Interview with Chef Jason Denton of Bar Milano – New York, NY

September 16

Will Blunt: When and how did you begin your career?
Jason Denton: My uncle Harry Denton sparked my interest in the restaurant business – he is a big entrepreneur and restaurateur in San Francisco. My entrepreneurial spirit came from my parents – from the age of 10 on, in Twin Falls, Idaho, I helped them package and distribute aged meats and cheeses.

WB: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?
JD: Experience was my education for kitchen, front of the house and wine. I wanted to learn wine, so I went to California Wine Merchants when I was 21 and tagged along and went on tastings. I did not go to culinary school.

WB: Describe the circumstances surrounding your first restaurant project. What was the deal? How’d you get the idea?
JD: It was inspired by a trip to Verona and Cinque Terre in Italy in 1996 with my wife. I stumbled on a hole in the wall that made fantastic panini, and I thought that would be a great restaurant concept. I was a struggling actor, and my wife pushed me to pursue the idea. I went to a bookstore, bought a bunch of Italian cookbooks, and worked out the recipes. For the deal, I begged, borrowed and stole from my wife and some kind individuals.

WB: Describe your concepts now. When did they open, and what’s the pervading philosophy?
JD: ‘Ino was the first – the hole in the wall with great paninis. I got involved with Lupa in 1999. I knew that Mario [Batali] and Joe [Bastianich] were looking at the same space – and I had worked with them at Po. I already had plans to ask Mark [Ladner] to get involved, and the four of us just ended up partnering. The concept is a neighborhood Roman trattoria with a focus on traditional and seasonal dishes.

In 2002 I opened ‘inoteca. I learned Keith McNally was opening a restaurant in the Lower East Side – Schiller’s – and I have a lot of respect for him. I figured the neighborhood would be a good place for another ino-style restaurant.

Bar Milano, which opened this year, is really a bigger venture than the others. I felt like the next step was to bump it up a little – so it’s more stylish and chic…Milan-style. I went to Northern Italy to do the research. Steve Connaughton, from ‘inoteca, is the chef.

WB: How much creative control is your hands? How much goes to the chefs?
JD: I’m very opinionated about what comes in and out of the kitchen, but I also trust them and that’s why I partner with them. It’s not as much about like/don’t like, but about direction.

WB: What restaurant concepts/restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
JD: I looked up to Danny Meyer and am amazed by his zeal and by his ability to balance the business side with his relationship with his employees. And I’ve always been inspired by Mario and his constant drive for perfection.

WB: What was a critical inflection point in your career?
JD: When my first son was born – it was right after I opened [‘inoteca – check this]. It really made me feel more in touch with the people that work for me, [and it made my business feel even more personal.]

WB: What’s your next project?
JD: I have a book coming out on simple Italian snacks. I also want to focus more on organics and sustainability.