Winner, winner…chicken dinner

Brittany Pufahl
Brittany Pufahl

I’m a self proclaimed home cook extraordinaire and foodie, mom of two little girls Adeline and Evelyn, dog mom to a not so little Bernese Mountain dog named Henry and married to my best friend and partner in life Jim.

Farmingdale, NY

11am, Arrosto Italian Rotisserie

To say that I was anxious to meet with Chef Ken Arnone is an understatement. As a self proclaimed home cook and foodie, meeting one of the 72 Certified Master Chefs in the United States was a little unnerving. To be a Master Chef in the United States is to receive the highest level of certification a chef can receive, and while my family has certified me as Master Chef in the Pufahl household (as if they had any other choice), I knew I was about to be greatly humbled by Ken.

Walking into Arrosto I was greeted by the sound of traditional Italian music floating through the air and Ken sitting at one of the tables, with his chef’s coat on, pocket filled with pens and his glasses and a smile. The décor of Arrosto was simple yet elevated, with white walls, pops of red subway tile and large black and white photos of a generation of Italians since passed. The aroma of chicken roasting immediately filled my nose. Not shortly after we started chatting, a group of three gentlemen entered the restaurant – they were greeted by Eddie an older gentleman who is the manager. I studied the encounter and my heart warmed to see that he was greeting them as if they were coming into his home, and sitting down in his kitchen. Ken immediately excused himself and went over and greeted the group as well, thanking them for coming. These three friends I later found out, live all over the island, Stony Brook and Long Beach and met halfway at Arrosto for lunch to catch up.

After photos and the interview I was treated to a half rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, cabbage slaw, homemade gravy and homemade potato chips. As I write this, I’m struggling to find the correct words to describe the meal. It was like I was eating a meal by a master chef who is so aware of how honed his skills are, but making it so approachable that I felt like I was at his house, sitting at his table, as friends. The seasoning and crispiness on the chicken was perfect, and the juiciness was on a level I’ve not experienced. People might think chicken is chicken – it’s not that hard, but Ken proves us all wrong. Ken elevates rotisserie chicken to a level I didn’t know possible. And the mashed potatoes… where do I even begin? Sweet, savory, creamy… just pure excellence.

While the chicken and mashed potatoes are a thing of art and need no supporting actors, Ken seemed the most proud of his gravy and he has every right to be. He explained that they use the drippings from the chicken to make the gravy, 100% homemade. This gravy is rich and it’s flavors are deep and complement the chicken so well. The potato chips Ken brought over first – he said that while French fries are always a crowd pleaser, they don’t travel well and that’s why he decided to make homemade potato chips – another homerun.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t want to leave! Ken was so inviting and the food was just so good, I wanted to take my food coma nap right then and there. But like leaving a friends house, the familiar see you soon was exchanged and those words couldn’t be more true, because Arrosto will be seeing a lot more of me.

Check out below for our in-depth conversation!

Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I’m going to jump right into it; you have a long history with the culinary world starting around the age of 13 at Dunkin’ Donuts, working at eateries while in college and eventually working in the financial sector as a stockbroker, what finally gave you the push to leave the financial world and fully commit to the culinary world?

“I hated going to work… ya it wasn’t for me. I did it for a few years and it just wasn’t where my heart was so I decided to separate and that’s when I went back to working in restaurants and then from there I went to the Culinary Institute of America. The money was really good, especially since I was young, I just really didn’t like going to work everyday.

Not a lot of people have that drive to really take that leap of faith and leave something that is stable.

Ya.

Especially going into the culinary world which were we discussing before is anything but, so that’s amazing.

As you mentioned before, you attended and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, with honors I might add – what was it like returning to the CIA as a professor and teaching the next generation of culinary minds and running the Caterina d’Medici Restaurant?

For me it was incredibly new, I had worked in the financial world, in restaurants so I think when you’re a chef, inherently hopefully you’re a teacher because you’re teaching your team and your staff on the recipe process, procedure and on education so there is some definitive synergy there. I love the Culinary Institute of America, it’s a tremendous institution and it was a great honor to go back there and teach and I love teaching. I’m very passionate about education and giving back.

And do you feel that having a background in the business world gave you an edge in the culinary world and did you incorporate your knowledge and expertise in business while you were teaching? Did you pass on any insight to your students?

So that’s a really good question, you know back when I went to culinary school most of the graduating class that I was in wanted to be executive chefs and by the time I went back to teach there that had changed dramatically. The landscape in the culinary world has changed so there are jobs on cruise ships, personal chefs, entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, food photography, research chefs, so there are a lot more opportunities, different opportunities. I certainly did my best to when applicable introduce business as part of it. I taught, I don’t know 15 or so classes while I was there and in some classes it was applicable and in some others it really wasn’t. But when there was the opportunity, I definitively brought it in.

