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Chef Marco Canora on Cooking Under a Master's Wing and How to Avoid an Ulcer

Chef and restaurateur Marco Canora can now add a Michelin star to his dazzling resume. Here, he talks about his earning a business degree, soffritto, and giving thanks for Obama.
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Marco Canora -- co-owner and chef of Hearth, Terroir, and Insieme -- can now add a Michelin star to his dazzling resume. As someone who learned the craft of cooking under the knowledgeable tutelage of Tom Colicchio and Cibreo's Fabbio Picchi, Canora talks about his initial decision to earn a business degree, Italy's gift to world: soffritto, and giving thanks for President Barack Obama.

LM: What initially drew you to the kitchen?

MC: I grew up in a family where cooking was a very, very integral part. We cooked during the holidays and people came over. All of the fun times were in the kitchen, and it was the center of the house. That was where all the action was. That was where all the fun was. That's where all the tasty food was. Kitchens have always been in my mind, and I've been in kitchens my whole life.

LM: Unlike other chefs, you never had any formal French culinary training. Why did you decide against doing that?

MC: After working through high school at a restaurant, it was time to make a decision on what I was going to do: am I going to go to cooking school or am I going to go to a secondary school. I thought at the time that a degree in business would help me regardless of what happened in my career later on. As a seventeen-year-old, I thought a general business education would be advantageous, and that's why I went down that route.

LM: How do you think not going to a formal French culinary school has helped, or perhaps hindered, your cooking? Looking back, how has it influenced your cooking?

MC: No disrespect to the schools out there -- there are plenty of great schools and great teachers, with the CIA in Hyde Park being one of the best -- but to me, the idea of paying to learn a craft when you can essentially get the same education by working for free at restaurants and it won't cost you anything? Cooking is a craft. It's like being a carpenter or a furniture maker. You want to start out and get taken under somebody's wing and learn that way. I just think it's much better that way, and I think that this field is more conducive to that kind of education. You're going to get exposure to what a restaurant environment is about, and what a life as a chef is really about. That's one thing you don't get at cooking schools at all. You get no sense of the commitment you need to make, and the sacrifices you need to make, and the long hours, and the hot hours.

LM: Back to apprenticeships or having a chef take you under his wing, what chefs have taught you the most, or do you feel you've learned the most from?

MC: My career wasn't about bouncing around. I've done long stints with few people rather than the norm of: a year here, a year there, a year here for ten years so you can say you worked at all these different places. I hunkered down with Tom Colicchio early on. I spent five years at Gramercy Tavern. I spent four years at Craft. I did a stage in Florence with Fabbio Picchi, and even though I was only there for eight weeks, he had a very big impact on me.

LM: What's the single best piece of advice you received from either Tom Colicchio or Fabbio Picchi?

MC: I remember early on at Craft, during a very busy night, I was screaming and yelling and carrying on like a maniac. I didnt realize that Tom had walked in, and I think he was a little taken aback by my behavior. Later on that night, he pulled me aside and told me to: "Calm down and take it easy. You're gonna give yourself an ulcer. Screaming and yelling doesn't help anything, it makes your job harder." It sounds pretty simple and obvious but sometimes you just need to hear it. "Calm down and take it easy," damn good advice.

LM: In this era of food porn and celebrity chefs, how do you think cooking has changed as a career, or as a craft?

MC: You're in the public eye now, and with that come a lot of demands. In this city especially, you almost have to go about your business as if you're some kind of politician because with cell phones and with video, you never know who's going to be there, who's going to see you doing what, or who you're speaking to. The insanity of exposure with all this technology is crazy. Beyond that, I wish I could have a knife in my hand more in my day. I've been doing budget meetings. Ultimately, having a vibrant, busy restaurant is not all about being a great chef and producing great food, which is unfortunate.

LM: When can we expect your book?
MC: I'm turning it in December 1st and it will be out before the holiday season next year.

LM: In an interview with Frank Bruni, you said that Tokyo and Tuscany are your favorite country or region for eating. What are the best culinary contributions are from each if you could pick one thing: be it a technique, dish, or food item?

MC: For Japanese culture, what I love most is their sense of purity, their sense of simplicity, and their appreciation for subtlety. Subtlety is so lost on Americans, and not only in Americans' perceptions of food. Subtlety is something that American culture doesn't really understand. In Japan, they're all about subtlety and nuance and simplicity, and I love that. As far as the Italian culture, that's tough. There is a foundation of cooking in a lot of Italian dishes called soffritto. Soffritto is the building block of so many Italian ragus and so many Italian soups and dishes. It really designs what Italian food is about. I think this concept of soffritto is really the fundamental roots of Italian food. If you want to read about soffritto, Marcella Hazan, in the first paragraph of her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, talks about what soffritto is, how it's done, and how it's essentially a building block.

LM: You catered Bill Clinton's fiftieth birthday. If you had the chance to cook for President Barack Obama, what would you like to serve him?

MC: A big bowl of greatfulness! That's a tough question. I would serve him the pasta tasting menu that I'm doing here at Insieme. We make all of the pastas in-house and we do all different noodles. The first one is a lemon chitarra, which is a handcut on a guitar string. Then, we do an egg fettucini. Then, we do a handmade maccheroni, (we extrude our own maccheroni). Then, we do a chicken liver agnolotti, and then we do a spelt pappardelle. They all come with different accoutrements to them. Those are essentially the five different pasta forms we do.

LM: What is your favorite kind of pasta, and why?

MC: Any pasta with ridges, such as penne rigate, or crevices, like farfalle or orecchiette, because they hold the sauce well.

LM: Where do you like to eat in New York when you get a night off?

MC: I live in Chelsea and I really love to stay in the neighborhood. I love Trestle on Tenth. The service, the food, the wine list, the space are all great. It's completely underrated in my opinion and a great brunch outside in a beautiful courtyard.