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.