Darren Pusateri, chef of Gallo Di Nero, on conch pistol and his obsession with Extreme Cougar Wives
This is part one of my interview with Darren Pusateri, exec chef of Gallo Di Nero; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Darren Pusateri, clad in a heavy coat with an ebony scarf swaddled around his neck, shakes off a shiver as he slides into one of the booths at Gallo Di Nero, the Golden Triangle restaurant where he's now the executive chef. "We had some issues with the heat this morning," he grumbles. Later, he knocks back a shot of Bulleit rye whiskey to chase away the frosty chill that looms outside on this bleak fall day, the coldest 24 hours of the year.
Florida, where Pusateri was born and raised, is devoid of cold snaps like these, and while he's lived in Denver long enough to experience several spells of frigidity, the 32-year-old chef still has warm memories of his time in the Sunshine State, specifically the Palm Beach area, where he first began experimenting with cooking. And he didn't start with the easy stuff. "I remember being around thirteen and having a bowl of lobster bisque in Las Vegas, and as soon as I got home, I bought a bunch of cookbooks to learn how to make it, except that the first batch was green, because I didn't realize I had to take the poop out, so it was a pretty awful attempt," he remembers, adding that while he also "destroyed three lobsters in the process," he was encouraged by his failure: "The lobster was my first real attempt at cooking, and I loved the challenge of figuring out how to make it better -- it was like a puzzle to me -- and I wanted to keep trying."
That determination led him to enroll in the Florida Culinary Institute and tarnish his knuckles in a professional kitchen, which wasn't difficult, because his father owned a chain of sports bars. But working in a sports bar, Pusateri observes, is "gross, dirty work." It was the series of jobs that soon followed -- including a cooking stint at the Ritz-Carlton and another at a French restaurant -- that encouraged him to keep cooking.
And then he met Daniel Boulud, the New York-based culinary master, whose name, renowned around the world, is synonymous with unparalleled French technique. The chance meeting between him and Boulud occurred during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a gastronomic sojourn that was a 21st-birthday gift from his father, who joined him there. But it didn't start out well. "I brought all these résumés with me, and I remember trying to hand them to Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, but they didn't want anything to do with me, probably because we were all at a wine seminar and I was kinda trashed and had wine spills all over my shirt," says Pusateri. His dad, however, came up with an idea after they learned that tickets to the coveted Best New Chefs dinner were sold out: They should sneak through the kitchen of the Hotel Jerome and crash it. While they were traipsing through the kitchen, Pusateri was stopped in his tracks. "I literally stumbled into Daniel Boulud," he recalls, and he went into celebrity shock while his dad engaged in conversation with the star chef.
The discussion ended with what appeared to be a job offer from Boulud: "He asked if I wanted to work with him and said to call him the following week," recounts Pusateri, who called, called again and kept calling, only to encounter silence. Then, out of the blue, while Pusateri was cruising down the asphalt in Florida, his phone rang; Boulud was on the other end. The next day, Pusateri packed his knives and moved to New York, where he quickly jumped on the line at the chef's eponymous restaurant. For the next few years, Pusateri spent time on the line in several of Boulud's restaurants, both in New York and Florida.