Welcome to Dante's Inferno
Dante Boccuzzi grew up in Parma, went off to New York, learned from famed chef Charlie Palmer and cooked for Robert De Niro. Now, he’s back home and about to transform Lockkeepers into something that’s more sleek, modern and cool —
Boccuzzi’s directing the action, positioned opposite the stoves on the far side of a 20-foot stainless steel prep area outfitted with counters, cooler drawers and a window where finished dishes await pickup. He reads the tickets as they come rolling out of the printer and issues instructions to the guys at the hot and cold stations, using a shorthand they all understand.
“Fire a skate.”
“I need a wedge.”
His voice is commanding, pitched low with a sandpaper edge. Swigging Pellegrino straight from the bottle, he continues to call out orders for the next three hours.
“Hold the lamb.”
“Where’s my tuna?”
“One rav, one chicken. Now.”
Every plate comes to him for inspection before servers bring it out to the dining room. Each gets a split second of his full and undivided attention. He cleans the edges, rearranges pinches of microgreens, moves a tiny cup of sauce an eighth of an inch to the left.
Anything that doesn’t measure up to his exacting standards is sent back. A charcuterie board fails to please him. He grimaces in annoyance, growls a deep throaty rumble and carries it over to the cook who assembled it. “I don’t like how the meat’s cut. It’s too rough. Do it again.”
But after spending the past 16 years in fast-paced kitchens around the world, including time as a personal chef to Robert De Niro and a five-year run as executive chef at Aureole, Charlie Palmer’s famed New York City restaurant, the 35-year-old with the Michelin-star résumé has earned the right to be critical.
Besides, he owns the place. For the first time in his life, Boccuzzi’s the boss. And the stakes are high. This is Lockkeepers after all, one of Northeast Ohio’s most revered fine-dining establishments. And it’s only going to get tougher. This month he’s closing down for a week, and will reopen as Dante on Sept. 29. Then it won’t be just his restaurant, it’ll be his name above
ante Boccuzzi has a boyish Mephisto-meets-monk look. Impishly cute with thick black hair, bushy eyebrows and a soul patch pointed like a tail in the center of his chin, he’s also beginning to bald. From behind, it appears he’s shaved the crown of his head into a monastic tonsure. The imagery is apt. A smooth-running kitchen needs both devil and angel, he says.
The opposing forces tug at him.
Boccuzzi was born and raised in Parma. He still has family in Cleveland, and the chance for his wife and three children to live close to them was a big part of why he decided to return.
In high school, Boccuzzi worked at Stancato’s Italian Restaurant on State Road. But it wasn’t food that first drew him to the kitchen. “I remember, we catered a party in a VIP room somewhere in the Flats,” he recalls. “Being part of the staff gave me a special pass to be there with all these wealthy, beautiful people. I didn’t know what else to do with my life, so I decided to enroll in culinary school.”
It was his ticket to explore a world he never even knew existed.
He went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Michael Symon was in the class ahead of him. He’d never even heard of truffles or sweetbreads until he arrived there. “I was clueless, a small-town kid with a small-town mentality,” he says.
After graduating, he moved to New York and landed an entry-level spot at Aureole. At the time, it was Charlie Palmer’s only restaurant (he now has eight with four more on the way). Palmer was in the kitchen every day.
“I was terrified and quickly realized how much I didn’t know,” Boccuzzi recalls. “So I kept my mouth shut for the first four months and just did what I was told.”
It was an incredible opportunity to learn from a master. Palmer was still cooking then and Boccuzzi worked at his side. “I got to be on the line next to him, watching how he did things, learning his techniques.”
But the lessons came with a price. “The atmosphere in the kitchen was very macho and aggressive,” he recalls. “You’d get belittled for every mistake. The sous chef would throw food at you if you pissed him off. Charlie once hit me in the chest with an overcooked steak. Whatever you messed up there you ended up wearing.”
Yet, Boccuzzi quickly became Palmer’s chosen one, working his way up at Aureole over the next two years. “I look for drive and passion along with talent,” Palmer says. “Dante had all three. He was serious and committed, pushed himself, took on more than he had to. Good enough was never good enough for him.”
There will be some familiar things on the menu such as pizza and pasta, but he plans to concentrate on the edgier, push-the-envelope preparations for which he’s known. His style, which has earned him two James Beard Rising Star of the Year nominations, one of the industry’s highest honors, fuses elements of Asian and Italian cuisine with classic French technique. Expect port-glazed foie gras and tuna terrine (he calls this his first signature dish), cantaloupe carpaccio, and 5-spice roasted langoustines with pickled watermelon.
His winning ways with pork bellies and truffles have earned rave reviews, so before he even caramelized an onion in this town, Boccuzzi generated a fair amount of enthusiastic and anticipatory buzz just by showing up. He knows that’s good for business, but doesn’t buy into the hype about himself, which is surprising for a guy who’s going to christen his restaurant with his name, whose face is on its postcards.
