By Submitted Story on April 14, 2018
Present Gig: Chef/Owner, Russo’s Bistro & Bar, Kitty Hawk
Hometown: Upstate New York, Catskill region
Years in OBX: 25
Training: Johnson & Wales (Norfolk and Providence) 1991-93
Style or Specialty: Italian/Eastern European
What was your path to becoming a chef? Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Not at all. I went to college studying Phycology, Education, Philosophy… did everything but. But I grew up in the restaurants business; know Italian like the back of my hand!
My Grandma and Uncle had restaurants, but never in a million years did I think I was gonna be a cook. It was something just you did…making meatballs, peeling shrimp, worked all kinds of restaurants along the way.
Any defining moments?
June of ’89! I helped my friend open up an Olive Garden in Virginia Beach…Lynnhaven. I was taking a million courses at the time, but opening night that little thing [ticket printer] was going off, and I said, “I got this!” Me and another cook…I had six burners, he had six burners…it became a competition, the flames, the noise, it was awesome! But then when you get rid of those tickets…”Wooooh!!” And people ask me, to this day, how can you love it so much? I love that buzz; when you conquer it.
So how did you end up in the OBX?
Let me start with Virginia. I’ll never forget, I saw a bumper sticker in Times Square, said “Virginia Is For Lovers” so I said I’m going to Virginia.
Landed in Virginia Beach in ’88 for school; ’89 they had that big riot, and I said I can go back to Brooklyn for all this!
So I started driving down to Pine Island to get out of Virginia Beach a bit.
Then, I’ll never forget, June 8, ’95, I decided to do some traveling. Had some friends that had the Surfside Motel at Milepost 16.
Parked my Hyundai Excel there with everything I owned in it, and got hired with a friend from Hawaii to drive a car across country to Seattle; so cooked in Seattle a bit, then Hawaii, stayed in a Buddhist temple, a Krishna temple, lived life a little bit. Then came back and worked for Mike Kelly, then Colington Café.
And the rest is history.
So you did your share of restaurants here and lots of catering/private chef gigs…is this your first place of your own?
No, I opened Gigi’s in Corolla in ’04 with a partner/developer so I knew it was going to be short term. It’s a scary endeavor going into it on your own, but I saw this opportunity.
And you still do the private chef thing?
I really enjoy being a private chef; it’s extraordinary! I’ve been cooking for some families for almost twenty years. It’s not even like work; I mean it is, but it’s like cooking for your friends. So I really enjoy it a lot.
What’s your biggest kitchen pet peeve?
Cleanliness. Work clean, keep it clean. Tell me a good chef that’s never mopped!
Don’t waste anything. Work nose to tail; nose to fin, whatever you want to call it, try to utilize everything.
What seasoning/spice/technique is top in your culinary arsenal?
Fresh Dill. It’s one of those things that just pops!
How often do you sit down and have a meal? What was the last one?
Oooh, maybe couple times a week. The last one was some leftover short ribs and couscous….along with my new favorite wine, Far Niente Cab…it’s like drinking velvet! It’s ridiculously good!
I imagine as a new restaurant owner, you probably don’t cook at home too>often. What’s in your fridge at home..any surprises?
Wow! It’s amazing how bare it is now with the restaurant. We try to keep very little in the refrigerator because we’re not home a lot, and we eat very simple compared to what we do at the restaurant. Might be some hot sauces, cured meats. I cure my own meats at the house.
When you’re not in chef-mode at work, what might we find you doing?
I love to write. Love writing stories about life. But I never really pursued it. But if I weren’t a cook, I’d like to be a motivational speaker. I love getting people pumped up! But cooking…it’s so easy. I always wanted to be a jack of all trades; when I was young couldn’t focus on just one thing.
But later, in ’89, I realized how easy it was just to cook. I took me back to being a little Italian kid, growing up in an Italian family I was surrounded by good food, wine all the time.
I took it for granted even. Never paid as much attention to my Grandma as much as I should have, but most of what I know today, she’s been the foundation for that. I just applied that same passion and everything else took care of itself. That you don’t teach you in school.
Top three people living or not that you would like to dine with and why?
For the stories, I’d like to sit with Marcella Hazan.
Even though I’ve read his books, I’d like to sit down with Anthony Bourdain, to hear him ‘off the books’.
And maybe not have dinner, but I would love to cook for my Grandma. She was the only true cook I knew growing up.