In a business crowded by bloated egos, Andrew Carmellini is one of those unassuming guys who wins admirers by quietly getting the job done. The 39-year-old Cleveland native and CIA grad picked up two James Beard Awards and was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef while working the stove at a little NYC place called Cafe Boulud. From there, he switched to Italian at A Voce, where his duck meatballs and other treats won fans and three stars from the New York Times. Last year Robert DeNiro hired Carmellini to take over the restaurant at the Greenwich Hotel. Since rebranding the space as Locanda Verde, this chef's chef has captured the loyalty of steady regulars (and another Beard nomination).
What's up with the gadget? Is that an equalizer?
It's an interface board. I have a recording studio in my house. I like to play all kinds of music, but when I moved to New York in the 1990s, I fell in love with hip hop (he's produced four CDs, which he has doled out to friends). It keeps me off the street.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was either going to the Berklee College of Music or the CIA. I loved music and cooking. Being a chef now is more of an aspirational career than when I graduated in 1989. When i told people I would be working in restaurants, I might as well have said I was going to prison or joining the military. It was not very glamorous at all.
You and your wife collaborated on a cookbook, Urban Italian, for home cooks. Who puts dinner on the table at your home?
We don't cook at home, unless it's something really simple, like a roasted chicken and salad. One of the great things about Manhattan is that you can eat anything, any time you want to. And it's the best versions of sushi, Thai, Italian…everything. There are 30 amazing restaurants in my neighborhood.
We're doing a second book now, and we're cooking a lot at home again because we wanted to have a book that you can really use at home. When we're off, we'll go to one our friends' restaurants, or go for ethnic food in Queens.
Ah, road food. We hear you like to explore.
No matter where you are, food in general is kind of a window into the anthropology of the area-po'boys in New Orleans, noodles in Tokyo, curry in Chiang Mai, barbecue in Memphis. I go out of my way to find things. Nothing pisses me off more than traveling with someone who doesn't want to find out what's indigenous.
Speaking of indigenous, where are some of your favorite truffle hunting grounds?
I go to Piedmonte, Italy, which is one of the more magical areas of the world, for an amazing food and wine experience. You can drink great wines for not a lot of money. There are three or four great restaurants there, and if it's white truffle season, you can get white truffles put on everything. And a couple of truffle hunters will take me with them.
What's a perfect date for you?
Recently we went up to Dia, a museum in Beacon, NY; it's got a lot of big, beautiful sculptures. Then we had dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which was phenomenal. There is always going to be a food component on any date. Also an art component.