|OH BROTHER: A number of siblings are involved in Drago’s food-related holdings. |
CELESTINO DRAGO, recognized as one of “The 10 Best Chefs” in the United States by Food & Wine, is an extraordinary chef who has gained both the admiration and affection of an ever-expanding following. Anyone who has experienced his luscious pumpkin tortellini, taken one of his cooking classes at the Italian Institute or met and heard him on Crystal Cruises begins to feel that he is some beloved relative. Most of the time he gets a hug. Always true to his heritage, his family and friends, Drago is constantly expanding his culinary world.
Celestino Drago recently sat down with RH contributor Libby Platus at Santa Monica’s Drago, his flagship restaurant, where he provided a whirlwind tour of what is happening in his little empire of restaurants and foodrelated businesses.
RH: How did you happen to come to the U.S.?
Drago: I was Chef at Martini’s outside of Pisa. I was 22 and very lucky. In 1979, a guy came into the restaurant and said, “A friend of mine has a restaurant in Beverly Hills and wants a young chef who knows Tuscan cooking. Do you want to go there?” I said, “You know what? Let me think about it.’” He said, “What do you have to think about? Here is a ticket, come for a couple of weeks. If you don’t like it, you go back.” I said, “That sounds good.” I didn’t tell anybody, not even my parents. The restaurant was Orlando Orsini.
RH: What did you think of America’s Italian food?
Drago: It was depressing. In Italy, ingredients are the main thing. In L.A., there was no radicchio. Where was the basil? I couldn’t find good bread. There was no arborio rice. At the farmers’ market, I gave a lady seeds I brought from Italy. She started growing wonderful organic produce. By 1983, there were over 80 kinds of basil available. Now, we can get the best from Italy and from local farmers’ markets.
RH: What experiences from your childhood in Sicily prepared you to be a chef?
Drago: Growing up on a farm, the only things we bought were salt and sugar. When I was six, my father said, “These are beans. You will be in charge of this.” And he showed me how to water, tie them up, pick beans and tomatoes. We had to make sure we kept seeds for the future. You learn early about your palate, your sense of smell and touch.
RH: When did you begin owning restaurants?
Drago: I had the opportunity to open Celestino in Beverly Hills in 1985. In 1991, I sold it to my partner and opened Drago in Santa Monica. I wanted to keep my Beverly Hills customers, so I opened Il Pastaio.
|TRUE TO FORM: At Drago, above right, the menu reflects the chef’s Sicilian roots. |
RH: Has being Sicilian affected your restaurants?
Drago: The Sicilian restaurants I saw, with their heavy sauces and meatballs, were not really Sicilian. If your restaurant featured Sicilian, people rejected you! When I opened Drago, I wanted to showcase Sicilian food. I put six Sicilian specialties on the menu. In a way, Drago became a Sicilian restaurant. It seemed Sicilian was catching on. So, I opened another restaurant with just Sicilian food, L’Arancino.
RH: You are very flexible and analytical. How does this help your restaurants?
Drago: I see novelty. I want to be the first to do something and do it the right way. Sometimes, I am five years ahead and I feel I’m paying the price. But flexibility gives me more awareness of how to look at things. If something doesn’t work, I just move to the next. For example, with L’Arancino, I felt tied to the restaurant, even though I did train a chef from Drago in Sicilian cuisine.
Without my name, customers didn’t realize it was mine. People were still negative about Sicilian. I decided to make a change. I turned L’Arancino into Celestino, an Italian steakhouse, because I found great Italian Piedmontese beef being raised in the U.S. It has less fat than a piece of chicken without the skin. In 2003, I sold the restaurant. I found another steakhouse location next to Il Pastaio. But the Piedmontese beef was so expensive and cuts were not consistent. Also, we had 115 seats; a steakhouse needs more seats because people stay about 2½ hours. And next door was a steakhouse. So, in 2003, I opened an Italian wine bar and restaurant, Enoteca Drago. The menu is designed around wine: We serve two-ounce glasses in flights. You can have three or four two-ounce glasses and have fun ordering small plates of food.
RH: How did you and your brothers get involved owning restaurants together?
Drago: I am the oldest of eight. When I decided to stay in LA, I visited Italy and told my mother, “One day I will have my own restaurant. I want my brother to go to culinary school so he can work with me.” So we went to the school and signed him up without even asking him. We said, “Okay, Calogero, we signed you up for school.” He said, “Okay, no problem.” He finished school and in 1984 he came here. Then Tannino came. Next, my youngest brother, Giacomino. The four of us worked together. If I wanted to go to Italy for a month, I didn’t worry about the restaurants. Now, everybody is grown up. Altogether, we own around 10 restaurants, some with brothers, some with other people.
RH: Why did you open Dolce Forno Bakery?
Drago: Bread is so important. I made bread for Il Pastaio and Drago at Celestino Steakhouse. We started to sell to other restaurants and hotels. Qantas wanted 60 panna cotta a day for first class. Soon, they wanted rolls and more desserts.
We moved into 6,000-square-foot space. Now the $60 a day from Qantas has grown to $70,000 a month for breakfast pastry, desserts, bread and fresh pasta. We supply many restaurants. We freeze and sell fresh pasta, including nine ravioli. There are 10 breads. If I can get the right people to get to the next level, I will probably grow the business. I have 240 employees with the bakery, restaurants and catering.
RH: What is your catering business like?
Drago: We started with very small parties for private homes. Most events are middle size: 150. We prepare big parties in the bakery. For the Grammys we did BMG’s party with 2,000 people. We had tables hanging from the ceiling. Twenty servers hid behind a one-way mirror wall; all you saw were arms sticking out of holes in the mirror, serving the beautiful buffet. It was a big hit.
RH: You have been catering events at the Italian Institute for over a decade. Other caterers send their staff, but you always attend.
Drago: I feel I am part of the culture. I am privileged that they choose me. When people come to experience the culture, the food represents the best of Italy. It’s very important to me. I want to make sure I am there to greet and to talk with everybody.
RH: What’s next for you?
Drago: Drago restaurant in downtown L.A. The restaurant will open spring of 2008 in City National Plaza with 270 seats. It will be the best of the best. There will be cooking classes with visiting chefs in a show kitchen. It is very exciting.