Eric Cimino, chef of Luca: "The fancy-burger trend should call it quits"
This is part one of my interview with Eric Cimino, chef of Luca D'Italia; part two of our chat will tun tomorrow.
Like a lot of kids, Eric Cimino had a grand plan for when he arrived at adulthood. He wanted to be a psychologist, figuring he'd excel because he was the guy everyone hit up for guidance. He even graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in psychology, but like a lot of college survivors, he soon discovered that his original master plan wasn't the one he wanted to pursue. "I realized that I couldn't listen to people's problems all day long; I just couldn't see that future working out in the end, plus I cared too much to disconnect myself," confesses Cimino, today the executive chef at Luca D'Italia.
Born in Santa Fe, Cimino was deeply exposed to New Mexico's fabled food landscape as a kid, "spending time with my dad," he remembers, "and cleaning whole bushels of chiles and getting them bagged up for the wintertime." And while the family's kitchen table was never the place for extravagance, "there was always a solid home-cooked meal waiting for me, including red or green chile -- and sometimes there was Christmas, which is both," he says.
After college, Cimino took a gig at a mom-and-pop pizzeria, where he did prep, flipped pies, ran the ovens and even put in some management hours, all of which he enjoyed far more than the idea of sinking into a chair and asking a patient to share his feelings. "I really loved the restaurant environment because it was so fast-paced and unpredictable and there was always so much energy," he explains, "plus I was a night owl and had no problem with working late-night hours." He spent four years at the pizza joint, then spent the cash he'd earned on a one-way ticket to Europe.
Cimino touched down in Barcelona, spent three weeks in Spain and two weeks in Portugal, then explored Paris, Belgium, Germany, Budapest, Prague and Italy. While he was in Sicily, in the tiny town of Trapani, he realized that he belonged in a kitchen. "I was staying at this bed-and-breakfast and just started falling in love with everything there, with the culture, with the food, with the garden and with the 180 olive trees I woke up to every day," says Cimino. "The owner and I would make a big list of things we wanted at the market, and then we'd come back and he'd cook, and once I'd gained his trust, he eventually let me cook for friends who would come over, and it was all just this amazing, eye-opening and culturally rich experience."
Cimino still had another stop -- Morocco -- but he knew where he wanted to go after that. "While I was traveling throughout Europe, I had made the decision to go to culinary school, but I'd spent all my money, so I moved back to Tucson, worked in restaurants and finally earned enough money to go to CIA at Greystone," says Cimino, who adds that the location -- in the heart of the grape-soaked Napa Valley -- was an education in and of itself. "I got this great culinary education and wine education; I had tons of fresh produce at my fingertips; and I was able to really understand the direct connection between food and the seasons, which I absolutely loved." He also got to cook at the Girl & the Fig, the now-shuttered Cantinetta Piero in Yountville, and at Chiarello Family Vineyards, where he was responsible for all of the winery's food pairings.