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Pastry Chef James Distefano of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY
Pastry Chef James Distefano
Rouge Tomate
10 East 60th Street
New York, New York 10022
www.rougetomate.com

Interview with James Distefano of Rouge Tomate
New York, NY


Antoinette Bruno
: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
James Distefano: Growing up in an Italian house with both of my grandmothers, I was around food my whole life. I was the youngest of six and food was a huge part of holidays and celebrations. I always had an interest. When I was young I made scrambled eggs and toast for my parents. In high school, I played the guitar and I had visions of being a musician. But I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to teach and was originally going to go to school for teaching—history, science, or psychology—when my mother suggested cooking. She taught at a vocational school [where] there were a lot of tech classes and she introduced me to a food instructor. It was the best decision I could have ever made. I was always the first to class. The instructors were enthusiastic, and enthusiasm is contagious, and they're still there, which says something about who they are and the school's program. [Those were the] best two years. [I] made good friends and [I’m] still close with one of them. All of my jobs have dovetailed through going to that school and meeting my friend.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
JD: I opened David Burke & Donatella and I opened Bluefin as a pastry sous chef, but three months in I was promoted to executive pastry chef. I worked at Harvest on Hudson in Hastings, New York and I also consulted for Devon Tavern and started the Park Avenue Café for Richard Leech. I did a three month stage with George Blanc and worked at Seven on 7th Avenue between 29th and 30th. [I also] did some consulting work for 360, [which has] since closed, [and I worked] a little bit at Ici in Fort Greene.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire cooks with or without a culinary school background?
JD: I hire based on their experience and if they have good experience or not. I don't know if school is for everyone. [It] depends on how motivated you are. I like structure—I’m a pastry chef. It gave me a strong foundation to learn the classics. You're allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. I think [school’s] a good idea if you're that type of person. It requires a lot of patience if you have no background.

AB: Who are some of your mentors?  What have you learned from them?
JD: Richard Leech, David Burke, Alain Rondelli, Steve Santoro was my first mentor. He taught me about essence of cuisine.

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you are interviewing them? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JD: Describe yourself, describe your work ethic. [I’m looking for] a sincere answer. I'm not looking for someone who's going to blow smoke up my butt or say how great they are. Working in a kitchen, you're judged immediately. I want to see you move with a purpose, I want to see how much you want it. You have to have that desire. You have to want to stand on your feet for 12 or 13 hours.

AB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JD: Be patient and learn the classics. Spend time working in at least two or three restaurants where you really want to be. Don't just work in one and be a cook. It's important to work in many different settings.

AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JD: Vietnamese cilantro and coconut; strawberry and rosemary; lychee and jasmine.

AB: What is your pastry philosophy?
JD: Flavor first!

AB: Where do you fit into your local culinary community?
JD: I take externs from ICE, [and I] go back and visit my alma mater. I go to the market especially once it starts getting warmer. As a management team, we've visited the farms we developed working relationships with.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JD: Hopefully still working within the company. I want to get into teaching. If I can still work within this company as the pastry chef or as one of the leading people, [I’d like] to teach. In five years hopefully I'll have a few more tattoos! I'm looking to move back to New Jersey to start a family. And if not with this company [in five years], either teaching—or I’d like to open a cool ice cream parlor.



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