in love with cooking and that’s what I’ve been doing the last 18 years. I learn something new every day.

HS: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
GT: After culinary school in Milan I was at a restaurant there, and then at Gabriel’s in Chicago, Metropolitan in Salt Lake City, and Charlie Trotter’s, right before Boka.

HS: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
GT: I graduated from Italian cooking school in 1988. I recommend it because it makes you understand more than the philosophy of cooking. There are so many levels, like labor, administration, food costs, etc.

HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
GT: I learned so many lessons from Charlie Trotter. He taught me the food is 40% and the service is 60% of the effort.

HS: 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?
GT: I ask: Why do you want to work for me? How do you fit in the team?

HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
GT: Stick to a commitment and finish what you started.

HS: What are your favorite cookbooks?
GT: I like Gourmet for Dummies. Charlie Trotter put it together and it’s fun and simple. I also like El Bulli 2003-2004.

HS: What languages do you speak?
GT: Italian, English and a little Spanish.

HS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
GT: I create neighborhood fare that’s comfortable and seasoned right with a little tweak. I barely use any dairy, except for the mac n’ cheese and the brandade – you need some fat in there. But everything else is with olive oil and stocks. The portions are not huge, but you leave full – but not stuffed.

HS: What was Boka like before you came?
GT: A lot of butter, and a lot of cream. People loved the restaurant, but they were doing what everywhere else was doing. It was basic, not too healthy, and not too challenging. Also, the last 2-3 months we’ve started to see clientele from out of the state and of the country. I’ve been here 8 months, and word of mouth is bringing people in because they know there’s a new chef. So we’re bringing in different clientele, which is made up of more foodies.

HS: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
GT: I like the Vita-Prep because it blends so smoothly. I also want a Turbo Chef oven to cook things faster.

HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
GT: I love tuna with jalapeño jelly, apple, jicama, and togarashi. I also love octopus with flageolet beans, barbecued eel, tomatillo sauce and pickled red onion.

HS: Is there a culinary technique that you employ in an unusual or different way?
GT: We make a croquette based on gnocchi alla Romana. We stuff them with goat cheese then quick-fry them. We also do a soba galette where we blanch the soba, press it in a sheet tray and then crisp squares of it in a pan.

HS: What do you like to eat on your time off? Where do you go?
GT: I’m a steak and potatoes type of guy when I go out for dinner. I love NOMI, Avec, Blackbird and Moto.

HS: What kind of food do you most like to cook?
GT: I love Italian food, but I fell in love with a great variety of technique and influence. I try to please everybody. Here we have a macaroni and cheese on the menu, but there’s edamame in it, and we use trofie pasta, 5 types of cheese, and make it a la minute with a little truffle on top.

HS: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
GT: Japan – because of the respect that they have for the product. Here in the US we’re so spoiled that we have lost respect for ingredients. We’ve become disconnected from the land. In Japan the way the food is given to you and the way you are welcomed is very unique and respectful.

HS: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve?
GT: Vince Lombardi. I love his philosophy of excellence and leadership. I’d serve him Kobe steak and potatoes.

HS: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
GT: I’d be a farmer because I love nature.

HS: What’s next for you?
GT: At the end of February we’re opening Perennial on the first floor of a new hotel we’re building across from the Green City Market. It’s going to be American-bistro style, lunch and dinner.

HS: Where will we find you in 5 years?
GT: I would love to have a restaurant in Chicago that is open from 10pm-5am. There is no place that is open really late that serves really good, healthy food in Chicago. You need to be able to have a nice salad or a nice steak – simple things, but done well and healthy for a late night crowd. All the chefs eat way too late, and they’re fat!