Steve Redzikowski, chef of Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth: "Tweezers are just so finicky"
This is part one of my interview with Steve Redzikowski, exec chef of Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth; part two of my one-on-one with Redzikowski will run tomorrow.
Steve Redzikowski grew up on Long Island, the middle son of an Italian matriarch whose cooking was indicative of her heritage. "We had pasta and red sauce every single night. Some nights, you'd get the eggplant Parm, and on some days, you'd get manicotti, but whatever it was that she made, it was always with red sauce," remembers Redzikowski, who admits that he never contemplated a career in the kitchen until long after his first job cooking in one. "I worked at a diner, cleaning the place after school, and then I got a job at another diner making toast and pulling plates, and then I got a job at a pizza joint -- but they were all just that: jobs, and the only reason I did any of them was to make some cash," says Redzikowski. Cooking was just a means to an end.
See also: First look: Acorn opens in the Source
Still, the more time he spent entrenched in kitchens, the more he pondered what it was, exactly, that he wanted to do, and figuring he'd already logged several years behind the line, he began researching culinary schools -- and then took the plunge, enrolling at Schenectady County Community College in upstate New York. "I don't recommend culinary school -- at least not that one," warns Redzikowski. "My advice is to just get your butt into the back door of a restaurant and work for free. True, you're not making money, but you're not wasting money on a useless education, either, and, really, why would you pay someone for something that you can learn for free in a real-life situation?"
As it turns out, Redzikowski heeded his own advice, using his free time away from the classroom to pound on the back door of Le Cirque, at the time the pinnacle of the New York dining scene. "I remember being at a Walden bookstore and researching which New York restaurants were the best, and while I was doing that, I came across Le Cirque, as well as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first cookbook, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, these are killer restaurants. I want to work there,'" he says.
And he did. First at Le Cirque, the "most magical kitchen I've ever seen," even putting "Disneyland to shame," he says. "It was a superstar-loaded kitchen." And when he landed a full-time gig on the line, following a few months of peeling vegetables for no compensation, he marched back to his culinary-school instructor and promptly turned in his textbooks. But his instructor, justifiably impressed by his pupil's good fortune, offered him an internship instead, telling Redzikowski that if he kept a journal of his experiences, he'd graduate. And it was during his stint at Le Cirque that Redzikowski came to the realization that what he wanted to do was cook. In eight months, he became the restaurant's saucier at the age of eighteen, and his chef, a German, took notice of the young wunderkind. After Redzikowski had been there a year, he encouraged him to spread his culinary wings. "He said that I knew the line as well as I was ever going to, and that I needed to go elsewhere to move up," recollects Redzikowski. And that chef made a phone call...to Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Suddenly, Redzikowski was two for two.