Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban chef Andrew Selvaggio : "You don't learn a trade; you steal it"
This is part one of my interview with Andrew Selvaggio, chef of Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban; part two of my chat with Selvaggio will run tomorrow.
"Food was a huge part of my life, of my family culture, of ritual and reward," remembers Andrew Selvaggio, the 55-year-old corporate executive chef of the sprawling Smashburger chain, Live Basil Pizza and Tom's Urban. Raised in Chicago, Selvaggio was born and bred into a family of restaurateurs: His dad owned a bakery and his grandfather ran a pastry shop. They, along with Julia Child and Graham Kerr (Selvaggio admits he couldn't tear himself away from old-fashioned food TV), paved the way for his future in cooking -- a successful future that started in the tiny kitchen of La Petite Cuisine, a long-gone French restaurant in Illinois.
"I wanted to go to culinary school at the CIA, but it was prohibitively expensive, so I got an apprenticeship at this lovely French restaurant, where I learned how to make crepes, ratatouille and quiche Lorraine," recalls Selvaggio, who then returned to the family business and helped his father open a second restaurant. By the time he was 21, Selvaggio estimates, he had done time in close to a dozen restaurants. "I couldn't stop -- I was always cooking," he says.
In his early twenties, Selvaggio moved to Arizona, where he cooked at OC Seven Restaurant & Bar, which was owned by retired Baltimore Orioles pitcher and current MLB sportscaster Steve Stone. And when he wasn't on the line there, he was a consulting chef for the Sheraton Hotel and Spa in Santa Barbara, an idyllic city to which he eventually moved for a full-time exec-chef position, a job he held for six years. But while Santa Barbara is lovely, Selvaggio fell out of love with the Sheraton, admitting that he'd become stagnant, so he returned to Chicago, taking a head-chef position at the Pump Room. "At the time, it was the only restaurant in the city that had dinner and dancing, and we used to get all sorts of celebrities in there," including Frank Sinatra, remembers Selvaggio.
And then Selvaggio's career led him to a multi-billion-dollar company, whose around-the-world burgers are also sold by the billions. "While I was at the Pump Room, I was also helping Kendall College, a culinary-arts school in Chicago, with placing interns at the restaurant, and the internship coordinator mentioned that there was an opportunity at McDonald's Corporation for an executive-chef job," says Selvaggio, whose reaction was far different from what you might expect. Instead of lumping McDonald's into the category of crap food for the masses, Selvaggio saw an unparalleled opportunity to make his mark. "I thought about the amazing potential of having a huge influence on what Americans eat," Selvaggio explains. McDonald's "was like a college education for me, because I learned everything that happens on the grand scale, from the field all the way to the marketplace, and I got hired because of my ability to take current trends and translate that into food that McDonald's customers would enjoy." During his ten-year tenure at the burger giant, he was also featured as an answer on Jeopardy. How many people can lay claim to that?
Not even Tom Ryan, the founder of Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban, whose charisma, business sense, marketing savvy and visionary prowess lured Selvaggio away from McDonald's, where Ryan was employed as the chief concept officer.