The 27-year-old Atlanta native is getting rave reviews for his Italian fare at Davanti Enoteca, one of our picks for best new restaurants. Here, he shares how got his start in the business, where he sees himself in ten years, his mother's favorite dish at the restaurant, and more:
How did you get your start as a chef?
I was cooking during college and also went to Italy for a year when my whole passion for food kind of started. But my mom was an amazing cook, too, so that kind of helped. After college, I went to the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. I did a lot of different internships—tried to work at some of the best places [in New York] and did stages at Le Bernardin, Daniel, Felidia. It was interesting because I started cooking Italian food first. I didn’t cook real Italian food, but when I was in Italy, I ate real Italian food. But I got trained by French people. I went to Arizona and worked with a master French chef at the Ventana Room for about three years. I went back to New York, and I walked into Esca. They said they didn’t really have an opening, but [Dave Pasternak, the chef] told me to cook for a while and we’ll see what happens. An hour and a half later, I had a job.
How did you wind up in Chicago?
Jimmy Bannos, Jr. was cooking with me at Esca. He ended up moving back to Chicago, and the topic came up that he was planning on opening a restaurant in Chicago—The Purple Pig. He asked if I would come out here and be the sous chef. The Purple Pig grew to this huge thing, and I met Scott [Harris] there. After six months, Scott had this opportunity at Davanti, and here I am.
How much input did you have in the original menu for Davanti?
We are a corporation. All the corporate chefs had input and so did Scott and Luigi [Negroni]. It was kind of a collaboration of all of us. I just happened to be the frontman.
You are pretty young. Does all this attention blow you away?
When I am in the kitchen I never even think about it. I’m so focused on the next dish or the next day’s service. [Davanti] fills up every night; everybody seems happy. It’s nose to the grindstone for me.
A lot of chefs seem bent on ever-changing menus, but Davanti already has some staples, like the focaccia di Recco, the cacio e pepe, and the pollo Sole Mio.
As a young chef, I always want to change everything. Luigi and Scott have been great teachers in calming me down—trying to keep to our original formula with me running specials. You always think everyone is like you and constantly wants to try new things, but [some] like things they like, and they want to have it as often as they can.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’d really love to have a 30-seat restaurant that does two turns a night—open five nights a week, only for dinner. It’s always been the dream, a childhood fantasy, where you go in the morning to the market, get all your stuff—you know exactly how many people are coming in. I’m hoping over the next ten years, I can make a good living and open that place.
And what is the cuisine?
Whatever I want to cook. I love Italian, but I also love Mexican and French and the whole new American thing.
Has your mom been to Davanti? What dish blew her away?
Mom and I cook very differently now, but she is a fantastic country cook. When she was here a few days ago, she loved the halibut dish—halibut seared on the plancha. It’s served with favette, like a smashed fava bean. It’s mixed with mint, thyme, olive oil, and, garlic—all smashed together after it’s been cooked. It’s a simple little dish for spring.
Photograph: Anna Knott