Interview with Chef Harold Dieterle of Perilla - New York City
JJ Proville: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Harold Dieterle: I got into cooking when I was in high school and took a home economics class to meet girls. I'm Sicilian, and I’d been watching my grandmother and parents make sauce since I was a child. I was looking at the recipe the home economics teacher gave me and thought it was going to suck. I was a terrible student, a fairly serious tennis player, and all I really wanted to do was be in the kitchen and cook. My first job was washing dishes when I was 13.
JJP: Did you go to culinary school? Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
HD: I graduated from the CIA in 1997. I look at it on a subject by subject basis. For kids that want to be chefs straight out of high school, I suggest getting some experience first. For older people who are doing a career change, I highly recommend it. I have a weird dynamic; half of my kitchen staff are white culinary school graduates, and half are New York City professional Latin American cooks. I like the dynamic because a lot of them I hire as dishwashers and promote them. I like them to stick around. I see a lot of restaurants with a revolving door of dishwashers, which is no motivation to work the hours they do for minimal pay. I worked as [a dishwasher] for a year and I know it sucks. I justify it because you do a couple months and something opens up, and we'll teach you and put you in prep or garde manger.
JJP: Where have you worked as a chef?
HD: Before Perilla I was executive sous chef at The Harrison for almost five years. Before that I was executive sous at the 1770 House in East Hampton. I opened the New York City branch of Della Femina as sous chef.
JJP: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
HD: I have two mentors. One is Kevin Penner, the executive chef of 1770, who beat me up. And from managerial standpoint Jimmy Bradley, who taught me how to manage and run a restaurant.
JJP: In which kitchens have you staged?
HD: When I was cooking in the Hamptons in the summertime, it was a total beast. We had an 80 seat restaurant and cooked 300 covers. We were ready to go to war every day of the week. At The Harrison I learned managerial skills and how to run the kitchen without being the executive chef. Usually you take control of the menu before you take the managerial side but in this case it was the opposite. I was managing people and controlling food costs before I learned to write a menu.
JJP: Do you take stagiers in your kitchen?
HD: Yes, we take stagiers in the kitchen, but I only really have one per shift. So many kids go into stages and go straight to the basement to peel peas. There’s something to be said about that, but what are they really going to learn? I have them upstairs and really show them how to do stuff.
Katherine Martinelli: You said when you take stages into your kitchen you don't just send them to the basement to peel carrots. Tell us more about how you work with your stages.
HD: I only keep one at a time to give them the maximum amount of attention. I’ve been working with a company called Culintro; it’s a partnership between restaurateurs, culinary schools, and students. They’re the liaison and they help place interns and put them in the type of kitchen they want to be in; it’s working out. Aside from that it’s about getting someone in here that wants to be serious. It’s very challenging right now with so much food television and food media. They want to get their own television show right out of culinary school and it’s not my place to tell them not to follow their dreams, but they need to get serious food experience before making that next step. An intern or stage isn’t going to learn much sitting in your basement peeling carrots or shucking peas. They won’t get the sense of how much work it is. When you’re in the kitchen and service environment or prepping during the day, you get more of a sense of what goes into it.
JJP: What question gives you the most insight when you are hiring?
HD: I have a couple different ones: Do you do team sports? I like to get a feeling of their backgrounds. What kind of music do you listen to? If they like racist death metal or don’t like team sports, they probably don’t work well in the kitchen with others.
JJP: What advice would you offer to young chefs who are just getting started?
HD: Pay your dues, keep your head down, and be humble. At the first job I had, the chef just kicked my butt and told me how meaningless I am; that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
JJP: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
HD: I tell cooks all the time: if you love food it’ll do whatever you want for you. When cooks find a dish that they find difficult to execute, I think it’s because if you’re putting negative energy out there, there’s probably a reason why you’re having a tough time.
KM: What charities are you involved with and in what capacity?
HD: I would say I’m more one of the worker ants. I’m not on the board but I’ve done a lot of dinners for Food Bank of New York, City Harvest, and The Libby Ross Foundation. My aunt was diagnosed and treated successfully for breast cancer so that’s important to me. I’ve done stuff with The Leary Firefighters Foundation and Children of Bellvue. I do a lot of events every year.
KM: Do you teach any cooking classes?
HD: I do stuff at the Beard House. I do two classes a year at the The De Gustibus Cooking School at Macy’s and also The Cellar at Macy’s. I’ve gone back to my high school in Long Island and done some cooking classes in the home economics classes where I got started.
KM: What is your next community/charity-focused project?
HD: I’m doing a bunch of stuff in October. There’s a City Harvest event, and we’re doing an event at The Children’s Museum of the Arts. I’m doing a cooking class at The Cellar at Macy’s on October 29.
KM: How are you involved with other chefs in the culinary community?
HD: I like to eat out. We’re a pretty tight group and we all see each other at these events because we’re all at the same events. We’ll talk about what’s going on and go out for cocktails and see what everyone is up to. I think that’s important. I like to go out and eat at other peoples’ places; we all support one another.
JJP: What trends do you see emerging?
HD: Comfort food is a bad term—it’s food that makes people feel comfortable. And people are conscious of food pricing right now.
JJP: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated?
HD: Cardoons. People get scared because they don’t know how to cook them. Cooked too long they can be bitter, and cooked too short they’re tough. I’m using them on a cannelloni dish right now to make a white truffle cardoon sauce that’s really, really intense.
JJP: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
HD: Cherries and feta cheese; eggplant and Thai basil. There is some Thai fermented soybean sauce in there. It’s funky, and not nearly as salty as fish sauce, as if green Tabasco was fermented and sour.
JJP: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
HD: I’m a huge fan of Vita-Prep. Scissors.
JJP: What are your favorite cookbooks?
HD: Thai Food by David Thompson is my Thai go-to. The Alinea cookbook is interesting. I like tasting different stuff and reading about it.
JJP: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
HD: For our cannelloni dish we make one large one rolled up in plastic, so it’s like a roulade, and we slice rounds. Plastic wrap is on until the very end, using plastic wrap as a ring mold. It holds it all together.
JJP: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
HD: Italy. I haven’t done Italy yet and I need to do a full tour of Sicily.
JJP: If you weren't a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
HD: I wanted to be a fighter pilot but I had glasses early on. I didn't have 20/20 vision and it was a rude awakening.
JJP: What’s next for you?
HD: I’m working on another concept right now. Landlords aren’t realistic in what their rent expectations are right now. In this climate, they are still not as flexible.
Chef Harold DieterlePerilla
9 Jones Street
New York, NY 10014