Just simplicity: An interview with Chef Anthony Sasso of Casa Mono NYC

Despite being only about 4 hours from New York City, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured over to the Big Apple, a situation I plan to rectify over the coming years. During our last visit, we relied on a couple of friends to guide us along the way. It was a delicious day, which  concluded with a visit to Casa Mono, part of the fleet of restaurants from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Just a smattering of the deliciousness can be viewed here, here, and also here.

What caught me by surprise was the simplicity of the dishes. Nothing was overdone, each element on the plate contributing to the balance of well composed plates of food. One of the behind the scenes minds responsible for these dishes, and I mean “behind the scenes” quite figuratively as Casa Mono has a very open kitchen, is chef de cuisine Anthony Sasso. I had the opportunity to speak with Anthony, and we touched on how he got his start, some of his culinary travels, and his favorite food memory.

Anthony Sasso
Anthony Sasso

Foodie Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about when you discovered you had a love for food, and then in turn decided that you wanted to make a career out of cooking?
Anthony Sasso: I think I’m in a different boat than a lot of people.  I guess when they answer that question it’s always like,  “Oh, growing up I had so much food around, so much great food.  My mom’s a great cook.”  I kind of had it the other way where my parents aren’t great cooks, so we fended for ourselves a lot. We’d always try out things after getting home from school. I was forced to learn a lot on my own, and I’ve kind of carried that through my whole career.  I did go to culinary school, and got all the basic and technical training, but I think I did take a lot on myself by just study something, reading about it, tasting around and then just try to do it on my own. Do it my own way or something. It’s translated into a lot of the dishes at Casa Mono, where they’re fun, and they have the sense of humor of someone that maybe doesn’t take things so seriously. It’s just a fun way of doing things, like you would if you were just hanging with your friends in the kitchen and getting things done that way.  I can’t give thanks to my mother, grandmother, or father. They just did not put amazing food on the table each night.
FJ: I’ve actually talked to a couple of chefs now who have the same reaction!
AS: Good to know! We grew up where it was convenience is how you ate.  Whether you went out to eat or did take-out or whatever, but yes, I don’t have this huge glossary of great dishes that I now serve because it’s something I grew up on. It’s kind of funny where we end up.

FJ: You ended up going to culinary school.  Where did you attend?
AS: I went to ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) here in New York City.  Mostly because it worked with the schedule that I had then.  I graduated from college in the Bronx, got a job that I wasn’t too happy with doing every single day. As soon as I could, and as soon as I found a school that catered to my schedule and needs, I just signed up for it right away. The great thing about culinary school is that you don’t really have to apply.  You just sign up, and if you can come up with the funds or the loans, you’re in. I went on the weekends for six months.  It was one of the best kitchen experiences ever because they’re just throwing ingredients at you, and you either love it or you’re not into it.  I knew right away that when we spent four hours sipping different olive oils, vinegars and spices, and it kind of just opened our eyes to a lot of stuff.  I knew that school, from that point on, was going to get better every single day.  It was a lot of fun.

FJ: From there, what was your first real exposure to working in restaurants?
AS: I kind of grew up working in restaurants, but I would say my first real exposure to good food was moving here. Towards the end of school they tell you to do as much as you can to get into any kitchen, no matter what the capacity. I just went to all the places, and chefs that were being recognized at that time.  My first job was with Rocco DiSpirito but I got a lot of time in the kitchens of Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne and Mario Batali. The first place that actually put me on schedule was Union Pacific for Rocco DiSpirito, and that was a great time to be in that kitchen. He had the same outlook as I do now where you’re using a lot of ingredients, and a lot of different cuisines, but building a personality for yourself with flavor. Trying to put an element of surprise in every single dish.  Working a dish to the point where you know everything looks appealing and appetizing on the menu. It was just a fun, time and I really enjoyed being part of that camaraderie during that time.

FJ: Having worked with Rocco, Bobby, Wylie, and now with Mario, do you think its helpful for young chefs who really want to be successful to try to learn from those that are at the top of their game?
AS: Doesn’t hurt! It’s kind of like you seek out the restaurants that are doing something special, or the chefs that are doing something new and inventive. If nothing else, they’re at least pushing themselves every single day. It’s not static, and they push their cooks. Everyone around you has the same philosophy. Thinking about what Casa Mono is now, it’s kind of fun. Ten years ago there weren’t a lot of open kitchens, there weren’t a lot of sushi counters, or small plate restaurants. There weren’t a lot of places that were playing with tripe, sweetbreads, calves brains, or veal tongue. So you pick up a lot from the chefs that are confident enough to at least try working with with the harder ingredients. I like to think I learned to be like that just from the time spent with the chefs that I worked for.

FJ: You recently did a trip to Portugal and Spain. Can you talk about some of the differences that you see at the moment between European style cooking and what people typically see as American style cooking?
SA: Europe’s built this huge basis on cooking where they not only don’t waste anything, but they’re truly enthusiastic to eat food.  I think here people are excited to go out to a restaurant for many other reasons besides what’s on the menu and what’s on the plate.  It’s different in Europe. Like, in Spain, and I noticed it in Portugal too, half their dishes have blood sausage, or these really foreign ingredients that are a challenge to any chef. Over there, every diner wants to eat something like that. I hadn’t been to Europe in a while, so this last trip just reaffirmed that whole fact that maybe Europeans might have chicken livers in their refrigerators because they actually eat that stuff, whereas here in America, you can only get that at a restaurant. In Europe, I think it’s built into their DNA a lot more.  There’s always fresh bread, there’s always at least a half full bottle of wine.  There’s always something good in the refrigerator to play with, and it just makes the job a lot easier for chefs. Here at Casa Mono, we try to get people to focus, even for just a couple of hours, just on the food they’re enjoying, and little else.  We try to captivate diners here, and try to get them to trust us, our food, and just go for it!

FJ: Pretty much everybody I talk to that loves food, has a favorite food memory; do you have one you wouldn’t mind sharing?
SA: I remember one day I walked in to Bar Jamon, which is our wine bar right next door, and the first thing I saw on the menu was pan con tomate, which is as simple as it sounds. Just toasted bread, garlic, tomato, olive oil.  I used to have that all the time! I remembered having it every single day, every single meal, at home, on the beach, or at a restaurant. That became the base for sandwiches.  There was never a normal piece of bread again after that. To see that on a New York City menu, something so simple, so basic. It surprised me! If you weren’t Catalan, it’s most likely you never had this, unless you had bruschetta at an Italian restaurant, which is not even comparable to it.  I think that’s what put me on to the idea that quality ingredients can make anything good.  It just says so much about Spain. It wasn’t about technique, or anything like that. It was just simplicity, something good, and something simple, and anyone who’s a dummy can make it at home or wherever.  I think that might be probably the closest thing to a food memory for me. It just clicked.

Casa Mono is located at 52 Irving Place in New York City. You can call 212.253.2773 for reservations, though I’d recommend getting there a little earlier so you can enjoy a glass of wine at Bar Jamon!

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