Interview with Dominic Ciambrone
Bryam Villacres Pictures
Before we get into anything about your life, let’s talk about how we first connected, as it’s pretty much tied into your overall story. You came to me with the idea of customizing your Balenciaga Crocs. What is this boot called?
I do not even know.
Everyone just calls it Kanye’s boot because he wore them so often.
When I saw Kanye wearing them, I said, “OK, that’s not really a daily mover.” They were tight, but if I wear these things every day, people are going to come up to me and say, “When are we going fly fishing?” I thought this would be the perfect boot for the job. They’re rubber, they’re heavy, they’re tall, they’re safe for all kitchen items. But they are not so convenient [otherwise]. So when I brought them to you, I was like, “Can we just chop them up a bit and turn them into lowriders?” It accomplished everything I wanted from a practical point of view but also from a fashion point of view. It was the ultimate chef’s shoe.
I feel like for many years chefs have been underserved in the shoe department. I love that you want to take something cool and make it even cooler so you can wear it in the kitchen.
And out of the kitchen. A lot of fashion is inspired by industrial workwear, like trends with old military clothes and things like that. I thought the idea of a chef’s uniform could also be part of this workwear inspiration that inspires fashion. We work 10, 12, 16 hours a day standing up, so it starts with the shoe. What we did with the boots was figure out how we could make something that I could wear to work and after work, but also inspire other companies to look at this design and, I hate to say it, but drop it and do something that is more accessible.
In the kitchen, aside from knives, shoes are one of the first things chefs will try to picture. I think it’s a little tight, you walk into a kitchen and you see the same shoe trends in the kitchen that you see outside the kitchen.
Seems like a good place to ask how you ended up working in kitchens in the first place.
I started my career working at the Holiday Inn at the Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, MD when I was 15 years old. I started as a busboy and my brother was the sous chef. We worked at the same hotel and he was in the kitchen while I cleaned the tables. I thought that was a little screwed up. The people you want to hang out with are in the kitchen, even at the Holiday Inn. My brother scheduled me to work in the kitchen on a Sunday – told me on a Saturday – and scheduled himself and the other sous chef and said nothing to the executive chef. I showed up in a chef’s uniform and the guy looked at me and said, “What the fuck is Halloween?” It was the beginning of my hazing period. He gave me shit for a year and a half straight, doing everything he could to talk me out of getting into this industry. Fast forward to today. I took it as a challenge: I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it at a higher level than you even say possible because I love doing it.
I think it’s motivating when someone says no to you. It triggers something inside of us.
The challenge. It’s like getting a tattoo. A lot of things are very contrary to what I’m supposed to do, I’m going to do what I want to do. I got tattooed and started cooking the same year.
What was your first job in the kitchen?
First I had to make everything come and go on the Sunday buffet, then I started to prepare the food. The first thing I had to do was one of those huge platters of poached salmon with all the decorations made out of vegetables, like a carrot turned into a palm trunk with an upside-down green pepper. Turn a radish into a mouse. I was building these scenes out of food and thinking, “Damn, that’s a little tight. I make art with food. Visually I was into it, then I started getting into the flavors.
They would tell me that I make special pasta. I’m like, “Are you going to let me create something, and then you’re going to put it on the menu and sell it in this restaurant?” They say, “Yeah, what have you got?” So I would take pepperoni and dice it, throw heavy cream on it, add tomatoes, and try to make pepperoni pizza crusts and things like that. I couldn’t believe I had the right to go into this kitchen, take a bunch of ingredients and put them together the way I like it, and then you go sell it to other people. I wanted it to be my job.
You mentioned you were doing art. Is there an artistic side to the profession of chef?
My discipline is that I’m a chef, it’s my job, but I mix emotion with my professional career. I always wanted to be creative and do something artistic. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t sing, I can’t do all that. But when you mix all the elements of what I do, there’s art in there. From designing a restaurant alongside interior designers, who I believe are artists, we work closely together to transform a space. There is art in organizing the whole experience – the music, the furniture, the food, the drinks.
Then when you break it down into individual dishes, I approach everything I cook with an artistic approach more than a practical one. It’s because of the type of food I’ve cooked for so many years, people think I’m going to do something with an element of surprise, so I feel the pressure to do something artistic so that people people don’t say things like “Oh, he just gave me a bowl of pasta. If you can make that bowl of pasta taste good, you can find the art in its flavor.
Little things. If you roast a rack of lamb in a pan and drizzle it with butter… On a cooking show I was judging, I saw a small child drop an anchovy into the pan and start basting the lamb with this butter. I tasted this lamb and thought, “Wow, this 10-year-old just taught me something.” This anchovy gave a subtle flavor to the lamb that people weren’t expecting, it’s art.
It’s interesting how you say flavor profiles are an art, I haven’t heard it said like that. I got my creativity from my father, who is a chef. The way he cooked, the way he incorporated flavors into the food, and what he wanted the restaurant to look like. Chefs have so much creativity, it’s cool to see how you can create art with taste.
Take something like white chocolate and caviar. You put these two things together – one is so sweet while the other is so salty – and when you hear that, it just doesn’t make sense. But when you put it in your mouth, it works. I think those moments are the ones I try to create. I want people to say, “Wait. What and what do you put together and it tastes like it? Eh.”
Let’s finish by talking about the art you wear on your body. Earlier you showed me your first tattoo – a shamrock you got when you were 15 – and mentioned the connection between the tattoo and kitchens. Could you clarify this?
I think in any job where you wear a uniform, you have very little room to express yourself. That’s why I think people go for shoes, tattoos, etc. For years, if you worked in a luxury environment, you weren’t allowed to have visible tattoos. I think [by so many chefs having tattoos] we forced him to become normal and he became normal. If they have the skills for the job, how are we going to discriminate against them? I had an ongoing relationship with Williams-Sonoma for many years. One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with them was when I walked into one of their stores and a staff member said, “Thank you for being in our catalog. Once you did that, it violated the dress code and now we can express ourselves a little more freely at work. He had rolled up his sleeves and he showed me his tattoo, he was super happy. I never even thought of it. I don’t understand why people were so put off by the idea of a tattoo. Why would you look at someone differently because they have tattoos?
He has come a long way. When I started getting tattoos, it forced me to figure out how to manage without having a regular job.
I consciously put this thing on my neck knowing that I would have to go out and interview for jobs and take meetings to try and convince multi-million dollar hotel companies that I should be part of their portfolio. It made me focus more on making sure that if they could see past it all, I would have something for them. The more tattoos I got, the more I focused on my education, the more I focused on my skills, the more I focused on what I could do physically and mentally to make the stigma of tattoos go away.