We Chat With Anthony Ricco of Spice Market
"When you have to cook 200 to 300 fried rice plates a night, there's nothing you can do for those hours but cook. Personal issues, home problems— nothing else matters. I'm free."
More than any chef I've ever met, Executive Sous Chef Anthony Ricco of Spice Market lives to feed people. After my recorder was clicked off and we'd already snacked away on the three dishes show here (he guilted me into eating while interviewing like any good Italian knows how to do), he brought out five more plates and then ribbed us for not being able to finish off every one. By the time we were gathering our things to leave, he'd invited us to the family meal on Thanksgiving, where he sets up a veritable highway of dishes for his staff.
Mid-interview a tall, very thin chef walked by, and Ricco calls out, "What did I make you for your birthday today?" An iPhone is whipped out and Chef Beani is glowing over snapshots: "It was ridiculous. This is a lobster claw that's been stuffed with braised pork belly, wrapped in the pork belly skin, tempura battered and deep-fried. Then this feast of gluttony is the body of the lobster with another slab of pork belly, a sweet chili sauce on one side of the bun and then iceberg, pickle, relish, mayonnaise and black truffle paste on the other side."
As he walks away, Ricco sums up his place in the kitchen perfectly: "To see the expression on this guy's face—this guy who's equally as good of a cook as I am and eats delicious things all the time—if I can make him happy, if I can make his day... that's why I love cooking."
What excites you most about what you do right now? I get to play with food all day. My day is making sure that a thousand people a day get fed very well. We're blessed to work in an open kitchen so I can see people eat the food and see real expressions from their meal. It's not bad.
A thousand people is a lot. Does it ever overwhelm you? Yeah, halfway through the week I'm pretty much fried.
So why do it? Before cooking, nothing was long-term for me—cooking kinda put me on the straight and narrow. When you're young and you're doing whatever you want to do—hanging out on the streets every day in or out—you either become a professional or veer off into the dark side of things.
The dark side of Brooklyn? Yeah, the dark side of Brooklyn.
Was cooking always your thing? Yeah, I'd cut school and stay home and cook. I realized that cooking impressed people. I'd have sleepovers with my cousins and be in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and flipping omelets at eight years old.
At eight years old?! At eight years old. That was the way I grew up. It was in my blood. We're all big people and we love to eat. If you notice, people are most happy when they get together with a big meal in front of them.
Who was the main cook in your huge family? My grandmother. Unfortunately I was about 13 when she passed away. I wish I had her skills to make everything look easy—to cook minimal ingredients into something tremendous and delicious. That's something the old timers have that I think us young kids have a hard time with.
How did Asian food become the thing? I used to watch Yan Can Cook; this dude would smash ginger buds with a cleaver and ten seconds later have perfect julienne. That guy had an amazing skill set and I thought, "I want to be fast like that. I want to be able to produce things like that."
When did you start experiencing it for yourself? My father switched my whole thinking when he made turkey wonton soup instead of the traditional roasted turkey for Thanksgiving. My whole family thought he was crazy, but I was intrigued by what he was doing, and it was like nothing I ever had before. There was something comforting about it.
Fast forward: You went from a French place in Long Island City to Jean-Georges. What was that transition like? I was crazy nervous because I was coming from a place that was the opposite of where I was going. So I'm peeling baby carrots, a case of them, real fast. Things are flying and shreds of carrot are falling on the floor it was like, "stop, pick it up. Stop, pick it up. Stop, pick it up." And the fifteenth time it happened I said, "that's it, I'm done. I'm not picking it up anymore." And that's the first time I met Jean-Georges and why I like him so much to this day: he was walking by and a carrot peel fell on the floor by my feet. He stopped, picked it up, and kept walking. Didn't say anything. And I thought, "If I can condition myself to be like this guy then my life could be better." The level of commitment he has to himself and his restaurant to stop at my feet and pick up a peel of baby carrot that I was doing... I had one moment of "f' it, I'm not picking this thing up." And this guy stopped at my feet to pick up a carrot shard. It really impressed me and made me who I am today, actually. That one moment changed my life.
How have you made the kitchen at Spice Market yours? I couldn't do the little touches until I traveled and saw first hand. Take the pork belly: this is a dish I had in Hong Kong, but it was pork knuckle. We busted into the kitchen at the Peninsula at 4 a.m. We had to know what was in the dish and the chef was cool about it—he didn't have much of a choice with two big, crazy white dudes at four in the morning. But he showed us this pork knuckle marinating in lemongrass and then air-drying real slow. When I got back I took what I gathered from the guy and put my own spin on it—pork belly and added aromatics to the broth. Now we sell 50 to 60 of them a night.
Now when you're having a rough day and need to escape from the world, where do you go? I'll bury myself in the wok. When you have to cook 200 to 300 fried rice plates a night, there's nothing you can do for those hours but cook. Personal issues, home problems—nothing else matters. All the other chef shit you have to deal with on a daily basis just shuts up. I'm free.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who will be spending next Thanksgiving at Spice Market instead of hosting as she is this year. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.