So you actually went to school for Advertising and Design, and got involved in the hospitality industry later in life. When you decided you needed a career change, what was it that drew you to food?
Whether helping out at family dinners as a kid, helping my grandparents in the garden, or cooking for myself and others when I was older, I have always enjoyed food, cooking and the act of hospitality. When I had first moved to Connecticut in 2005, I took a job cooking to earn income while continuing my search for a job in the Design field. After a few months in the kitchen, I began to realize that cooking offered everything I had been looking for. I was working with my hands and my mind, with like-minded people who were passionate about something. There was creativity, structure, successes and failures everyday. I was learning and growing both professionally and personally, and it just clicked that this was what I wanted to do. I guess I decided a career change was in order the day I started cooking professionally...I just didn’t realize it until months later.
What are your thoughts on how the food scene has evolved in CT over the past few years? Is there anything you would like to see more of?
The CT food scene has so much to offer, I couldn’t imagine cooking anywhere else right now. Over the past few years there have been so many great spots to eat turning up in every corner of the state, you basically don’t have to leave CT to enjoy a world class dining experience. We are very lucky to have so many amazing chefs, farmers, artisans, cheesemongers, breweries, food trucks and cocktail bars right here in our own backyard. It’s a special time for the state CT, and I only see it getting better.
What is one current food trend that you would like to see disappear?
I don’t feel strongly enough in a negative manner about any food trend to want it to completely disappear. Even if I don’t care for a certain trend in food, if it’s providing sustenance and making someone happy, cool. But, if I absolutely had to pick something, it would be sliders. They’re inefficient. I don’t see the point.
Who is one person, can be anyone in the world, that you would love to cook alongside?
“J-Camp” (Jason Campinario), a dear friend of mine who unexpectedly passed away a few years back. We worked the line together when I first began cooking professionally. He was a natural in the kitchen, always positive, super creative and passionate. He gave me a lot of support and guidance in the kitchen, and just as much support and guidance as a friend.
When I’m having a rough day in the kitchen and I need to dig deep for inspiration, I ask myself, “Who am I cooking for today?”, and I almost always answer, “J-Camp”. I wish I could cook one last meal with him.
You used to throw “pop up dinners” at the old Hartford Denim space, and now you host Frog Hollow Social Club dinners at Firebox every couple of months. What inspired you to start doing these and what is your favorite thing about them?
My good friend and Firebox alumni, John Sinclair and I were at points in our cooking careers where we both felt stuck and uninspired. We were living together at the time and started discussing doing some private dinners for friends and family as a way to push ourselves creatively. We hosted a private coursed dinner together at his parents house in Farmington for about 25 people. It was basically a self-taught crash course in how set up and run every aspect of a restaurant...we set up a dining area outside, ran lights, hosted a cocktail hour, and served a 6 course meal out of his parents kitchen. Everyone who attended was asking when we were going to host another dinner. About a year later while both working together at Firebox, we connected with Dave Marcoux from Hartford Denim who mentioned he had an opportunity to use a vacant space in his building for an event. After several brainstorming sessions with Dave and the guys from HDCo. the first (86ph0) Pop-Up/Hartford Denim Market came to life. We did several pop-ups together, each one bigger than the last. It was a really special time for everyone involved…HDCo., (86ph0), vendors, craftsmen, artisans, musicians, etc. It was a beautiful thing to be part of something so organic and watch so many people connect in a positive way. Eventually the space was turned into condos, and that was that. However, after attending one of the pop-up markets, the Director of Billings Forge/Firebox, Cary Wheaton approached John and I about creating a similar food event in the restaurant. We all sat and discussed potential ideas on how we could use the Firebox Tavern as a space to celebrate food and music...as a space to bring that same pop-up market community together. Cary invested in us, and basically gave us the keys to restaurant to cook what we wanted to for one night every few months, and Frog Hollow Social Club is the result. It’s still kind of wild to me how feeling “stuck” all those years ago, and doing something positive about it, has led to being part of so many great things that I could never had imagined possible all those years ago. It’s definitely the journey, personal growth, and the connections I continue to make along the way that I enjoy the most. If I’m providing something that makes people happy, I’m happy.
One of your passions outside of the kitchen is spinning records. I know you spun at Krust Pizza Bar a couple weeks ago. How did you get into this and is do you have any regular gigs lined up so *all our readers* can come see you?
My pops got me into music at an early age. He played in a band and they would practice at our house. I would sometimes hang out and pretend to be part of the band until they got tired of me bugging them or it was time to go to bed and they would kick me out. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told him, but at night I used to sneak out of my room, creep down the stairs, hide behind the banister and watch my dad rock out with his headphones on, standing in front of his record player. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to stay up late listening to records like he did. In middle school when I first got into Punk, NYHC, Metal, etc., he bought me my first bass guitar and taught me to play by ear. From there I got into all sorts of different genres...jazz, psych, rap, soul and just kept buying records, recording, sampling/producing on my own. After years of digging for records to listen to, sample and make beats out of, I had sizeable (2,000+) collection...enough to put together some sets. I still don’t really consider myself a dj, I don’t pursue gigs, but if someone asks for me to spin somewhere, lets me play what I want to play, and I just happen to have off that day...I’m down.
Who is your favorite musician at the moment?
Lately I’ve been rotating between Knxwledge, Toro Y Moi, Prince, Sleep and Freddie Gibbs. My constants are Bad Brains, Ghostface and Dilla.
Next week we’ll be showcasing a how to/kitchen tips video from you. What is the #1 piece of equipment you would tell home cooks to invest in? (besides knives, because obviously knives)
An All-Clad saute pan.
What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge right now?
I have a quart of homemade moonshine from Puerto Rico that a cook gave me. I’ve been infusing it with vanilla, plums and cherries for close to year. I’m scared to drink it.
After a late night in the kitchen what is your go-to meal?
An Arnold Palmer and potato chips. I would be lying if I said otherwise.
And the last two questions I’ll be asking every chef that we feature. You’re cooking for a love interest for the first time, what do you make them?
You ask them what they want, and you make it. It shows that you are listening to them. Also, cook the meal together, it’s a beautiful way to spend time getting to know someone better. I once made a meal for my girlfriend based around rosemary because she mentioned in passing that she was craving it. I can’t exactly recall what we made, but I do remember the joy of creating the meal together.
And finally, what is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
It’s really difficult for me to pick the most memorable meal ever. Each meal is special for it’s own combination of reasons...company, food, hospitality, environment, etc. However, the one meal that changed the way I thought about food, way before I even considered cooking professionally, was during Chinese New Year in the mid-90’s. At the time, I was working for an acupuncturist in Pennsylvania whose wife was from mainland China and they lived together with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Pan. I was invited over to celebrate Chinese New Year with their family and have dinner. Having only had experience with American-Chinese food, I had no idea what to expect. It was amazing. Whole fried fish, thousand year eggs, fermented cabbage and beans, moon cakes, vegetables I had never seen or heard of before...all of it so foreign to me. I remember feeling nervous about eating some of it, not wanting to offend the hosts who had invited me into their home to share in such a personal experience. Once I started to taste everything I realized what a special moment it actually was. I was part of something I may never get the chance to experience again, a home-cooked, traditional (I’m assuming) Chinese holiday meal. It was the first time I had ever truly challenged my palate or experienced folkways and traditions of another culture so intimately.