I’m sure the students really benefited from your unique knowledge compared to other chefs and/or teachers that maybe didn’t have the background that you started out with.

Ya I think there are, just like any other college there are students that are there to learn as much as possible and there are others that are there, ya know, passing time. And so there were plenty of hungry, aggressive students that wanted to suck up as much as possibly could.

Was there any sucking up to you as a student?

No no no… I was a hard ass. There was not a lot of sucking up, because for me it was important, you’re paying a lot of money to go there so I want to give you the best bang for your buck. And some students liked that and some hated it, ya know some loved it and some didn’t want any part of it because they didn’t want to be held accountable.

I mean you’re kind of prepping them for the real world too, because in the restaurant industry you’re not going to have, I’m sure there are some softies, but in order to run a successful restaurant and or just in business in general you need to be held accountable, so I think that’s great.

And would you say that you’re always teaching yourself? I mean you’re constantly learning and growing as a chef, are you your number one student?

Definitely, I think when you stop learning in this business you die. So anybody can learn, I don’t care, how great you are, how much knowledge you have, how well traveled you are, you can always learn and so I think it’s sad if you stop learning in this business.

Who was your culinary mentor? Did you have one?

I was fortunate enough to have quite a few, so the first one, and I’m not sure how much of a long term mentor it was, but probably the first, well my first indication, outside from my grandmother, that there was more than just being a cook, I was working at a restaurant called The Alps in Staten Island when I was really young and this Glenn who was a graduate of Johnson and Whales was the executive chef and he started to teach me quite a few real important aspects of culinary fundamentals like making stocks and sauces and so that was a short period of time but that was probably the first introduction. And I was driving my bicycle there so I was probably 15 or 16 years old. Then when I was at the Culinary Institute, there were a few people who influenced me, Chef Peter Michael, Chef Ron DeSantis; and then I was very fortunate that I went to do my internship with Victor Gielisse who remained a mentor for a long time. I did my internship at his restaurant and then he was back at the Culinary Institute and I worked with him there and he was a mentor and a dear friend.

Would you say that your grandmother was your original mentor or your introduction into cooking?

Yeah, there’s no question about it. It was really amazing to watch her in the kitchen, how fluid she was, she was just effortless. And she had a pretty broad repertoire of what she could do and her passion behind cooking, her knowledge was tremendous and you know growing up in a very Italian American household, everything revolved around food, everything. And so she was definitely my first mentor.

What would you say your favorite dish was from your grandmother?

Oh that’s easy, crabs. Blue claw crabs in a marinara sauce.

And have you ever recreated it on a professional level?

No not on a professional level, because if you didn’t grow up eating hard shell blue claws you won’t get it. You might like it, but you won’t understand the energy that it takes to eat them so it wouldn’t translate.

Any other recipes of your grandmothers that you’ve recreate on a professional level?

Ya, she used to make, I think when she was in her 20’s, she used to work for this sort of like housekeeper and a cook, so she used to make a Pineapple Upside-down Cake and she would always tell the story how she worked for this woman for so many years and the woman never let her taste the cake. So after she stopped working there she never made the cake ever again. And I remember when my grandmother was in her early 80’s, I remember asking her, hey give me the recipe for the Pineapple Upside-down cake, and she was like “I haven’t made that in years” and then she rattled the recipe off like this (as he snaps his fingers). So I’ve used that recipe quite a few times. Oh and her Escarole and Beans.

So you are ONE of only 72 Certified Master Chefs in the United States, how did you feel once that title was official? Did you feel any different? What happened after that was done?

It was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, a personal accomplishment to go through that exam and be successful.

And how long did it take you?

The exam is a little different today than it was back then, the format when I took it was ten days long, most days were two segments, an AM and a PM, one day was three segments. Early on in the ten days, the first few morning sections are like academic, like cost, control, menu develo0pment, etc. and then the PM is a cooking segment and then roughly halfway through the week it goes to double cooking segments and it’s everything from classical French cuisine to American regional cuisine to mystery baskets, International cuisines.

Like Chopped!

(He laughs) A lot more intense.

Well that’s incredibly impressive.

Thank you, yeah I’m very proud of it.

As you should be! So next question, you worked at the Marriot Marquis in New York City as well as Caterina d’Medici, what made you embark on the newest adventure which is Arrosto?

