Rioja Fest: An Interview with Anthony Sasso
Last Saturday, I was invited to attend the Rioja Wine and Tapas Festival at Union Station. In addition to the abundance of amazing wines and food stations featuring some of the coolest chefs, I had the opportunity to interview Anthony Sasso, Head Chef at Casa Mono in New York City. After his first year as Chef de Cuisine, Casa Mono was awarded its first of five consecutive Michelin Stars. Keep readin’ to hear about what inspires him in the kitchen, why he won’t go to the same place twice, and why all of his dishes need to have an “Oh Shit” factor…
Tell me about what you are featuring here at Rioja Fest:
It’s a version of a brand new dish at the restaurant. We’ve played around with traditional bolognese by thickening it with pigs blood – we call it Blood Bolognese. The pickled ramps we serve it with act as the pasta, and it’s finished with burnt bread cracklings.
Do you usually push the boundaries/play with the rules like that?
Yeah, we break all the rules. We started doing it by just messing with the Spanish language – like gazpacho is traditionally just a cold soup of raw tomatoes, onions, peppers and cucumbers. But we started to say, well what if we wanted to serve gazpacho outside of the summer? So, now basically any chilled soup is gazpacho.
What kinds of ingredients are fair game in gazpacho now?
It depends. Once we made it with beets and blood oranges because they kind of have the same season and it still looks pink, like a summer gazpacho. Basically taking the fruit of the season and turning it into a soup.
There are actually a couple of dishes I recently made based off of paintings from Spanish artists. I studied the way that Salvador Dali introduces food into his paintings… he’s got a famous one called “Tuna Fishing” that we turned into a tuna dish using beet juice to represent blood… and for a week right before Valentine’s Day, we had a dozen dishes based off of 12 of his paintings. We became a little pop up within our own restaurant.
I was going to ask you where you find inspiration but you beat me to it!
Yeah, when you get over cookbooks and other chefs and now Instagram – I don’t even like when people post too much food there! I get sick of it. So, once that started happening, I thought, alright where else am I going to get an idea from? So I try to pick this, grab this, and see what we can do with it… It’s hard to just say “well, it’s spring so we’ll do asparagus.”
Being in New York, you don’t always have local access to every ingredient you might want. How do you deal with that?
Well, we’re not going to not use lemons because they aren’t around; but at the same time, we’re not going to use spring ingredients in winter. We’re going to be using Brussels Sprouts. We’re not going to be doing anything with watermelon during that season, that’s just silly. So, with each seasonal ingredient, every year I have to figure out a new way to use it. What else am I going to do with butternut squash? We did soup last year, maybe we’ll use the seeds… Or this year we used the skin! We burnt the skin with a torch and roasted it in the oven to create a sauce puree out of burnt squash skin.
That sounds awesome. Do you change the menu often?
Yeah, in spring and summer we’ll change it 3-4 times.
Yeah, just within those seasons. And then a fall menu and winter menu. So it’s 5-6 menus, not the typical 4.
Do you ever bring dishes back or do you not like to do that?
Never. I do not let us repeat.
You don’t let them?
It’s a rule. No matter how good this dish is, its going to be dead in 4 months. So, we just send it the cemetery.
Why do you do that?
To make everyone look forward to pushing themselves each season. With every menu, some chefs think “I love that dish, I can’t wait until next year so we can do it again,” but that doesn’t keep the guests coming back. They’re always wondering what we’re going to do, which is a good thing. We keep our classics, but we change the stuff that really highlights the elements of the season. And we’ll run with concepts, but we won’t do the same dishes several times.
Did you always have that philosophy about food and cooking?
I have that philosophy about everything. If I travel to Cuba this year, I’m not going to Cuba again. I got that out of the way. If I have a couple of days off, I’m going to go to Ireland or Greece… Spain has been the only place that I continue to go to, but I have family and a base of friends there.
Does most of your culinary style come from your Spanish roots?
I’m an ingredient based chef. I’m not attached to a country or a cuisine. I tell my cooks that every dish needs to have salty, sweet, sour, bitter – the works. And then we ask “What’s the Oh Shitfactor?” For example, on my way back from Peru, I knew I wanted to bring ceviche to Casa Mono. Ceviche is based in a spicy fish stock at the bottom called the milk of the tiger or Leche de Tigre. I kept thinking, how am I going to do Leche de Tigre? I ended up using the milk at the bottom of Frosted Flakes, and that’s what we put our cilantro, chile pepper, habanero, and garlic in. We called it Leche de Tony the Tigre. And people ordered it because of that! That’s why I have to make things sound cool with the menu. They already trust us and they know it’s going to be delicious and fun, but you’ve got to have a sense of humor with your food. I love when dishes come out to me and I just smile to myself. It’s like you and the kitchen or you and the chef are having this conversation.
Speaking of other chefs, you’ve worked with a few celebrity chefs. What is that like?
I still work for Mario Batali, which I love. The guy is the same as you see him on TV. I also worked with Bobby Flay for a little bit. But when I worked in Spain, I was working for a small family run restaurant, which I also loved. It was 3 sons working in the kitchen and the father was the owner. His kids travelled a lot and would bring back influences from higher end concept restaurants, which was fun because it was a traditional Spanish restaurant that had a lot of other influences brought to it by the sons.
How did that experience differ from working in a big city?
I wanted it to be like that. I wanted to have that experience. It was in a small town right on the beach, so it was so much more proactive. Their friends in town bringing bags of seafood that they caught themselves – that’s what I saw, that’s what I witnessed. I saw a community coming together to build the restaurant. And if it wasn’t for the ocean right there, that restaurant wouldn’t even exist. In New York, the freshest ingredients are 15 miles away, but in Spain, everything was right there.
Moving forward, do you have any big career aspirations?
We all want to have our own restaurant. I’m lucky to be working for a great group right now, but I definitely would love to do my own thing, too. I want to invest in cooks. I don’t want to fill a restaurant with part time employees. A lot of servers do something else on the side, but I think there could be so much more potential if we bridge the gap between the kitchen and the people eating the food. If the chefs were out there taking orders, describing the menus to the customers (and making some tips in the process), you’re enabling future restauranteurs. So, that’s my goal.
That’s ambitious. How are you going to do that?
Take the cooks out of the kitchen, put them in a different uniform and have them interact with the people they cook for. It will be the future. We’re lucky at our restaurant to have an open kitchen, so our regulars know us all by first name; and that’s a great thing to know your neighborhood and to know the people that eat and come back for your food.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook?
Octopus. Because it’s so difficult. The margin of error is so small. And you know right away if it’s cooked correctly; you don’t even need to put it into your mouth.
And you like that challenge?
Yea, and I like loving things that maybe other people don’t have an appreciation for yet.
That’s hard in New York with so many trendy restaurants!
Everything is so trendy, it’s very hard to find something that no one knows about!
A big thank you to Anthony for taking the time to chat with me!! Also, will all of you New York readers go to this restaurant and tell me all about it?! I’m pretty pumped that I already have a trip planned for the end of May – Casa Mono is on my list now 🙂
Stay tuned for more about Rioja Fest coming next week!
May 6, 2015 @ 4:46 pm
Such a cool experience- hearing that they have 5-6 menus a year excites me and I'll definitely keep this place in mind on my next NYC trip!