Jim Poris / March 2010
Food Arts presents the March 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Frank DeCarlo, the hardworking maestro of Italian wood-fired oven cookery. Call him the Brett Favre of chefs, for like the ageless quarterback, the 50 year old DeCarlo still relishes the nightly sweaty sprint of cooking on the line at his aptly named Peasant in New York City's Nolita 'hood. A prototypical hardcore, no-fuss chef (without the cuss words) long before bush-faced bloggers began wallowing in the image of cooks as butcher-muscled urban combatants, DeCarlo won't even unroll his sleeves to expedite.
"That's the worst job there is in a kitchen," he says, Jersey guy dripping from every word. "I want to be cooking. That's what I signed up for."
DeCarlo has been punching his culinary time card for over 30 years. After teenaged visions of being a drummer got punctured in Los Angeles, DeCarlo returned home to find himself under the tutelage of the Pugliese chef Donato Deserio at the well-regarded Il Cortile in New York City's Little Italy. Five years there and an eye-opening stint at the restaurant Nicola Von Westerhout (named for a 19th century German composer who resided there) in Deserio's hometown of Mola di Bari laid the foundation of his culinary ethos.
"Those guys in Mola cooked in terra-cotta pots placed in a wood oven," he recalls. "They'd roast goats, rabbits, and hens. This was my influence. I'm not trying to put a spin on these classic dishes of Italy. It's why I'm cooking with hardwood charcoal, because up to about 60 years ago that's how it was done in most of Italy."
After returning from Italy, DeCarlo attended Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now The Institute of Culinary Education), worked pastry at Le Cirque, and in 1990 opened Mazzei with two buddies from Il Cortile, expanding diners' minds with uncommon-for-the-times cuttlefish, sea urchin, and burrata. The critical hit closed in 1995, and after a few more gigs, he opened Peasant in 1999 and the Venetian wine bar Bacaro in 2007 on the Lower East Side.
All the while DeCarlo was becoming known as a chef's chef among his more celebrated peers. Peasant has become an after-hours dinner hangout for the likes of the late Jean-Louis Palladin, a DeCarlo soul mate; Daniel Boulud, who held a 50th birthday party there; Alain Ducasse; and Paul Bocuse, among many others. "They all like this place because it reminds them of when they started out using wood and charcoal in France," says DeCarlo. "At the end of their meal, they all wind up in the kitchen blown away by this technique. It's a real dying art."
By the summer DeCarlo may have a third downtown spot open, "an amaro bar," he says, featuring the bitter Italian elixirs with the gaudy Belle Époque labels. But he'll still be cooking. "I'm going to die in the kitchen. But I'll happy to die there, because that's where I want to be."