Chef Jamie DeRosa of Atlantic Ocean Club and Buddha Sky Bar: Interview, Part I
With experience in everything from gastropubs to molecular gastronomy, DeRosa is now focusing on locally sourced, sustainable foods. The Buddha Sky Bar will feature Asian foods inspired by DeRosa's time as a chef in Beijing. Clean Plate Charlie sat down for a long chat with DeRosa. Below is the first of two parts.
Clean Plate Charlie: Please tell us where you're from and what inspired you to get into this field.
DeRosa: I was born in New York, on Long Island, but I was raised in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I was studying criminal law at the University of Florida after graduating from high school, and I was cooking the whole time. I had joined Outback Steakhouse in high school, and they transferred me to Gainesville. I was working my way through school, and I realized how much math and science there was in criminal law and what I was getting myself into. I relocated to Miami to the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables, and one of the chefs there said he thought I could have real potential at this as a career. So... I joined Johnson & Wales University on the weekend program. I went Saturdays and Sundays to culinary school and... joined chef Allen [Susser] when Chef Allen's restaurant in Aventura was one of the best restaurants in town.
That was your first job out of culinary school?
That was during culinary school. For two years, I was going to school and working for him [Susser]. It was a really big time for Miami. There was Norman's (from chef Norman von Aiken), there was Chef Allen's, there was Pasquale's that was in another hotel, and those were really the three main chefs in South Florida, and Mark Militello. It was really an eye-opening experience to be able to go to school and listen to what they had to say and be able to apply it each day where I was working, so I was very fortunate.
What was the next step after that?
I wanted to go see some more of the country and went for a summer and worked in Maine. I went to a little lodge [Goose Cove Lodge] that's only open in the summer, so I learned about lobsters and got to do some lobster fishing and boating and really get in touch with the land and the sea and the product and the farms and the fishmongers. I was also able to cook for Julia Child's 75th birthday dinner there. She rented out the restaurant, so that was really nice. So it was a special time for me, because it was my first time outside of Miami.
How was coming back to Florida?
When I came back, I joined with Levy Restaurants for a while. I wanted to learn volume and larger facilities, so I did a little bit at Pro Player Stadium. It really taught me management and was my first introduction to a corporate environment and what it meant to cook for a few thousand people. Up until that point, everything had been very intimate, fine dining. I worked for them for a few years, and they relocated me to Orlando to work with the Magic, and while I was there, Wolfgang Puck found me, and we met. Shortly thereafter, I took over at Wolfgang Puck in Orlando and then became the regional chef of both that location and the Fort Lauderdale Sawgrass Mills location. Then he asked to fly me to L.A. to come and work at Spago, so I was there for almost three years, in Beverly Hills.
How was working with Wolfgang Puck?
It was a good five-year relationship. I went on the road with him for about six months for his cookbook tour. We went to like 15 different cities doing book signings and what have you. Then I went back to Beverly Hills, Spago for a little bit, and to Las Vegas and helped open a restaurant there and helped open a restaurant in Toronto and was on the road a lot.
Where did you go after Spago?
I loved L.A., so I wanted to stay in L.A., so I went to work with Mark Peel at Campanile who is a Puck alumni. He was the original chef of Spago when it opened in Hollywood. So we had similar cooking background, so it was easy for me to go from one to the other. Mark's restaurant at the time got one Michelin star; he's been there 18 years; the food was really good, really clean, very farm-fresh-to-the-table. A modern version of what we were doing at Spago. I loved it, I loved L.A., I loved the people, the energy, the produce, the seafood.
So how did you make your way from L.A. to the Fat Duck in England, 2006's "Best Restaurant in the World"?
I was going go back to Wolfgang because he was growing and opening more restaurants, and instead he asked if I'd be interested in working overseas. He [Puck] sponsored it; he made the call and got me in.
What was that experience like?
