One thing that holds true in all aspects of life is that there is always room for improvement. This sentiment was clearly echoed during a conversation with Chef Paul Turano of Tryst (located in Arlington, MA), and Cook Newton. We talked about his passion for food, his path to becoming a chef, and a personal food memory.
Behind the Pass: When was it that you discovered that you were interested and had an excitement for food that would lead you to becoming a chef?
Paul Turano: It started when I was probably in kindergarten. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was the only pathway I was going down. I was always a chunky little kid. I loved to eat. I was always fascinated by food, and obviously I loved to eat it. It was always what I wanted to do. I always saw myself doing this. Not knowing anything about the actual business, it always was the route that I thought I would go down.
BtP: Did you have people in your family that were really grounded in food already?
PT: Yeah, no. I think it was always … As a kid, I always just thought about the next great meal. I wanted to taste the food. I was always fascinated by it. My family couldn’t be further away from that. But, I always remember I would tell people I was going to be a chef. I was going to own a restaurant someday.
BtP: Other than your personal interest in food, did you have any external sources that fed the fire?
PT: No. I think it was just my passion for food and eating. I obviously did the same as everyone else. I watched Julia Childs. I’ve watched the Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook. When I was a kid, I would watch all those food shows. My mother would work part-time here and there, so I would try and replicate the recipes, because she hated to cook. I would say, “You need to get a pork loin.” I would try and make a pork loin with roasted potatoes and follow what I would see on TV. My mother hated cooking. Maybe if she had enjoyed it, I might not have gone in this direction!
BtP: What was your first real exposure, then, to the restaurant life once you decided that you wanted to cook?
PT: Culinary school.
BtP: You went to Newbury?
PT: Yes, I went to Newbury. I went to a private high school, an all boys Catholic school. Even through high school, my focus was always about going on to do that.
BtP: I know a lot of people get some early exposure working in restaurants. Did you do college first and then jump into restaurants, or did you do any restaurant work prior to starting culinary school?
PT: No, before culinary school, there was really no jobs for someone like me. I would go in for an interview, and people had no interest, because I had no experience, no knife skills. I was a total dummy when it came to using equipment. I had absolutely no knowledge of the business. My father’s an accountant. My brother is in sales. My sister was an accountant. Now she’s the principal of a school. There was no restaurant experience. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, so I went to culinary school.
My first real experience in the kitchen was an internship. I did an internship at a country club, and I loved it. I was like a kid in a candy store. Every day, I would go in so excited and perked up to learn different things. Every day, it was like Christmas. I knew right away. Even at school, I just loved it.
BtP: So, if somebody came to you and said, “I love cooking. I want to be a chef. I want to be a cook.” What would your advice to them be on how to best make their way in to the culinary world?
PT: I get that question quite a bit, actually. We have an intern who just. I have another one starting in the next two weeks. My first response is what I’ve heard others say: “Do something else.” I think this is my first response, because I don’t believe that people getting into the business without experience have enough of an idea what they’re getting involved in. For someone like me, even when I was working for other people, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job. Whether you’re there or not, its still like you’re always working. You’re always worried about what’s going on at the restaurant, even if you’re not the one who owns it or runs it.
I think a lot of people who get involved in this see themselves in a chef’s coat, or on a TV show, eating a lot. I don’t think that works because that’s not the job. Right off the bat, I tell people, “You need to be 100 percent in or don’t do it.” You’ll make mediocre money for five or seven years, and then you’ll be like, “What am I doing to myself. I’ve got to get into a different job.”
The only real satisfaction … I get the satisfaction through the guests, through the people in the seats. Just knowing that there’s people in the seats satisfies me. I feel like that’s my competitive edge where the more people come into the restaurant, the better I feel. On an emotional level, I feel like things are going well. Even when it wasn’t mine, it was like, “People are coming in to try our food.”
Originally, again, I would talk someone out of it or say, “Go out and work. Before you do anything, go out and work in the business for a year and then decide if you like it.” Even though I did it this way, I wouldn’t advise jumping in like that. Going to culinary school, no experience, never having been in the business. I don’t think it typically works. It’s tough.
BtP: A lot of folks I’ve spoken with seem to feel similarly, saying that its important to actually give the work a try, especially before dumping a ton of money in to culinary school.
PT: Right. And, I think what helps is when they get a feel for what their end game is. A lot of them don’t see it. They think, “Maybe I’ll get on TV, or maybe I’ll do this.” They never see, “I want to run a restaurant that I could make $150,000 a year.” Or, “I want to be the chef at a hotel”, or “I want to own a restaurant.” They never see the whole picture. Without seeing it, I think a lot of people just flounder around in the business for a while. I always saw a vision even when I was a kid growing up.
BtP: You touched on it a little bit, obviously, but because of how difficult the job can be, and there are days that are a grind, for you, what is it that makes you come back every day and do the work that you do?
PT: You know what makes me come back? It never feels finished. It’s never finished. I never feel like I’m done. Every day, there’s something new. Every day, there’s something … I would never say I’m a perfectionist in any aspect of my life, but in the restaurant, every day I find something that needs to be improved upon. Maybe there’s a dish that doesn’t sell, or a server that you don’t think is polished enough. That’s what gets me going. It’s never finished. I feel like every day I have to get up and try and improve upon something.
BtP: So my last question for you is specifically geared toward the idea of memories about food. Do you have a food-related memory that really stands out to you and epitomizes your passion for food?
PT: I would say my biggest food memory wouldn’t have been from when I was a child. It was right out of high school, when I started culinary school. I went to a barbecue at the Ritz in Boston. They had a bunch of students in. They sat us down to lunch. It was a very simple lunch, like a turkey club, and they gave us a flourless chocolate cake. At the time, coming from when my mother made chicken cutlets and spaghetti and meatballs, none of which were great, I just remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I want to make something like this.”
Looking back, it was such a basic luncheon. But, I just remember looking back, and it touched such a nerve. I was blown away. It was one of those life experiences, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be able to create something like this.”
A month later, I was invited to Grill 23 for a wine dinner. I wasn’t even 21. I sat down with all these people in the business and had this three-course finishing off with a peanut butter cheesecake. It was all very well-executed. I just remember thinking, “This would be good for me, if I could produce something like this, something that people loved.” When I went to those two meals, I feel like to me, it was like a light bulb had gone off. “I could do this for the rest of my life.”
Maybe it’s because I’m not good at anything else. I’m not really good in sports. I’m not really that competitive in anything else. But, this is the one thing I’ve found my niche and can be competitive in. It’s a lifelong challenge.
Paul Turano is chef/owner of Tryst Restaurant and Cook Newton.