“I’m really a nobody,” he says, as if succumbing to his Parma roots or some Midwestern shyness. “I get it that people are impressed with what I’ve done. I went to New York. I got some recognition. So what?
“Sure, it’s cool to have people make a fuss over me,” he admits. “But really, I’m not saving lives. At the end of the day, it’s just food.
“Yeah, I cooked for Robert De Niro,” he adds, almost reluctantly. “But it’s not like I am Robert De Niro.”
In fact, the story of how he came to cook for the Hollywood luminary has nothing to do with his talent or his reputation. Boccuzzi was just a last-minute replacement for a Fourth of July celebration held at the actor’s country home in upstate New York. As it turns out, one of Boccuzzi’s friends was a chef for the family, but was about to have hip surgery and couldn’t work the party. “So I filled in,” Boccuzzi says. It involved preparing a day’s worth of meals for about 15 guests.
After that, the De Niros started ordering takeout from Aureole, where Boccuzzi was in charge of the kitchen, and they’d call him to lend a hand whenever they were between chefs. “There was a week where I went to their apartment to make breakfast every morning,” he says. “It had to be ready at 7 a.m., when Bob, as he liked to be called, got done working out with his trainer.”
Starstruck at first, Boccuzzi quickly got over it. “De Niro is a quiet guy, not much of a conversationalist.”
In this era when chefs can become as famous as movie stars, Boccuzzi insists he has no interest in being a celebrity himself. Still, he plans to leverage his accomplishments for all their worth. He’s dreaming about turning himself into a brand, launching other restaurant concepts, publishing the cookbook he’s almost finished writing, trademarking and manufacturing some innovative tableware he’s designed, and doing a TV cooking show for kids — an idea he’s been developing with De Niro’s wife.
Like the Hollywood actress who needs to prove she’s a singer, Boccuzzi is a chef who would love to be a rock star. He says his life has a hard-driving sound track, and he likes to be photographed with his guitar. He’s even recorded two CDs.
In an attempt to link his two pursuits, he plans to include a guitar pick, imprinted with the Dante logo, along with every check.
“At L’Escargot in London, we worked from 8 a.m. to midnight, six days a week. There was no staff meal. You’d end up stuffing handfuls of your own mise en place [prepped ingredients] into your mouth or eating french fry sandwiches. It was brutal, miserable. The chefs were abusive maniacs. If you fell behind, they’d humiliate you rather than help you. Guys would say they were going out for a cigarette and never come back.”
But some good came of it too. He met his wife-to-be, Monica, in England. She was Italian, there to perfect her English. They married after a four-year romance, much of it long distance. She and her mother introduced him to the pleasures of authentic Italian homestyle cooking.
In 1997, with Palmer’s endorsement, he took over the operation of Silks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco. It was a stretch, he admits. “I was definitely in over my head, but I knew I could get help from Charlie,” he says. “I called him every day. Sometimes more than once a day.”
He did stages in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and then, once again as a result of his association with Palmer, was asked to open and run Armani/Nobu in Milan, Italy. He honed his managerial skills there but the menu was set and there was no room for culinary invention. So he channeled his creative energy into music.
Ever since he was a teenager and won a karaoke contest, Boccuzzi has nurtured fantasies of being a rock ’n’ roller. He bought his first electric guitar, taught himself to play, and started writing song lyrics when he went to Europe. He even did some recording. In San Francisco he played with the Back Burner Blues Band — a bunch of chefs who got together for a meals-on-wheels benefit and then kept on jamming. But it was when he returned to Milan that he got serious, taking lessons, performing in clubs, and making another, much better CD titled “Parmatown.”
At Nobu, he rubbed shoulders with some musical icons, including his idol Eric Clapton, who came in for an after-concert party. “I walked right up to him, introduced myself. That was the first time it really hit me: the power of being ‘The Chef,’ ” he recalls.
Other celebrities regularly visited too — George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and De Niro. “I sat down with Phil Collins there too. I was nervous. What was I gonna say, ‘I have all your albums?’ But all he wanted to talk about was food.”
In 2002, Boccuzzi returned to Aureole as executive chef. He wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge, but was willing to risk it. “I had lots of reasons to be confident. I knew the restaurant, knew Charlie, his cooking style, and what he expected,” he says. “I’m not the type to take chances unless the odds are in my favor.”
Palmer says he tapped Boccuzzi for the job because he saw a born leader with a knack for handling people and problems. “If you’re in charge, you have to be the cool, level-headed one. When you get crazy so does everybody else. Boccuzzi had the ability to stay calm and focused, to be laid back but step it up and get tough when he had to.”
Boccuzzi is convinced that separating from his mentor was a necessary move. “Charlie was a second father to me. And there comes a moment in every kid’s life when he has to break away. He and I weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on everything anymore. I needed to leave before that hurt our relationship.”
