Meet & Eat: John DeLucie, Chef and Author
"I had decided that the last thing the world needs is another recipe for roast chicken. On the other hand, my story about how I started late in life with a second career...that might actually inspire someone."
John DeLucie is the chef at one of the city's most popular restaurants, the Waverly Inn. Its unlisted number doesn't seem to keep out celebrities and other A-listers, who flock there to see and be seen, but also for the food.
DeLucie serves some of the most delectable biscuits in town as part of a simple yet elegant and satisfying menu based in part on an old menu found in the floorboards during construction. DeLucie took some time away from the kitchen to write The Hunger, A Story of Food, Desire, and Ambition, a memoir that chronicles his journey from the recruiting industry to cooking, and the impact on his personal life along the way.
Name: John DeLucie
Location: West Village
Occupation: Chef/partner, Waverly Inn and author of The Hunger
At what point in your life did you know you wanted to become a chef and how did that come about? I had just turned thirty. Way too old. Good thing I didn't know that at the time. I was working as an executive recruiter, taking insurance executives from one bad job and placing them in another for a fee. I couldn't do it for one more day; I couldn't do it for one more hour. I cooked as a hobby and finally decided to get serious about it. I enrolled in a class at the New School called Master Chef Class. After I "graduated" I got a job at Dean & DeLuca slicing Italian cold cuts and making panini. That was nineteen years ago.
How would you describe your basic cooking philosophy and principles? I had the good fortune early in my career to work with chef Paul DelFavaro at Nick and Toni's in the Hamptons. There was a vegetable garden in the back and an ocean nearby stocked with fresh fish. Paul taught me how good simple food could be. He had a very Italian philosophy in that you only needed a few ingredients to compose a perfect dish. It was the kind of cooking I grew up on and it intensified my appreciation for uncomplicated food.
Who were your most influential mentors along the way? My grandmothers were great cooks. I can still remember one grandmother's zucchini frittata, really my first vivid food memory, and my other grandmother's meatballs which she made with Pecorino Romano and stale bread. I miss those days.
What made you decide to write a memoir? Were you worried at all about becoming an author? I had decided that the last thing the world needs is another recipe for roast chicken. On the other hand, my story about how I started late in life with a second career--and actually had a decent amount of success--that might actually inspire someone. I was a little worried about revealing so much of the personal side of my life, but it ended up being quite cathartic and satisfying after all.
Are there any juicy stories that didn't make it into the book? If so, why not? There were a few that didn't make mostly because I didn't want the book to be a gossipy tell-all. I felt the only person who should potentially be embarrassed by The Hunger was me.
What advice would you give to a 20-year-old chef starting out today? Work in the absolute best restaurant you can find in your city. Go abroad--Spain, Italy, wherever. It's the one regret I have; not spending enough time overseas. Generally speaking, the cooking in Europe is very different. It's taken more seriously and there is a healthy respect for kitchen hierarchy. People stay in jobs longer and become more proficient before they move up. Here people right out of school consider themselves chefs.
Best pizza in the city? There is a lot of good pizza in New York City. Keste just opened in my neighborhood. I really like it. Nice people. I love Lombardi's, Totonno's out in Brooklyn and for a slice at 2 a.m. you cannot beat Joe's. I like the one with the fresh mozzarella.
Favorite burger? I like the burger at the Waverly Inn, does that count?
Favorite bagel? Bagel Oasis on Queens Blvd. I have been eating bagels here since I was a kid living on L.I. Stopping off the LIE late-night on my way home from the city. Ess-a Bagel on the east side has those giant and chewy bagels. I like them.
Undiscovered gem? I have yet to discover it.
Guilty pleasures? iTunes, The Village Vanguard, I love jazz and the Vanguard is such an amazing place. It opened in 1935 and everyone from Charlie Parker and Bill Evans to Wynton Marsalis have played there. It is a remarkable New York City treasure.
Food you won't eat? Most offal. I just never got into organ meats. My aunt used to make an Italian version of veal liver and onions and honeycomb tripe with rosemary and tomatoes but I just never developed a taste for either.
Most memorable New York City meal? Momofuko Ko--I honestly didn't want to like this place for all its publicity and its difficult reservation policy (how ironic). My friend got us a reservation and it was delicious, unpretentious, and fun. This place has really serious food that is also whimsical at the same time.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? There are several Waverly customers that have eaten all over the city and all over the world. They know a lot more about where to go than I do.
What's the best recommendation they've given you? I hadn't been to London in many years and was frightened at the prospect of the food and drink there (I had heard all of the stereotypes) especially espresso, my beverage of emotional reassurance. Happy to say I received some excellent recommendations including a café called Café Roma and a gastropub called The Eagle. Have no fear.
The Waverly Inn
16 Bank Street, New York NY 10014 (map)