Table Talk with Chef Edwin Bellanco

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Vitae

About the Chef
Chef Edwin’s first cooking job in Manhattan was at Gramercy Tavern, where he worked under Chef Tom Colicchio. During the summers, he would head out to Martha’s Vineyard to run La Cucina, a restaurant that he opened with Chef Marco Canora. Several years later, Chef Edwin went back to Cleveland to work at Moxie, before returning to Manhattan and working under Chef David Bouley at Danube and later Bouley. He also spent three months at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA with Chef Thomas Keller. After that, Chef Edwin opened Cru with Chef Shea Gallante in Manhattan, which was awarded a Michelin Star. About a year and a half ago, Chef Edwin opened Vitae, known for its creative, refined, and approachable cuisine.

Vitae: 4 East 46th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Madison)

img_4726

Chef Edwin Bellanco at Vitae

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in an Italian and Irish family. My grandmother cooked all the time and made huge feasts for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I used to love going into the kitchen – the smells, the sounds – it was great. I remember sitting in restaurants as a kid, peering into the kitchen and watching the cooks work, thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s so cool, I want to do that!” (Laughing) When I was old enough to get a job, I started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Then I was promoted to be a cook and I loved everything about it. I cooked pretty much my whole way through high school.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
My grandmother made this killer Italian wedding soup that I loved. I’ve never had anything like it. It was the best! Sadly, she passed away. I think my sister held on to some of her recipes, but I’m not sure if that recipe is around.  I wish I knew exactly how she made it!

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I don’t necessarily gravitate toward one particular ingredient. I do have favorite seasons – I love the fall and spring. I’m kind of on an Asian and Indian kick right now. I try to bring Asian elements into my food, keeping it uniquely my style, while working those amazing flavors into it. Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and yams are coming into season now, so we’ll make a sweet potato gnocchi here at the restaurant. We’ll most likely braise a lamb leg to pair with it since those flavors go together really well.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I think you should always have a good knife that you maintain and keep sharp. It will make your food look better than other people’s food. (Laughing)  You also want to have a nice spoon – it comes in handy with plating and tasting. I love the spoons that I got from Cleveland when I worked there – they are beautiful, deep spoons that we use to plate everything. The Gray Kunz spoons are really good, too.  I’d also say that you should have a peppermill so that you can season properly, as well as a nice spatula. This is a very Thomas Keller thing. The pastry spatula – a long, flat spatula with a wooden handle – is really great for flipping meat and fish. It probably wasn’t intended to be used in that way, but it’s perfect for handling delicate food.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
Immediately I think of a really progressive punk band. (Laughing) I feel like my thought process isn’t that smooth, it’s kind of all over the place. There are all of these things that go on in my head that I try to grab hold of and put on a plate. Once I have everything figured out, the food itself is more like classical music – very light, appealing, and classic.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I haven’t traveled since I opened Vitae. We’ve been open for a year and half now, and I’ve stuck around to make sure everything goes smoothly. I did travel a lot before that, and I always loved going to Italy. It’s one of my favorite places. I feel like people always say that they love Tuscany, but that’s because cuisine is so great. I’ve been to France and I love the food – it’s my comfort zone. I have never taken a trip to Asia and it’s something that I would love to do. I dream about it! (Laughing) Now that I have two kids, it’s tough to go away for an entire month. I feel like it would be so eye-opening and mind blowing to go to India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea…  There are so many key ingredients in each country’s cuisine that make it interesting and appealing to me.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I don’t know, I hate to even think about it! (Laughing) I’ve cooked my whole life and it’s just always what I did. My mom was a working mom so I would often make my own meals at home – I didn’t think twice about it. Now, I don’t think twice about what else I would do… maybe because I don’t even know if I COULD do anything else! (Laughing)  I’ve been cooking for so long that it comes so naturally. After graduating from high school, I remember thinking that I really had no idea about what I wanted to do for a career, but I just kept cooking all throughout college. I decided to go to New York and be around the best chefs in one of the best places I could think of. And I haven’t looked back since. (Smiling)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Going back to when I moved to New York, I really tried to treat my career like an apprenticeship. I wanted to surround myself with the best people in the business. Chef Tom Colicchio was my first boss here in Manhattan – he only had Gramercy Tavern at the time. Now I’m really showing my age! (Laughing)  It was such an eye-opening experience for me. I was in way over my head, I could move fast and work hard, but I realized that I didn’t know anything about anything. (Laughing)  It was amazing to be in a place where everyone was 100% dedicated and put out such a great product.  It was the first time that I had ever seen anything like that, and it blew me away. I found it incredible that one chef could get that much talent under one roof. Tom Colicchio is amazing and what he does is amazing. I remember reading an article in the New York Times about Bouley restaurant, and I asked myself, “Who is this Bouley guy?” I ended up working for Chef David Bouley the longest out of anyone in my career. It was fascinating to me to experience those two very different styles. Chef Tom’s style is to let the ingredients shine, and he was more apt to take something off of the plate than put something on. Chef David was the polar opposite – he has so much going on in each dish, so much complexity, and it all worked.  I remember thinking it doesn’t have to be one way or the other, great food is just great food.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I’m a creature of habit and I don’t like to venture out too far. (Smiling) I like to go to Koreatown and Chinatown. If I have a day off, I love to get inexpensive Asian food. I’m always amazed at how delicious and affordable it is!

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Well, it can’t be bread. I love bread! (Laughing) You know, I guess I could give up meat.  It might be a little harder to give up fish, though. I like meat, but I find that when I go out, I rarely order it. I do love a good steak from time to time, but it’s pretty heavy, so I could do without it. Yeah, I could definitely give it up!

Table Talk with Chef Edwin Bellanco