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"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change" wrote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard, a famous novel which was later turned into the classic Italian movie by Luchino Visconti in 1963. The quote has become a dogma in the life of the Italian restaurateur Gianfranco Sorrentino, a man with over 30 years’ experience in restaurant management and who succeeded in bringing both Italy’s flavours and sense of hospitality to the United States and becoming one of the most quoted restaurateurs in the challenging restaurant scene of New York City.
Originally from Naples, Sorrentino's family has also become his business' family: with his talented wife Paula Bolla-Sorrentino and his chef Vito Gnazzo at his side, he runs three restaurants - Il Gattopardo, The Leopard at Des Artistes and Mozzarella & Vino - where their main objective is to "return to the past in a modern key", with the revision of authentic traditional Italian cuisine that satisfies the tastes and needs of modern life.
Since 2007, Sorrentino has been holding office at President of the GI - Gruppo Italiano, a non-profit organization of Italian Restaurants in the United States, aimed at promoting authentic Italian cuisine in America. Some of their various activities include an annual scholarship for students of the American Culinary Institute, with "on location", full immersion courses in Italy.
Teaching is one of the new frontiers on the horizon of Mr. Sorrentino: recently, he has become a consultant at Food and Finance High School, New York City's only culinary high school, where, together with his faithful chef Gnazzo, he holds workshops teaching not only creativity and authenticity in the kitchen, but also restaurant management.
Fine Dining Lovers got in touch with Sorrentino, to recount the story of a man so in love with his own country he convinced the USA to fall in love with it too.
How and when did you start working in the restaurant business?
I am originally from Naples and hospitality has been something I’ve always been passionate about. I’ve been working in a restaurant since my first summer job. I liked and chose it because it was a profession that gave me the chance to travel up to London and Tokyo (where, for example I worked at the Four Seasons). When I arrived in NYC, in the 90s, I quickly opened my first venue, which was a bar in the Lower East Side. After that I undertook many exciting adventures, including Sette MoMA, a restaurant inside the Museum of Modern Art, and that eventually lead to the opening of my three restaurants under Il Gattopardo Group.
How did you become one of the most famous Italian restaurateurs in the USA?
First, thank you for this! My rules have always been to work very hard and with honesty. And most of all, doing better and innovating every day. Without that…you do not go everywhere. We focus on high-quality ingredients, Italian ingredients and only use the best in the dishes we serve.
What’s the hardest challenge you have had to tackle during your career?
Especially at the beginning, my main challenge had been to serve and communicate the flavor of the authentic Italian food. Thirty years ago, when I started my adventure in this industry in NYC, the only Italian cuisine perceived as authentic was American-Italian, traditionally full of sauces, onion and garlic. It was challenging yet rewarding to teach consumers how to appreciate simpler and more refined dishes such as Cotoletta di Vitello or even suggesting clients to pair an oven-roasted Branzino with a glass of wine instead of a Scotch. We worked intensely with importers to get Parmigiano cheese (instead of the Parmesan cheese from Argentina) and the best Mozzarella di Bufala in this part of the world. And although now we have foodies who are really educated on food, we are still very loyal on our mission. Right now for example, we are working on serving different types of pasta made with ancient grains such as the Buckwheat, Kamut, and Amaranth.
Recently, you have become a teacher at Food and Financial School in New York City: can you tell us something about the school and what topics you teach?
I am working more in a consultant and educator role. Together with my long-time chef Vito Gnazzo, we hold periodic cuisine-workshops where we teach not only creativity and authenticity in the kitchen, but also where we try to develop their skills in a restaurant’s administration and management. They need to know about food costs, and need to realize that quality definitely has a higher cost. I always say that what you put inside your body is more important than anything else. You can save money on what you put outside of it, but not the reverse!
You’re businessmen first and foremost, and with it an experienced employer: what do you think has improved in nurturing young chefs and employers over the years?
In today’s world, being a chef has become a real profession. Besides the glittery aspects related to the TV’s show and such, it can guarantee a real career and life’s perspective. It is not a second-choice, as it was before. I’m extremely happy to see such a change in the industry and encourage my peers to continue this for generations to come.
Have you noticed an evolution in the approach and attitude of the young people that you deal with at the School and in your restaurants?
As I said before, working in the “back of the house” is a real profession. Thanks to culinary schools and professional courses offered nationwide, being a chef or a cook can be a real job for many people. However, this is not happening as far as “front of the house” goes. Instead, this remains a job for students trying to make extra money, and that they will likely leave after a short period of time.
You are the chairman and president of Gruppo Italiano, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting genuine Italian products and the culinary culture across the USA: can you explain how it operates?
At Gruppo Italiano, we promote Italian cuisine through seminars and meetings that are interesting and creative. Our next seminar is actually going to be a panel on how food-critic professions have evolved and changed over the years; if they are still powerful as they were before technology changed the industry. There will be many important food journalists, many of them tied to Italian cuisine. Gruppo Italiano has been involving not only for Italians, but also Americans who love to embrace Italian lifestyle. One of them for example is the actor Stanley Tucci!
What is your next business plans?
A pastry-shop, Italian of course, and in particular inspired from the Southern and still pretty unexplored traditions of Cilento, an area quite close to Naples. It is a dream that I have been nurturing from many years. It will be a high-end shop. We are looking for the proper location, which is not an easy task given the rising prices of real estate in this city.
What advice would you give to a chef or a restaurateur who wants to open a venue nowadays? And, to a young chef who wants to get to the top the culinary scene?
To a restaurateur, I would suggest to be very detail-oriented in curating all aspects related to the restaurant or hospitality industry. There is the bureaucratic part, the insurances, the management of human resources – so much! In a few words, to learn the whole supply chain of work that goes from the storage of food to its transformation, and the sale to the retail, with all that this entails. There also more practical skills that are fundamental, such as learning the mechanic of the A/C, the oven, or the stove, which trust me, one day will come in handy!
To a young chef, I’d recommend to be prepared to work long hours and different time-shifts from the majority of the people. It is a type of job that would take them apart from their family and friends during regular vacations sadly. You have to be really passionate about it, and don’t compromise with quality of the ingredients. That is the real recipe for succeeding.