For this interview, we had a chance to sit down with Chef Adriano Ricco, Executive Chef at STK in New York City. Chef Adriano shared his thoughts with us on the challenges of professional cooking, his Brazilian background and why he loves Japanese craftsmanship.
How did you get into cooking initially? What was your path into the kitchen?
I started flirting with the kitchen when I was still a little kid in Brazil. Both of my parents are enthusiasts when it comes to cooking and my great grandpa was a chef himself, so it was in the family. From there on, it was just a natural transition.
I did try out for a few different things before I ended up in the kitchen, but it was all somehow tied up together and that’s pretty much how I started. So, little by little, by doing lunches and dinners for friends here and there. People liked it so we came up with a catering company in Brazil and we set that up and were very successful with that. Then from there I decided to open up a physical location. It was a great learning experience, but I wasn’t ready. But the failure was a good thing, because it taught me what needed to be done. So I went back to square one and I just decided that I had to work for some high caliber chefs before I could have my own place. I started working for Alex Atala. His restaurant D.O.M. is now ranked fourth in the world, so that’s pretty big. I had the privilege and pleasure of working next to him and learning the culinary arts to the point that I became one of his sous chefs. And, from there on it was a natural progression. I worked for Laurent Tourondel, Terrance Brennan and a few others and then progressed to STK.
How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?
I would say it’s contemporary cuisine although I don’t like labels that much. It’s modern American, contemporary American and then if you stop to think of what American cuisine is all about it’s a big melting pot of races and ethnicities, so I think contemporary cuisine would be the best way to label my style and what I do.
Who was a mentor for you?
Alex Atala has always inspired me and when I was younger I would always see him in magazines. He was rated the best chef in Brazil for 10 years. I thought that if one day I could work for this guy it would be the highlight of my career. It’s funny to look back to see how things go. It was the highest bar for me because he meant so much and because he also contributed so much to Brazil in terms of gastronomy and the culinary movement.
What Ferran Adria did for Spanish cuisine, Alex Atala did for our country. He has really put Brazil in the culinary spotlight. It was really a dream come true to work for him. I walked into his kitchen and asked ‘what do I need to do to work here?’ He told me that I would need to start as an intern and there was a long line of people but to email him. I emailed him and the next week I was working there.
It was a natural progression from that point on and I think that the biggest thing he taught me is to respect the integrity of the ingredients that we use. And just apply the correct techniques and it’s really about how passionate you are and how much passion you’re going to put into what you do. And that passion will translate into the high quality of the dishes you present to guests. Despite of all the challenges we have in the kitchen, and there are many, it is really rewarding when we put something together and you get an instant feedback, hopefully positive feedback. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.
What is your favorite ingredient in the kitchen?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint just one ingredient. They are all so important. I do believe the care and respect you have for the things you utilize in your dishes is what is going to set you for success. I do believe that everything starts with the basics. I couldn’t live without my veal bones, my aromatics and my mirepoix, which are the base of everything that we do in the kitchen. It starts with the scratch ingredients that you use – the aromatics, vegetables, bones as base for sauces. Most importantly, I would say I love all ingredients. They are all equally important and should be accorded the same respect.
What is your philosophy towards hospitality and to your guests?
The name says everything – it’s about being hospitable and catering to your guests every day. I remember that when I was being brought up, I had a different perspective of how to treat guests. I guess that was the universal mentality that chefs had back in the day which was they had to set the pace and course of a meal and would pretty much tell guests what they should or should not eat as we still do, but in a different way. I believe that has to do with the information superhighway that exists now. With a click of a button everybody knows exactly what food exists on the planet. I guess the lack of knowledge back then really empowered who had the most knowledge, which was us chefs. These days it is more driven by guests’ knowledge and expectations.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
I couldn’t live without my knives.
I have to admit that I’m a little biased when it comes to that, because I am a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and martial arts have played a big role in my life. I’ve trained in karate for two decades and I was always fascinated by the discipline, respect and beauty of Japanese culture. And that translates to the knives. The care and attention to detail that’s given is just second to none. It’s an art that has been perfected over 1000 years since the samurai were around and there was nothing sharper than the blade of a samurai sword which makes me a strong believer that there is there nothing sharper than a Japanese blade. And that’s the only thing that I’ll ever touch and I’ll ever use in my kitchen. I did not start with them – as much as I wanted to get my hands on one, it was kind of a prized item in Brazil. Although it’s a paradox because there is a large Japanese community in Brazil, but you do not find Japanese knives readily available. I got more exposed to Japanese knives when I came to the U.S. It was something that I was already very passionate about, as far as the Japanese martial arts and when I found out more about the knives it was just natural that I would choose only Japanese knives to work with and I wouldn’t trust anything else.
Do you have a brand or two that you’re into now?
I’m a big fan of Nenohi – that’s one of my favorite brands. Also, one of my favorite knives was a Masahiro which I really admire; they’re great knives. But, there are so many great craftsmen out there and now that I know more I’m starting to go for more of the artisan knives. The ones that are singular in style that nobody else has.