Chef Rick Tramonto is a busy guy these days. With his latest cookbook Steak With Friends debuting, a stint on Top Chef Masters and taking care of his restaurants Tru, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, Osteria di Tramonto and RT Sushi Bar & Lounge, he somehow managed to find some time for me.
Claire Bidwell Smith: You famously got your start in the restaurant world by being behind a counter of a Wendy's and now you run one of the most celebrated restaurant enterprises in Chicago. What advice would you give to other hopeful chefs who are just starting out and hoping to achieve a similar level of success?
Rick Tramonto: You mean other than wearing comfortable shoes? I think it's really key that you continue to learn and travel and eat and work and expose yourself to as many chefs' cooking styles as you can, based on whatever cuisine drives you. One of the things that helped me a lot as I was starting out in my career was that I got myself to France and Europe and California, and spent time immersing myself in those culinary traditions. I'd encourage them to dive into whatever culture most excites them, and that they want to cook. That, and be persistent. Mine is a 30-year-in-the-making career. You've got to stick with it. I always like to say that no matter what you want to do in life, if you stick with it, you're bound to eventually get good at it!
CBS: You're a busy man; you're cooking in one Chicago's top restaurants, publishing and promoting a book and making television appearances like Bravo's Top Chef Masters. On the rare night off in Chicago, where are you headed to eat?
RT: I have a couple of haunts that I like. I'm a pretty simple, casual guy, and I'm a family guy with three teenage boys. When we all go out to eat together, we like doing the cas' thing, like Portillo's for Italian beef. As far as when my wife and I go out to eat together, we'll often go to Joe's Stone Crab. That's one of our favorite places.
CBS: What is it about Chicago that lends itself to being such a foodie city? Are we really ahead of Paris and New York as some are saying?
RT: I think it's really the caliber of the chefs who are migrating here because Chicago is just a great city, period. It's an approachable, affordable city with great architecture and great sports. It's about the chefs who are either coming back home to Chicago, or are coming here because they're just looking for a great city to live in. Do I think we're ahead of Paris and New York? That's tough to say. I think that there's some really great molecular food going on here, and also some really great neighborhood food, from guys like Rick Bayless and Graham Elliot Bowles. Whether you say we're ahead or not, I think what's important is that we're finally fully aligned with Paris and New York.
CBS: Cookbooks on steak run the gamut, but what's fun about yours is that it's not just a book full of steak recipes. Instead, you seem genuinely interested in helping the reader create a memory with your meals. Is that mission tied only to the book, or is that something you focus on whenever the subject of food or cooking enters your world? And what was the process like when you figured out that you love cooking with friends, not just for them?
RT: The memories piece has always been a big part of my work. At all of my restaurants, whether it was at Trio or Tru or Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, there have always been so many people who come up to me and tell me that they've celebrated major milestones with us, whether it's birthdays or anniversaries or engagements. So there's always been this honor and responsibility of marking people's memories with them. Whether it's creating foodie memories or just creating the "kumbaya" - as I like to call it - around table. That's definitely been a big part of the fabric of my journey as a chef.
In terms of cooking with friends, I realized early on that all great meals seem to start and end in the kitchen, and the more you can get people engaged and hands-on, the better the memories will be. So when people come into your kitchen while you're cooking and prepping and politely ask, "Do you need any help?" the key is to say yes. Give them a task. Engage them in the process, and it becomes part of the fun, part of the conversation and fellowship.
CBS: This week on Top Chef Masters you cooked for the cast of Modern Family and you spoke about how you, yourself, have a modern family. How do they influence your cooking, and what do you think your mom would think of how far you've come?
RT: I think my family, especially having three teenage sons, keeps my cooking at home grounded and very approachable. I'm definitely not making spumas in my kitchen, that's for sure! But it also keeps my traditions and heritage alive, because I want to teach my kids what my grandmother and mother taught me. I keep going back to foundational, heritage cooking techniques from my family in Naples and Abruzzi. There are a lot of traditional dishes from those regions that I want to educate my kids' palates about, to pass down that heritage and that lineage. I think my mom would have been pleasantly surprised and absolutely thrilled to have seen all the cookbooks and all the restaurants and all the television I've done. She passed away during the early years of Tru, but I was lucky that she was here to see that chapter of my life unfold.
CBS: Last Question: The meal you prepared for the cast of Modern Family on Top Chef Masters -- Truffled White Beans and Escarole with Grilled Sausage -- may not have won the competition, but it was the plate I most salivated over. Can we have the recipe?
RT: Truffled White Beans with Escarole & Grilled Sausage
* 4 lbs White Beans (soaked overnight)
* 1 lb Bacon or Pancetta
* 3 cups Carrots
* 2 Tbsp Garlic
* 3 cups Celery
* 1 cup Onion
* 1 sprig of Thyme
* 1 Bay Leaf
* ½ cup Olive Oil
* ½ cup White Wine
* 1 qt Chicken Stock
* 5 spicy Italian Sausages
1. Cook bacon in olive oil.
2. Sweat rest of ingredients for 10 minutes.
3. Add beans and cook for 10 minutes.
4. Add white wine and cook for 5 minutes.
5. Add chicken stock. Cook for 40 minutes of until tender.
6. Grill off spicy Italian sausage. Slice and add to soup when plating.