Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Mike Pagliarini: It was below the surface for a while. I was going to go study wine and someone from UC Davis wrote back to me and said I should be in culinary school. So I started working in restaurants on weekends and it caught on, but really a lot of things in my background led me here. I wrote to them to say I wanted to study wine but something must have conveyed that I would be a better chef.
AB: Would you have been a sommelier?
MP: I certainly enjoy it. I was able to spend about a month in Bordeaux with winemakers and got a front row seat. I enjoyed that very much, but I enjoyed the food much better, wherever I was.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
MP:I do recommend culinary school as long as you are open minded enough to take advantage of everything they offer. Too many people go to culinary school thinking they know everything and wind up wasting money and time. As far as hiring, I look first a person’s motivation, attitude and aptitude. But there are only so many “great attitude” positions in a kitchen. Cut your teeth somewhere and then bring your knife skills and line skills along with that great attitude and open mind!
AB: What advice do you have for young chefs?
MP: Work on the basics and don’t be in such a hurry. Find the best kitchen you possibly can and spend at least a year or two and learn everything they know. Enjoy your time as a line cook because all you have to do is take care of the food. The further along you get, the more responsibilities you have and that can get in the way of what is truly good about this whole endeavor: cooking for people.
AB: At StarChefs we publish a technique features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
MP: The lemon sauce on the first dish you tasted—the yellow fin tuna. You taste the sauce behind and in front of the tuna. That sauce consisted entirely of lemon; other than a pinch of sugar and salt there’s nothing in that sauce besides lemon. You take the zest and the segments minus the pith and seeds and heavy membrane. If you take the zest, blanch it in several changes of water you extract any remaining bitterness but you preserve the fragrance of the zest. Once you've blanched it repeatedly you combine it with the segments in the juice and let it simmer until it’s totally tender, at which point you can puree it. The consistency is extremely smooth and the product is very versatile. If you think about how much you reach for a lemon, you can reach for a lemon now in pureed form and use it as a building block for anything, sauce or whatever. You can do that with oranges, grapefruits, blood oranges, etc. and create a really great, versatile base preparation in your kitchen that we reach for quite often.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MP: It's really the question I ask myself over and over, which is “How can I most perfectly give you…” and you fill in the blank with whatever you're trying to prepare for someone. The answer reaches back to knowing the people that provide your raw materials and approaching them with a certain amount of contemplation and reflection. When you're standing there with your chef’s knife in hand, your hands and your knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. It’s deciding how to touch the food that’s the gateway.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
MP: I think it was growing into my current position. Gaining enough confidence and spending enough time to feel that I was deserving of the position I was given. Adam Halberg was here before. He's working in Connecticut, working with a restaurant group doing Spanish tapas. He does the hiring and training. There were about two or three months of in-between time, as there was no logical replacement for him in the kitchen at the time and when I came in I was fortunate to work with two sous chefs who were helping to transition me in and themselves out. One was going to do a restaurant with his family and the other stayed with me for a year before moving back to Guatemala.
AB: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
MP: I would say the thing I'm definitely glad I did was spend an extended amount of time with one group. I've spent about 6 years with these owners and I'm glad I've done that. I was at Radius as a cook and a sous chef and then I moved to Chicago to work with Grant Achatz at Trio. I spent two years there with Grant and I would definitely do it again. It was an amazing group of people at Trio. Everyone from Curtis Duffy to Michael Carlson. Grant changed the way you thought about everything. He challenged every perception, every preconceived notion. And at the end of the day, his food was delicious. Not the least bit contrived or over manipulated. He is a great chef, but also a great cook.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MP: Within the community of chefs I'm starting to reach a point where colleagues I've worked with before are heading their own kitchens. So just in the amicable social sense, I'm starting to know them on a colleague-friend level. We’ve hosted dinners for them. We've brought people from farms to the restaurant and did an evening with them as our guests and did a menu based entirely on that week’s harvest. We did a dinner with Browne Trading out of Portland, Maine and asked “What’s the most sustainable seafood you have now?” and had them come down and talk about it. They supply everything from New England ground fish to specialty products and beyond: Portuguese sardines, Scottish salmon, the mackerel caught during a lunch break. They are a fantastic company and I've gotten to know them over the years, first at Radius and then here.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MP:The biggest challenge facing our restaurant is keeping the food fresh and inspired while staying true to its source: Italy. You’ve got to believe in what you’re cooking. Everyone knows, especially your line cooks, when you’re just going through the motions. Taking care of the food takes care of so many other things, from staff morale and turnover to guest satisfaction. It’s a daily challenge. One dish at a time.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
MP: Its being in a position now where I can nurture younger talent.
AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
MP: Success is when you are reminded of why you chose this profession. Anything can do it: another chef, a great dish, a glass of wine with a friend. I hope that some day my wife and I are proprietors of a small, neighborhood restaurant in Boston where we are reminded daily of why we were crazy enough to give it shot!