Italian Cooking & Language Blog

Fare La Scarpetta means to wipe your plate clean with a piece of bread.

What else could you ask for?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chef Interview: Dan Richer from Arturo’s in Maplewood, NJ

I’m always jealous when my parents tell me that they’ve had chef Dan Richer’s tasting menu from Arturo’s Osteria and Pizzeria in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Recently, my mother, photographer Melabee Miller, documented a few of the courses that made me want to book a flight from Michigan. Here are some details on the pictures above:

Salad: vegetables from Zone 7 (all NJ sustainable farms). Butterhead lettuce, curly cress, red oak lettuce. It is dressed only with black sea salt from Cyprus, organic extra virgin olive oil from Puglia that my friends from Equus Foods import, and 25 year old balsamic (tradizionale) from Modena (Dan brought it back on his November trip).

Pasta: handmade pappardelle with Pennsylvania grown mixed mushrooms and parmigiano reggiano.

Rabbit: Braised over farro.

Dan, who you can find not only cooking in the restaurant, but blogging and on Arturo’s TV, very kindly agreed to an interview about his experiences, local New Jersey produce and his dream meal.
Thanks for your time, Dan! I look forward to my next visit to your restaurant.

The first time I came to your restaurant, it was for an amazing tasting menu. You write on your blog that the tasting menus “are determined by market availability.” How do you craft such authentically Italian dishes from an American market?

The tasting menus are determined strictly by market availability. As I'm sure you know, the ingredients are the most important part of any great dish. The techniques used to prepare the food are always secondary in importance. It is the quality of ingredients that matter the most. Most of my job as a chef is searching for the best ingredients. The rest of my job is to make sure that I don't ruin the integrity of such perfect raw materials by trying too hard to create a perfect dish. Technique often gets in the way of a great dish. As a cook, I try to back off as much as possible and let the ingredients shine. Maybe I'm lazy, but I think the ingredients should do all of the work! Any authentic Italian cook would tell you this same story. Find the best ingredients, treat them with respect. It doesn't really matter where your physical location is (Italy, NJ, etc) as long as you spend the time in finding the best ingredients, your food will be great. Obviously, it's much easier to find great ingredients in Italy!! They are everywhere!. The great thing about being in NJ is that we are so close to NY and there is a quickly growing demand for great products. So, it’s becoming easier to find great ingredients. And, I suspect in the near future, it will become even easier.

What markets/farms do you primarily rely on?

Let's talk about produce...

99.9% of restaurants use a produce distributor that delivers 6 days per week. This company takes orders from the restaurant at night, then early the next morning travels to the nearest produce market (hunt's point, NY or PA). They buy the produce from another intermediary (definitely not from the farmer who lives in CA, FL, or Mexico) and then he delivers to the restaurant. Meanwhile, the produce has just made a 2000 mile journey over days and days time. Not to mention that the specific seed varietals that the farmer chose were to ensure its transportability, not its flavor. Also, the vegetables usually are harvested well before they are fully mature, leaving them lacking in flavor but ready for their long journey ahead. The restaurant receives their sub-par vegetables after very little effort on their part. This mentality is unacceptable and I'm really trying to not be a part of any of this.

So, I've worked directly with farmers in trying to bring their sustainably grown heirloom vegetables to our dishes, but it's a lot of work! Between trying to run a restaurant and the farmer trying to farm, it was so hard to physically get the produce from the fields to our kitchen. This summer I worked with a local woman who started an urban farm in downtown Newark. This is such a revolutionary method of bringing fresh produce to the areas that really need it. The city of Newark lent her an abandoned plot of land to farm on. She used Earthboxes (self-watering planter boxes) which enabled her to grow sustainably and to employ people who are not trained farmers. It was a really great idea and I can’t wait to start working with her again when the growing season starts. You can read more about her on her website.

After that, I started working with an amazing company called Zone 7. They are that missing link between farmer and restaurant. The owner, Mikey, has relationships with sustainable farmers throughout NJ. He emails me Monday with a list of products that are available and delivers them on Thursday. It has been really amazing so far. We are actually getting great vegetables in Dec. Obviously we are not getting tomatoes or zucchini but the beets, radishes, potatoes, lettuces, carrots, etc are amazing!! We are one of 35 restaurants in NJ using this great company.

The tasting menus change from week to week depending on what products we can find. The format is usually standard: antipasti (cured meats/veges of some sort), salad (market driven), soup (market driven), pasta (always handmade), secondo (fall/winter=braised meat while spring/summer=fish or fast cooking meat), then a simple dessert.

What are some of your favorite dishes to prepare?

I love making pasta. I am a freak about fresh, handmade pasta. When I travel through Italy, it’s all about the pasta. Nothing else really. I am obsessed. I also love preparing/marinating/pickling vegetables that I have sourced from great farmers. It’s very rewarding in many ways.
Your menu includes house-cured pancetta and duck prosciutto, you blog, create regular tasting menus and continue to grow your business. How do you do it all?

Time management is such an important thing in my life/business. I delegate as much as I possibly can, this is easy for me because I hire the best people I can find. My staff takes care of 100% of the day to day business. They do payroll, ordering, scheduling, cooking, among everything else. I focus on keeping the business on its proper course. We are in a great place right now.

How did you first become interested in cooking Italian food?

I started working in an Italian restaurant when I was 15 as a busboy. After that, I worked as a waiter and manager at other restaurants. I skipped my graduation ceremony from Rutgers in 2002 and flew to Italy. I traveled with my cousin, who had an apartment in Trastevere (Rome), for two weeks from Lugano, Switzerland to Salerno, Campagna covering much of the in between. I came back with a passion that has rapidly grown into what it is now. I have no formal training as a chef, just the constant desire to be the best at what I do.

I started my personal culinary education with Molto Mario. Mario Batali is an incredible teacher (even though I have never met him).

What main advice do you have for the home chef who wants to learn more about cooking authentic Italian food (particular book, tv show, class, etc.)?

Practice is the best. I used to cook 6 course meals for my friends and I learned so much from that.

If you could eat anything and anywhere right now, what would it be and where? (Your dream meal!)

This is a hard question. My dream meal? I love cooking for myself and for family/friends but I'd say that my dream meal would be in Tokyo. No specific restaurant, but a multiple course meal where you can expect to be completely surprised and blown away by just about everything. I spent several weeks in Japan just before I bought Arturo's. The Japanese have such integrity, tradition, and ingenuity. I love the culture.

For more information, visit the restaurant’s website or just stop by and eat:

180 Maplewood Ave.,
Maplewood, NJ 07040


stopper said... never cease to amaze me!!
I can't wait to return to Arturo's......and wish you guys lived closer so we could return with you and your parents!

All the best, Susan Topper

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Thanks for your kind words, Susan! And thanks for reading, too! We'll be in DC starting this summer, so we'll be visiting more often. Dinner at Arturo's sounds perfect.