There's a new breed of celebrity chef I’d classify as parvenu nonpareil, and in Mario Carbone the branding is resplendent given the arching eyebrows framing the intense eyes, not to mention the tattoo sleeve adorning his entire right arm that appears somewhat, well, disarming. From first glance, you’d never know that he’d cooked in professional kitchens since age 15, much less in that culinary hotbed called New York City, but just don’t wind him up by calling him an entrepreneur.
“I don’t know if I ever think about it like that,” he insists, referencing his company Major Food Group, now a seven-restaurant mini-empire whose only outpost outside New York happens to be the one-year-old Carbone in Hong Kong. The latter is a mirror image of the existing Carbone in Lower Manhattan, down to the waiters in Zac Posen tuxedos and the postmodern art curated by Vito Schnabel, whose more famous father Julian’s painting Asia (oil mounted on linen, layered over an actual vintage map of Asia) adorns an entire wall in the private dining room.
“We do things that we’re really passionate about,” says Carbone, “and we hope never to do a project ‘just because’ – not succumb to opening something just for the sake of opening it. We want to open something because we ourselves want to eat that food.”
After formal studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, he apprenticed with fellow Italian-American Mario Batali at Babbo and then Lupa Osteria Romana, the latter under Mark Ladner (winner of the 2015 James Beard award for best chef in New York), and thereafter to a little family-owned trattoria called La Dogana in Tuscany. To rediscover his roots, I ask? “No, to discover them,” Carbone replies.
“I was born and raised in Queens and that was my first time ever going to Italy. I was very young, 18 years old, when I started working for Mario Batali. After a couple of years with him, I asked if he could help me set up room and board and a place to work in Italy, if he could call his contacts on my behalf. And he did. He set up an amazing place for me to go in Tuscany and I lived there for over a year.
“It was pretty life changing. I turned 21 in Italy. I definitely learned specific recipes and styles of cooking but, more importantly, I learned about the culture, their philosophies of food and life. That was way more important than the actual recipes.”
He marked his return to New York with new mentors Daniel Boulud, Andrew Carmellini and Wylie Dufresne, before Mark Ladner reappeared again in the guise of Del Posto, which opened with Carbone as executive sous-chef. In 2009, he partnered with roommate Rich Torrisi to open Torrisi Italian Specialties, kick starting their Major Food Group, the triumvirate made complete the following year with new partner Jeff Zalaznick, all three of them in their thirties.
“I met Rich when we were students at school, living together in a zero-bedroom apartment,” Carbone recalls. “There were no rooms – there was a small staircase, and I had a mattress on the floor upstairs and he had a bed downstairs. We lived there while we worked at separate restaurants – myself at Del Posto and he was at A Voce. We would talk a lot, about the industry, about our hopes and our dreams, searching for our personal answers.”
When they quit their respective jobs to join forces, the predictable demons of self-doubt surfaced. “Sure, we questioned it every day,” he now laughs. “I was 28 years old and I remember my mom being really upset when I told her I was leaving Del Posto to try something on my own. She was like, ‘I don’t understand why you would leave such a good job and why you would leave such a great chef, such a prestigious thing, I don’t understand why you would do this.’”
His mother must now marvel at their stable of restaurants. They recently acquired the space now occupied by the famous Four Seasons restaurant on East 52nd Street, for a still-unnamed venture opening in 2016 that will augment Carbone’s existing siblings – a French bistro (Dirty French), two very different seafood places (ZZ’s Clam Bar and Santina), two Italian-American sandwich joints (Parm and Parm Yankee Stadium, the latter inside the famous citadel of baseball) and their latest venture that began in September 2015, a Jewish delibistro (Sadelle’s, named after Jeff Zalaznick’s grandmother). Like Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, that rockin’ repository of bagels and lox? “Yep, like Barney Greengrass, but on West Broadway between Houston and Prince. New York needs a great home-made bagel.”
I tell him I’d solicited Anthony Bourdain for his opinion on Major Food Group (“Ah, Uncle Tony,” Carbone muses, “I wonder what he has to say!”) and the response is avuncular and nuanced. “I think he and his partners are brilliant,” Bourdain replies. “All their restaurants are worth going to, and they’re good for the city. Important too, in that they’ve recast the whole ‘authenticity’ concept, basically rendering it meaningless.” Indeed, what is “authenticity” any more? The New York Times dubbed them “the red sauce juggernaut” but whether for him or for his rebooting of the food of the boot is a moot point.
“The way I look at it, there’s no such thing as ‘Italian food’,” Carbone notes. “There’s only ‘Italian regional’ food, like Tuscan food and Sicilian food. In Piedmont they do Piedmontese, so we are New York-ese, the food that’s about a migration. The immigrants came to New York, brought Southern Italian food and mixed it with the ingredients that were available, and this new cuisine came about from the 1930s to the 1950s. We’re celebrating that.” At Carbone in Hong Kong, I savour his Octopus Pizzaiolo and Scallop Livornese and sample the wine list, which includes Sicilian stars like Tenuta Delle Terre Nere from Etna and Valle Dell’Acate from Ragusa.
All this forms “an intentionally forced dialogue”, he believes, omnipresent even in the background music. “For us, music is a big part of setting the stage, the ambience. At Carbone we play it pretty straight – doo-wop, big bands, Sinatra, from the ’50s and early ’60s. My favourite is Dion and The Belmonts. It’s like you’re walking into a movie set and for us to keep the theme, for you to never leave character as a customer, I’ve got to nail every detail: the portion sizes, the uniforms, the materials, the playlists. When you enter Carbone, you need to be in New York in 1959.”
An exercise, I dare suggest, bordering on the mildly obsessive? “We work hard and don’t take any days off,” he deadpans. “We should be OK.”
+Prestige Hong Kong