The fundamental issue, according to Boccuzzi, was simple. Despite the fact that he was there 12 hours a day, it was Palmer’s opinion that counted and Palmer who got the final word.
“I respect his vision. But I wanted to follow my own.”
His old boss calls it a natural progression. “He’s continued to develop as a chef and manager. It makes sense that he wanted his own restaurant. He’s earned it, put in his time. I think he’s ready for this.”
He started keeping these detailed logs of every dish and tasting menu he created while at Silks. Drawings show exactly how food should be arranged on the plate. He’d copy them for his cooks so they’d know exactly what he wanted.
Yet, these are not recipes in the ordinary sense. With no step-by-step instructions and little information about quantities, they are blueprints meant for professionals who understand how to sweat sweet pea sprouts or prepare candied rhubarb shavings.
Over time the renderings have become more polished, the recipes more intricate, and they document a developing enthusiasm for infusing classical preparations with whimsy and fun, his penchant for preparing a single ingredient multiple ways. Some pages are typed but most are neatly handwritten. Every one is spotless inside its plastic sleeve.
“Here’s an early heirloom tomato salad with goat cheese,” he says, then flips to another recipe. “Later, I took the same idea and added a bright red tomato sorbet and a Parmesan crisp.”
Visibly excited and at his most animated when talking about his culinary creations, he turns to a third page and describes the elements of the next incarnation, a four-part variation on a theme.
“There’s a tomato tart tatin with a caramel balsamic, chilled yellow tomato soup with melon foam, a cherry tomato salad with summer truffles, shaved fennel, and sorbet, and another salad that has cockles covered with yellow tomato gazpacho jelly. This is the kind of thing we’ll do at Dante.”
Natalie Cox, director of private dining, sticks her head in the door to discuss the menu for an upcoming party. A few minutes later David Eselgroth, sommelier and second in command, comes in. He and Boccuzzi need to talk about what went wrong Saturday night and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (A server got bogged down, failed to ask for help, and orders got backed up big-time. Three tables had to wait so long for their dinners that the meals were on the house.)
Cox and Eslegroth, who are a couple, left Auroele, along with Jared Bergen, a cook, to follow Boccuzzi here. He also inherited an experienced bunch of cooks, including Ky-wai Wong, who was executive chef prior to his arrival. But everybody has to learn to do things the Boccuzzi way.
“My wife asked me if I’m going to be happy living life away from the stove,” he says. Silence follows, the question hanging in the air, heavy and charged, while he considers his answer. “I hope so.”
onning a freshly laundered chef coat and a long apron, he takes his place at the center of the hot line, one of three cooks handling lunch.
He’s juggling three, four, then five orders simultaneously, never hurrying but always occupied. If he’s frazzled it doesn’t show. He dusts fish filets with flour and drops them in the fryer basket; tosses calamari with dressing, mounding coleslaw neatly on one plate and spicy housemade potato chips on another, popping a few in his mouth. Pivoting back to the stove, he flips a smoked salmon panini and pulls his pot of mussels off the heat. Anyone else would dump them out, but not Boccuzzi. He doesn’t believe in shortcuts. He carefully spoons the mussels into waiting bowls, a few at a time.
Whenever he notices burners on but unused, he turns them off. That’s his money going up in flames.
All the while he’s got his eye on the rest of the kitchen. The minute he spots an empty container or dirty utensil, he whisks it away, keeping counters clear and uncluttered. When he sees a less than perfect plate make it to the serving window, he snatches it back and re-assembles it. During a brief pause, he puts squeeze bottles of oil and sauce back in their places, organized and ready for the next round.
He finishes with his whites as immaculate as when he began and his work area almost gleaming. A fanatic about cleanliness, a stickler for order, efficiency and precision, Boccuzzi is relentless in pursuit of flawlessness. He bundles all these ideas together under the heading “finesse.”
“It’s good to let them see that I’ve still got what it takes to do their job,” says Boccuzzi, “and do it better and faster.” He expects to cook alongside his staff whenever a new dish is added to the menu, and jump in any time they’re shorthanded.
But it’s not his primary role. As the re-opening date approaches there are a million details to attend to, and nothing happens without his approval.
“I lay awake at night, going over long mental checklists, wondering what I’ve forgotten.”
The endless decision-making gets to him sometimes. “There are days it feels like everybody needs an answer from me. But then it hits me: I’m in charge. I don’t have to report to anybody. It means every screw-up is mine. But every success is too.”
But will Boccuzzi the chef stay fired up being Boccuzzi the owner and entrepreneur?
“This restaurant, the cookbook, the TV pilots, everything is my way of searching for that same kind of adrenaline rush that I used to get on the line. Without that kick, it’s just a job.”
food & drink
12:00 AM EST
August 23, 2007