So my partner, he’s a childhood friend and I had been taking about it for years and ya know one day, he said, enough talking about it let’s just do it. So we looked at some different opportunities, scouted lots of locations, we had already understood the concept that we were looking to do.

So I read that you did a lot of traveling in Italy, was it there, along with a mixture of your grandmother where the inspiration came from? Why rotisserie chicken this way?

There’s not one thing or aspect that inspired it. As I have gotten older, I’m less enamored with fine dining and ya know three hour meals and we the industry have seen the fast casual segment grow tremendously in the last several years and I just felt that there was a void for quality Italian food in the fast casual sector and given my background knowledge and expertise decided this was a good sector to be in.

What is your favorite item on the menu?

That’s like asking me do I like Ty or Trevor as my favorite child, so I can’t answer that question. Ya know it truly depends on what I’m in the mood for that specific day. Last night I was running out the door and I was really in the mood for the Chickpea Burger so I had the Chickpea Burger Panini, the night before it was the rotisserie chicken. There’s nothing on the menu that I don’t like so it just depends on what I’m in the mood for.

And what are you most proud of with Arrosto?

I’m most proud of the experience that customers get. As I said, we reopened in January and we have quite a few customers that come in anywhere from 1 to 4 times a week and we deliver a great customer experience and hospitality and as you can see we aren’t waiter/waitress service, and Eddie my manager runs right over to care care of the guests that just came in.

It’s almost like he welcomed them into your home.

Exactly, so you know for me it’s about the experience it’s not one or the other. It’s not great hospitality and mediocre food or fantastic food and mediocre hospitality; the consumers have a lot of choices where they can spend their money today and so I take that very seriously when they walk in the door and we strive to deliver a great experience from hospitality as well as a great culinary experience.

When you’re in a pinch, you’re at home, your hungry, you haven’t gone shopping what do you cook?

An omelet. There’s always eggs in the refrigerator and always some type of vegetable or sausage. Cheese? Not always, but sometimes, sometimes mozzarella. Depends on the mood.

So walk us through a day in the life of being a restaurant owner.

If I tell you that you’re probably gonna have to go to therapy. (he chuckles) So you know, it really varies tremendously, so depending on the day of the week, depends on what we have going on in the restaurant, depends on who I have on my staff at that point. So I could be here as early as somewhere between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning working with our team. Like this morning I came in really early because we were straining and reducing our rotisserie gravy which we make from scratch. It’s not a premade base, so we make a roasted chicken stock which we cook for at least 12 hours then we reduce that down with no thickener in it, it’s just all natural reduction. It’s very rich and flavorful, so I had to come in this morning to get that going on the fire. Then I could be ordering, breaking down chickens, training a new staff member, working on a new menu item or a special, creating the prep lists for the team. And I’m also out here talking to customers, our guests – so there’s no two days ever the same.

So what do you do for fun when you’re not doing everything that you just mentioned?

I bike, I run, I work out, spend time with my girlfriend. Spend a lot of time with my kids – well I shouldn’t say that, I spend as much time as I can with my kids. How old are they? 23 and 20. One is local and one is on the opposite side of the country in Nevada. And are they in the culinary world like dad? So unfortunately yes (he chuckles) The older one just graduated in last May with a college degree in Sports Studies, he was working here and helping me out and then he had an opportunity to go out to Las Vegas and apply as a member of the culinary team for the Raiders and so he’s working in the kitchen there. So we talk about three times a day and a lot of the time, but not always, but a lot of the time it’s about food and how his day was and what he did and asking lots of questions. And the younger one goes to college in New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

So last question, if you could give one piece of advice for anyone that is thinking or wanting to get into the culinary world, what would that advice be?

So the first thing is to really learn. You know, a lot of people want to sauté once or twice or three times and think that they are the master of sauté. It takes hundreds and hundreds of times and you really have to understand the technique. In order to be a master of sauté, and I’m not going to go into a culinary lesson here, but it’s incredibly simplistic, yet there are numerous aspects of it that are critical to the success of that technique and understanding that technique doesn’t change, doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re in, sauté is statue. And if you truly understand the principles of the technique and you stick and adhere to them, you’ll make great food. It’s when you deviate from that because you think you know better or you have a good idea, that’s where you run aground. And young people don’t want to hear that, and there is a difference, my girlfriend and I debate this often, she’s like well what if somebody else likes a dish a certain way? And I say, well you can like it that way but it’s not technically sound and correct. Ya know, some people like to eat their food burnt, that’s ok – that’s their business, however, it’s not right, so there is a difference.

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