Typically they take you for four weeks, so I moved to England in 2007, and it was my first time being overseas. I lived in a small, little room in a house and rode a bicycle to work and lived about an hour outside of London in Bray. I worked in the laboratory kitchen at the Fat Duck for four weeks. You're not given any recipes; you don't see the final plating. Then the chef, Heston Blumenthal, asked if I wanted to stay another four weeks, so I said I would but I would need some assistance because you're working for free. I was kind of the older guy in the kitchen; these kids were 18, 19 years old, just starting out. I had already been a chef and worked for some great people, so it was tough. I had to grind it out, 16-, 18-hour days, six days a week, and after the second four weeks, he asked if I wanted to stay another month, and I said sure, so I ended up staying 12 weeks.
What was the biggest difference relative to what you were doing in California?
California is driven by the farmer's markets; you really depend on that farm for what your product is. With Heston, because he's at that level, he gets product from around the world that is really not indigenous to what's in England. That being said, his approach to history is something that I'd never seen. If he was going to do an ice cream, he would go back and read the history of how ice cream became famous, how it started, how it was churned, what were the original ingredients, how could he manipulate it. He really was an historian of food. You don't see a lot of people taking the time, energy, and finance to really become such an entrepreneur of product.
How about your clientele? How were they different?
When you work in California, New York, or Miami, people are generally from here. You don't really see too many foreigners. When you're working in that kitchen [the Fat Duck], you really have 30 to 35 people from around the world. So they all have there own style and personality, and his food is so global and so modern that he really has a blank canvas. He can really paint any picture that he wants because his food is so refined and so intricate and so modern that generally you've never seen it before, so there's no right or wrong and no rules; all the rules are already broken.
Blumenthal is a big proponent of molecular gastronomy. How did that influence your style of cooking?
It was a big time for molecular gastronomy; it still is to a degree. I tend to still cook more from the soul; my cooking is more organic. I do use a lot of the techniques in the kitchen behind the scenes, but you'll never see them on the menu as a sous-vide or a foam or any of the terms you'd hear because I want people to be familiar with the dish. I guess what I've learned from him the most is to really put something on the menu that you relate to and when it comes, you raise an eyebrow and say, "That really wasn't what I expected." But then, when you taste that clam chowder, it's the best clam chowder you ever had. So I've taken some of his approach and scaled it down, and that's what this restaurant, Atlantic Ocean Club, is all about.
Did you come back to the States immediately after leaving the Fat Duck?
After the Fat Duck, I took some time to travel through Europe and went to France and Spain and spent some more time in London and really spent a period of time eating at the best restaurants. There'd be days where I'd eat at Guy Savoy in Paris for a 12- or 13-course lunch, and then I'd have dinner reservations three hours later at Joel Robuchon. I did that consecutively for weeks, and I'd see what the food was and these guys I'd only read about.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Paris?
I think Guy Savoy was my favorite because everything was just perfect. It was so classic French, but it was just so wonderful and light and just amazing. I ate there for lunch, and I think what impressed me the most is that he was there for lunch. I ate by myself and took a journal with me, my iPhone, and he was there and present for lunch service in the kitchen and on the floor. This is someone in his late 50s, early 60s who's written countless cookbooks, who has Michelin stars who has nothing to prove to anyone, but that kind of drive and ambition was not affected by his success.
So how did you make your way to Beijing?
After I was touring, Heston's team called me and said they were looking for some chefs to do guest chef appearances in London... and I met a Chinese group who loved it and said they were opening a restaurant for the Olympics and asked if I'd be interested in coming out. It was Beijing in 2007, and the Olympics were in 2008; they were opening a restaurant on the grounds of the Forbidden City, which is a royal property, and there's never been anything opened on any of the government properties ever. So I went back to England, grabbed my stuff, and I never went back to the States -- I went straight there.
How long were you there, and how did that compare to your previous experiences?
I was there from mid-2007, and I left in 2009. The first year was good because it was a lot of research and development and I went to like 11 different countries in nine months. Before that, I was touring Europe; now I was going to Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, different places in China and found out what Asia food really was. What we see as Asian food is not Asian food. Fortunately for me [at Domus], all I had to do was cook food that I knew. They wanted a Spago-style restaurant in Beijing; they wanted what they would call a "Western-style restaurant," so I was there to give China something of what we do here.
What was your role at Domus?
I was part of the design, the menu, the layout the kitchen, everything, the hiring of the team. It was a great place.
Keep an eye out for the second half of our interview with DeRosa, coming soon.
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