Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar, on nearly hurling in Vietnam
This is part one of my interview with Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar; part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
I'm a Scorpio, and I'm pretty proud of that," volunteers Gerard Strong. "I can be fiery, I'm from New York, I'm up front, and I definitely let people know what I think." Strong, today the chef of Central Bistro & Bar, grew up in the Hudson Valley in a large family dominated by a working mother -- a matriarch, he says, who "could put together a great meal for ten at the drop of a hat."
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At seven, he and his best friend made home videos of themselves cooking chili. "Believe it or not, it came out really well," Strong remembers. But he had no aspirations of becoming a chef, since "I was way more into music than food," he explains. "I started playing in a folky-funk jam band when I was sixteen, had a record contract at eighteen, recorded two albums and toured the East Coast in a Winnebago for a few years -- and then we broke up and parted ways."
Not long after, Strong was diagnosed with a rare illness, a sickness that restricted him from eating any solid foods for six months. While he was bedridden, he made a list of all the foods that he'd never eaten in the past, and once he could finally add solid foods to his diet, the first thing he did was go to a restaurant. "My mom sent me to the best restaurant in the Hudson Valley, and I still remember eating ostrich carpaccio and pork tenderloin and literally weeping," he says.
It was an epiphany -- and the first step to becoming a chef. The next step: "A friend of mine owned a restaurant in New York, and he hired me as a garde manger, and six months later, I was the sous chef," recollects Strong, who then went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. "I was raring to go; I couldn't start school fast enough."
He graduated with an associate's degree in 2004, secured a job at Blue Water Grill...and walked out two weeks later. "I was making $300 a week, working double shifts six days a week and sleeping on a friend's couch -- that wasn't what I was looking for," he says, adding that it was the first -- and only -- time he's waltzed out of a kitchen.
The walk turned out to be a lucrative move. Within a few weeks, he was cooking at Union Pacific, a restaurant that was the jewel in the crown of then-celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, who was famously tossed from the restaurant soon after; it closed that same year.
Nonetheless, for a time Strong was cooking in one of the best kitchens in New York, and it solidified his enthusiasm for cooking. He returned to the Culinary Institute of America, banged out a bachelor's degree in culinary arts business and management, and learned "how to run a business," he says.