Like many of you, the Top Chef episode "Snacks on a Plane" kind of fascinated us because we're ashamed to admit that we had no idea what went into conceptualizing, executing, and serving aircraft food -- often derided, rarely appreciated. But the times, they are a changin', and one of the people already making a difference is Chef Jimmy Canora of the Continental Congress of Chefs and owner of NYC Culinary Events, a special event and catering company. Chef Canora was kind enough to answer some of our questions and hopefully shed a little light on his culinary career, including his time at NYC's Tribeca Grill.
1. Why did you become a chef? Describe your culinary life before going to school.
I grew up in the family food business and started to prepare and cook food at 12 years old in my father's neighborhood supermarket and catering store. It was there I learned how to properly handle and care for fresh produce, meats, and fish, and realized the importance of food in all of our lives.
2.You attended The Art Institute of New York -- did you ever consider not going to culinary school?
I actually didn't go to culinary school right away. I got a real estate license first and did that for two years until I decided I hated it!
3. What led you to the Tribeca Grill and what was your experience like there? What other restaurants did you work at?
I went directly from culinary school to the Tribeca Grill as an internship and worked for three months for free before they hired me full-time. It was the still one of the hottest restaurants back in 1993, packed with celebrities and anybody else who could actually get a table or a reservation. I stayed there for 11 years and worked my way up from salads to the No. 2 chef. I never worked in any other NYC restaurant, and frankly, didn't need to work anywhere else. I received the best knowledge and experience that any cook, sous-chef or chef would ever need to succeed in this business -- not to mention trained by some of the biggest names in NYC.
4. What made you decide to go the catering route instead of staying in the kitchen at the Grill or somewhere else? Do you ever sometimes just want to stay in a kitchen? And how did NYC Culinary Events come about?
Well, I didn't actually go with the catering route -- I started NYC Culinary Events first as a food consulting/special events firm and second as a catering firm. I never aggressively went out after catering jobs and I only cater to a very select Manhattan clientele -- all of whom were celebrity contacts from the Tribeca Grill. All my business is by word of mouth and recommendation and I personally cook at every event, if you can afford to have me... As for staying in the kitchen, my former chef and mentor, Don Pintabona (Tribeca Grill), spoiled me the last three years at Tribeca Grill and took me around the world to every national and international food event (of course I did most of the work too ), and it was then I decided never to get stuck in one kitchen again. My life is special events!
5. OK -- what's Robert De Niro (Tribeca Grill co-owner) like? Ha!
Bob is a genius! He is not only an actor, producer, director, real estate mogul and restauratuer, he is a visionary among many other talents. He hardly gets a free moment in his life, and when he does, he prefers to be left alone with his family, very private. Can you blame him?
6. How did you get involved with Continental Airlines and the Congress of Chefs? What's the group's goal and why is it important to you?
Chef Don Pintabona was their Celebrity Chef before me, and I went many times with Don to menu creation and development at Continental's headquarters in Houston. After Don moved on from Tribeca Grill, they naturally gave me the title. The congress's goal is to provide the best possible product that we can to our clients, and it is important to me because the Airline trusts my judgments, decisions, and ideas, and really respects and appreciates our input.
7. We only saw a glimpse on Top Chef into what goes into creating reputable "plane food," What does it really take? How's it changing?
It takes a lot of planning and skill to serve "quality food" on a large scale on any vessel ( boat, train), but especially in the air. You have a small budget (in coach class), small storage space, small ovens, and a lot of room for mistakes from the time the food leaves the catering kitchen until the time it is served. Our food service staff are highly trained professionals, and more importantly, our flight attendants are highly trained and take much pride in the food they plate, especially in the first class cabin. It is the flight attendant that can overcook or undercook your meal once it is on the plane, so in the end, they make all the difference in it's presentation and appeal. They do a really great job.
8. What do you wish people knew about plane food? That a lot of time, money, and thought goes into the process of what food will actually work at 35,000 feet, (like for instance, nothing fried), and that we are constantly evaluating and changing our food to keep our menus current with the trends and to satisfy our clients tastes depending on the domestic or international destination we are flying to.
9. You worked with some heavyweights at the Tribeca Grill -- which chefs inspired you and continue to inspire you? First and foremost, Chef Don Pintabona, an internationally trained and acclaimed chef, then many others that I had the honor of working together with at the many special events we all attended or organized: Micheal Mina, David Burke, Douglas Rodriguez, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Gary Robins, and Rocco DiSpirito...need I mention more?
10. What has been your most memorable event? What event are you dying to cater? Wow -- there are so many. [My most memorable would] probably would be the $5000-a-plate-lunch DNC fundraiser for President Bill Clinton at the home of movie producer Jane Rosenthal at "The Dakota." There were as many secret service men as there were celebrities. Other than that the 39th & 40th annual Grammy awards when they were still in NYC. [I] would love to cater the Oscars, but Wolfgang Puck has the lock on that!
11. You are referred to as a "chef to the stars" -- can you name names? And how is cooking for celebrities different? Really shouldn't mention, but a few in the past would be Bob De Niro, Harvey Kietel , Billy Crystal, Lauren Bacall, and Liv Tyler. The only difference is you have to be VERY discreet, be careful not to let delivery men know who's home they are dropping off rentals or ice to, keep a select wait staff and kitchen staff that know not to bring cameras, ask questions, or ask for autographs. You have to respect the clients privacy at all times, or there won't be a next time!
Every feature in this series will ask the chefs the same five questions. Here are Chef Canora's responses:
1. What would you want your last meal to be? Anything cooked by Daniel Boulud. He is the master.
2. Is there any food that you won't try or that you steer clear of? Worms, bugs, snakes, rats, or anything else that Chef Anthony Bourdain would eat -- It takes a very courageous chef to eat those things. Other than that, I am fine.
Are you allergic to anything? NO -- thank God! It must be terrible to have fish, nut, dairy, garlic, or any allergies.
3. What's your least favorite word to hear in the kitchen (besides "fire")? "86" because we ran out of something on the menu, or "Re-fire" because a cook overcooked or undercooked a person's dinner -- that's just uncalled for!
4. Sweet or salty? Neither. I personally can live without dessert or ice cream at the end of a meal -- there's never any room because I'd rather eat food. Salty to me means chips, dips, pretzels, and snacks, and I stay away from them as well. If a cook's food is salty more than once, he'd be fired as well....
5. Is there anything that you'd want people to know about you? People should know that I love what I do, and that life is one big party when you are a chef that is always at a "special event", whether it be here in the U.S. or across the globe in Australia. I have been very lucky in my career, mostly because I made the right choices and went with my heart and never went for the money. Stay the course and do what you love, and the money will come later....