Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culinary Creativity: Chef Anthony Caturano

(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)

Anthony Caturano grew up in Revere, and his initial career path sent him in the footsteps of his father, a prominent Boston accountant. But he opted out of Merrimack College in a radical shift to pursue his culinary calling. In 1993, he received his degree from The Culinary Institute of America and then got his start cooking with Chef Todd English, of Boston’s famed Olives during the 1990’s.

Caturano later rounded out his training in Miami and Los Angeles, with a detour to his ancestral homeland of Italy, where he spent a month bonding with his grandmother’s birthplace of Prezza, a tiny ancient village in the Abruzzi region, and in the Northern regions, where he studied the cooking traditions of Piemonte. Eventually, Caturano set out on his own and in 2000, he opened Prezza as tribute to his love of Italy and to honor his grandmother’s hometown.

When not in the kitchen, Caturano can be found hunting and fishing in North America’s remote back country. From Montana to British Columbia, and even Alaska, he has hunted moose, elk, mountain goats, deer and grizzly bear. “When you get to live with the animal you hunt, you truly become one with your prey – you respect that animal in a way that is different than going to the grocery store and buying it. You’ve really earned it,” claims Anthony, who butchers, packs and prepares the game immediately after a hunt. He admits some of his best dining experiences have been on these trips- not with fancy silverware and white-gloved service- but with the interesting people he has met along his hunts. Of course, he smuggles a few bottles of old wine in his pack to enjoy with the catch. That primal connection between hunting and cooking inspires Anthony to feature an array of quail, rabbit, duck and venison on his menus, in a passionate reflection of his love for the age-old sport.

Now onto the interview--

How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity is very important, but I think you have to know your customer and how far you can push them. You attract your customers by your reputation, although Prezza is expensive I think we offer value, larger portions with some level of creativity but yet on the menu is something for everyone. Prezza is not overly complicated but it is very unique and I think that is what attracts our customers. I would love to experiment with more of the trends that come around however I realize that my customers come in for what has become my style of food.

What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
A lot of my inspiration comes from going out and traveling. I think my greatest inspiration though has been to “cook to order” and make everything from scratch that we possible can, you know keep it old school. We make our own pastas, we have a wood grill that we light everyday, and we don’t precook any of our food. Obviously some stuff is made ahead, Bolognese sauce for instance cooks all day long, but when you order a steak that’s when it goes on the fire. A lot of inspiration also comes from seeing what a lot of talented chefs have accomplished and I just try and raise myself to that level but in my style or grab a classic recipe and make it my own.

Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
A lot of what is on my menu is food that I love. When I go out to eat I say “boy I wish I could just get this or that”, so I go back to the restaurant and that’s what ends up on my menu. For instance why cant I just get some huge lamb chops with rabe and garlic and mashed potatoes with olive oil drizzled all over it, then the next day I come in and say to the guys hey lets put this on.

What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The process is pretty simple, we don’t ever change our entire menu, we sort of take a few things off and then replace them with something new. Sometimes we start off with one idea and then end up with something totally different. But really we just order what we need the night before and play around with it a little, try the wait staff and some regulars on it, modify what we need and then put it on the menu.

Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes? How do you test new recipes/dishes?
I try and let the guys in the kitchen have some input as well. So we will bounce some ideas off of each other, I have been lucky half of my entire restaurant staff has been there from day one so they are not uncomfortable with telling me, “Hey this really sucks… Why don’t you try this.” or the wait staff will say customers are asking for that. It’s nice to get everyone involved.

What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Staying focused is the hardest part, dealing with the restaurant is tough, stuff breaking, money flying out the window, you know unexpected curve balls, then you have to pick yourself up and find inspiration to change up your style it’s not always easy.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
I definitely get the creative block, the great part is that we have so many regular customers and they all seem to have their favorites so it’s tough to pick what to change. We have developed quite the list of signature dishes so it becomes a problem as to what do I take off the menu, and when you do, how do you beat that last great dish. Picture going to Italy and having a spit roasted goat in this restaurant that’s known for it and then going back ten years later and its not on there… That would suck. Its like you set the bar for yourself and sometimes you can’t beat it, it gets frustrating but then I realize how lucky I am to have such a busy little 100 seat restaurant in the North End. So what I do is I just take a step back and try to get back to the basics get out and eat, read some books, talk food with people, check out some new places. I just went to NY and Florida and ate at some great places, Milos, Felidias, YOLO. I am off to Georgia on a quail hunting trip this weekend, I am pretty sure there will be some new menu changes when I get back.

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