Tony May

May 1992

Food Arts presents the May 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Tony May for 20 years of unprecedented effectiveness as ambassador of classic and contemporary Italian cuisines to the United States.

It seems fitting that May be recognized for his pioneering transatlantic cultural efforts in this, the 500th anniversary year of Columbus's diet-transforming linkup of two disparately developed old worlds. Also fitting, in this respect, is that May began his own personal voyage of discovery and impassioned gastronomic career upon the oceans.

One of eight children, May was born in December 1937 in Torre del Greco, essentially Naples, where his parents still live, to a Mediterranean sea captain and his wife, whom he fondly describes as not a particularly good cook. After attending hotel school in Naples in his teens, May "traveled a bit in Europe and landed in the service industry in one capacity or another, and signed on cruise ships for three or four years. I went around the world twice with the Italian Line and got to learn about various cultures and different ways of thinking." By age 20, he had been promoted from waiter to maître d'. "Suddenly I was giving orders to people three times my age. It wasn't easy, but I've always been a leader and an innovator."

In 1963, he alighted in New York City and gave himself a year to get acquainted, taking jobs "in four or five restaurants to get a feel for the place." He settled in at The Rainbow Room, rising rapidly from captain to highly paid maître d'. Determined to make it in management, he took a sharp salary cut to prove himself capable to the owner. By 1968, he had become general manager; in 1975, he signed a lease with Rockefeller Center to take over the entire Rainbow Room operation himself.

It was at The Rainbow Room that May first introduced his seminal, trend-making culinary fortnights. The first one, organized with British Airways, featured, to his present bemusement, English food. The second, in 1972, showcased the cuisines of Italy and succeeded in breaking a gastronomic sound barrier.

"We had 50 people from Italy, twelve cooks, twelve captains from the Italian Line, a folkloric group of 18 from Capri, a tenor from La Scala and Robertino, the pop singer. It was probably the first time somebody had brought a group of great cooks from that country, along with food and wines nobody here had even thought of—the first carpaccio, Brunello, tartufo, you name it. Twenty years ago, the Italian foods known to Americans were lasagne, veal piccata, zuppa inglese. Arborio wasn't even in the dictionary, neither were balsamic, white truffles or double zero flour for pasta. It was great, we were doing 500 dinners a night, we didn't know where in hell to put the people. Just incredible! Prior to that, there had been no incentive for Italian restaurateurs here; they were not stimulated. They hadn't the desire to make Americans understand what is Italy, its modern cuisine, its good nutrition. We got incredible press here and in Europe."

The fervid response to May's event triggered the ebullient, single-minded symptoms of a man who has just discovered his lifetime mission. A string of menu-forging New York restaurants would follow: Sandro's La Camelia, Palio and the present state-of-Italian-culinary-art, three-star San Domenico. In 1982, May founded the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, a band of United States-based Italian restaurateurs, importers, suppliers, etc., committed to "producing a single voice on Italian cuisine, its origins, its present and future" through education. May also led the efforts to introduce a true Italian curriculum to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and masterminded the publication of Italian Cuisine: Basic Cooking Techniques (Italian Wine & Food Institute, New York, 1990), a milestone book on Italian culinary techniques in English for students' use. He presently serves on the boards of the National Restaurant Association, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau and the CIA. And he still finds time for his second passion, golf.