Rialto Cafe's Robert McCarthy on killed marriages, Szechuan buttons and his six-inch F. Dick
This is part one of my interview with Robert McCarthy, exec chef of Rialto Cafe. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Robert McCarthy shakes his head in aggravation and rolls his eyes. "The hoods went down for an hour today during lunch -- a belt broke -- and it totally smoked the place out," he yells over the shrill of some drills. "Between nothing working in the kitchen, guys with drills pulling up the carpeting and another night of Restaurant Week, it's shaping up to be quite a day."
Luckily, this isn't a typical day for McCarthy, the executive chef of Rialto Cafe. "Most of the time, this is a really fun job where things work in the kitchen and the only noise comes from the crowds," says the 41-year-old McCarthy, who's been exec chef at the Rialto for the past eight months.
Born in Queens and reared in Maryland, McCarthy grew up in a family of foodniks. "My uncle was always making his own things, like sausages, and he hunted and fished on a regular basis, and I pretty much thought that that's how everyone lived," says McCarthy, who soon learned otherwise. "I was sixteen when I got my first cooking job at a pizza place, and I quickly realized that I knew a lot more than I thought I did about cooking -- that my uncle's influence had taught me a lot and that not everyone else was brought up with the same kind of skills that I had."
He stuck around the pizzeria for a year, then worked at several more restaurants around Maryland -- "all elementary kind of cooking jobs," he admits -- before taking the university plunge, studying literature and philosophy while working on the line to pay for his education. But as it turned out, his real education didn't come in the college classroom. "I was working as a line cook for a four-star bed-and-breakfast, and it was there where I started to really learn about what I wanted to do with my life," he recalls. "I was a sponge, and it sucked me right in."
McCarthy ditched Kierkegaard and Emerson in order to fully immerse himself in the kitchen, butchering meat and fish, making stock and sauces, and eventually moving up to the sous position, a spot he held for two years. And then he made the decision to graduate to a bigger city. "I decided that if I was really going to do this -- if I was really going to be a chef -- that I needed to go to a bigger city," because Berlin, Maryland, the town in which he was working, "is not a big city," says McCarthy.