CHEF JOHN DELUCIE ON BUILDING CLASSIC NEW YORK DISHES
Where chef John DeLucie is working, a trail of celebrities is not far behind. He cut his teeth working at the Soho Grand Hotel and Graydon Carter’s famous Greenwich Village restaurant Waverly Inn, and critics have praised many of his own restaurants—Bill’s Food and Drink, Crown, and Bedford and Company, to name a few—as meeting places for New York society. His style has been described as “comfort food for millionaires,” by the New York Times, but you’d never guess his fame if you talked to him. He’s incredibly humble, and gracious for his Italian heritage, which serves as an endless source of inspiration for his cooking.
Here, DeLucie talks to GrandLife about frying chicken cutlets for his brother in college, the similarities between chefs and rock stars, and his new, most ambitious project yet, Empire Diner, a historic restaurant in Chelsea.
How did you get into cooking?
John DeLucie: Long before I ever considered food as a career, it was an important part of my life and my culture. I’m proud of my Italian heritage. My grandparents were from Puglia and a lot of the food I grew up eating—tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, broccoli rabe, orecchiette, sausage, and peppers—was just a part of the food from their region. What we eat as kids becomes comfortable when we get older.
When I got out of college [at New York University] I was playing music. In order to support my musical habit, I got a regular job. All through that period, my brother and I lived in my grandfather’s brownstone in Carroll Gardens and we had to feed ourselves. I started to remember how my mother would fry chicken cutlets and broccoli rabe. After ten years of working these jobs after college, the music thing didn’t go the way I had hoped and I decided to cook professionally. I took a master class at the New School and I got a job in the prep kitchen at Dean and Deluca. The Prince Street store was brand new then and this was my first foray into working where celebrities gathered. The rest is history.
Do celebrities come to you or do you seek out celebrity hangouts?
JD: I don’t know the answer to that. In the early years, I was certainly drawn to places like that. Being a musician first, I loved playing gigs and being on stage. I think that translates directly to being a chef. The immediate gratification that one gets is similar. People come, they hear you play, they love it. People come to eat your food and either they love it or they don’t love it. You get an immediate, visceral experience and that’s similar to cooking. For me, I enjoy working in a high energy place.
You’ve been credited with inventing the truffle mac and cheese and a number of other now-famous dishes. How would you describe your cooking style?
JD: Truth be told, I probably didn’t invent the truffle mac and cheese. I’m sure I saw it somewhere and it was in my subconscious. My cooking is ingredient-based and seasonal. I work with high-quality ingredients and try to not mess with it too much. That’s kind of been my credo: use a few ingredients and let them shine.
It seems like this Italian thing extends to your signature dishes as well.
JD: It’s hard to avoid my heritage, even if it’s my new spot Empire Diner, Bedford and Company, or another Italian concept. One of my favorite dishes at the diner is a spaghetti dish with ramps and garlic. There are only a few ingredients. We spend a lot of time training cooks because the simplest dishes are the most difficult to reproduce.
The space has been around for a long time and has a bunch of different lives. How does it feel to be working in a diner concept?
JD: The building is awesome. It’s landmarked. I love being a part of old New York. I’ve always had restaurants, like The Lion, Crown, and Bill’s Food & Drink, that are places with solid history and providence in New York City. As a young man, I hung out there. I remember drinking at Aria—which is dating me—and going there at three or four in the morning. David Johansen [of the New York Dolls] and Debbie Harry [of Blondie] were there at the same time eating and it was a super cool place. It was crowded at that hour of the morning and everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun.
How are you approaching the menu at Empire Diner differently?
JD: We were inspired by a couple different diners across the country—Fog City in San Francisco and Diner in Brooklyn—where there’s a renaissance of elevating diner fare. I grew up on Long Island and we ate at diners all the time, but this is not the kind of diner that I want to eat in now. I don’t need 17,000 things on the menu and pancakes at 6pm. West Chelsea is a sophisticated neighborhood and we thought that if we elevated the expectation, it would be appreciated. And I think it has been. It is indeed a diner, but we also push the envelope a little bit. We have great burgers and fries, but we’re also doing things like handmade pasta and gigantic Berkshire pork chops.
Where do you see dining going in New York City?
JD: For all but a few, fine dining is probably gone as we know it. There’s a casualization of restaurants in New York. As Danny Meyer has shown us all with the success of Shake Shack, there’s a huge frenzy around fast casual. There’s going to be more of that, it’s just a matter of how we all fit into that category.
Do you feel like fast casual is in your future?
JD: I’m kind of a dinosaur. If I were smart it would be, I guess, but there are no plans for that. I like when a maître d’ greets you. I like when there’s a waiter that knows the food and the wine list. I’m a romantic when it comes to restaurants. Empire Diner is somewhere in the middle. It has nostalgia for old diners, but when you’re a regular and there are people at the restaurant who know what you drink and what you like. There’s a relationship. That’s what turns me on about the business.
Words Ashley Mason