Chef Damian Sansonetti
Bar Boulud | New York
Growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Damian Sansonetti was surrounded by the fresh, local ingredients of nearby markets and his grandmothers’ gardens. He grew up making pasta with his grandmothers, curing meats with his grandfather, and assisting his father, the chef in the family kitchen. Like many chefs, Sansonetti began his culinary career washing dishes at the local diner and worked his way up to the line. After completing a year of college he decided to pursue his love of cooking and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh.
Upon graduation Sansonetti worked for the Myriad Group in Nantucket’s Brant Point Grill and Pittsburgh’s Steelhead Grill before moving to New York to assist the group in opening Heartbeat in the W Hotel. Sansonetti first met Chef Daniel Boulud while working as chef de cuisine at Shallots in midtown Manhattan—when Boulud sat down to chat with Damian after he had dinner at Restaurant DANIEL.
Boulud and Sansonetti were impressed with each other, and when Sansonetti left Shallots in September 2003, it was to accept a position under Olivier Muller at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne. That was his first exposure to true Alsatian cuisine; he credits Muller for much of his training and for opening his eyes to the transformation of simple ingredients into the complex flavors found in a modern French bistro. After two years as sous chef he assumed the role of chef de banquet at DANIEL and then sous chef under Jean Francois Bruel. Sansonetti was promoted to executive chef of Bar Boulud in 2008.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Damian Sansonetti: I went to the University of Pittsburgh and would sit in class thinking about when I was going to go to the strip district with the open markets. I was always thinking about going there after class. I would go there and cook for my friends and girlfriend. And I loved doing it. And I was paying for my own schooling. I went for one year and left and went to culinary school.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
DS: I would definitely recommend it for cooks and aspiring chefs because it gives you a nice base of techniques that you should know, like what a small dice is and how to make a béarnaise. But some of the schools tell kids they will come out being executive chefs and that is very misleading. You definitely learn more when you get into the field. I went to Pennsylvania Culinary. My Wine instructor was part of the Bouchard family, a big Burgundy wine family, and he got me hooked on wine.
AB: What is your favorite food memory?
DS: The first time I helped my grandmother make tomato sauce. I remember all the things she did to it, working from the wee hours of the morning. And then she would make fresh pasta on the huge dining room table and then dry it. There would be flour everywhere—we were cooking for the whole family. Even at a young age I learned that you have to put a lot of love into your food.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
DS: Pat Trama, in my externship. You walk in and come out with an armful of stuff and a tasting menu. You wanted to be like that some day. And working with him I met Michel Nischan and he got me onto the whole greenmarket thing, using local and organic ingredients, and that really stuck with me because I still go there three times a week. I go to Union Square and Lincoln Center in the fall. I buy from farmers and do it as locally as I can. And of course Daniel Boulud, they way he cooks and treats his guests. And he does the whole thing. He is the restaurateur and I love the way he treats his guests. And he’ll go eat a hot dog.
AB: Do you pre-order at the Farmer’s Market?
DS: I use half a dozen farmers and they set stuff aside for me. Rick Dishop [of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm] gets this stuff called milkweed and this weird Italian broccoli called Spigarello.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
DS: Put your heart into it, don’t give up, and learn good techniques.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
DS: Salt and pepper. Regular people always ask what did you put on that, and you’re like “um, salt and pepper.” I think it’s one of those things that we take for granted. It’s automatic for a lot of us now. We don’t think about where it comes from, how they rake it out of the sea and let it dry out.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
DS: Capers and carrots and citrus. I have that on all my skate dishes right now. I have also been a freak for zested citrus on top of things, especially on top of something rich and fatty, like cream sauce with zest. It smells really good.
AB: 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?
DS: We have done a lot of classic techniques and applied them in different ways. We confit whole racks of pork in duck fat. We brine them with salt and herbs and put it at a really low temperature and confit it, then slice and roast the chops. It makes them more tender and a littler porkier in the duck fat.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
DS: Larousse Gastronomique and Le Repertoire De La Cuisine.
AB: What is your favorite tool?
DS: Spoons and cheap paring knives. A good spoon is a great thing.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
DS: Well, what’s the next comfort food that will be ‘gourmeted’ up? The burger has been done. The fried chicken thing has gone on for two years. People did hot dogs. I am wondering what the next thing that comes pre-packed to us will be. Like a Triscuit or a Ritz? Pizza was a huge thing this year, both in San Francisco and here [in New York]. What’s the next pedestrian or comfort food to come up now for diners that will have a creative flair to them? We brought back terrines, patés, and charcuterie, which is French comfort food. In essence a nice paté is like a meatloaf. It doesn’t really compare but it is relatable in some ways. You also have to look at what your customers want and not just want your tastes are.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DS: Find what your guests want and do what your heart wants and what you want to do, too, but know your guest.
AB: What is your most important kitchen rule?
DS: Cook with your senses and feel the food. The most important ingredient is the love you have to put into the dish. When you do that it shows through to the customer.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally?
DS: I’m involved with Lincoln Center and the Farmer’s Market. I do events for them to get them out there and appeal to a broad audience. And I use produce from local farmers. We have a local impact with what we buy and how we buy in a positive way.
AB: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel?
DS: To a place that I have yet to travel to—Marrakesh, Morocco.
AB: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant?
DS: Our water program uses refillable water (so there’s less waste); our Kitchen hood system is very energy efficient; we use some recycled products; and we buy as much local meat, fish, and vegetables as we can.
AB: What is ‘American Cuisine’ to you?
DS: It is food cooked from the soul that incorporates your style, good techniques, great regional/seasonal ingredients, and stays true to itself.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
DS: I’d be a marine biologist on a boat.
AB: What does success mean for you?
DS: I am satisfied when my guests are happy and my cooks have had a good service, and long term the more I try to turn my career different ways, things fall through. But the more I let the roller coaster take me, things happen. I just ride the coaster.
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