At a young age, Executive Chef John Villa has already had a remarkable career. There is no doubt that Tao Restaurant’s current success can be attributed to the lofty expectations that Chef Villa helps make a reality.
Chef Villa comes from a family that is passionate about food. Raised in Nutley, New Jersey, Villa’s Italian grandmother was an artist in the kitchen at home; while his parents dined at the finest restaurants in New York City.
The combination provided Chef Villa with a deep respect for food, and the perspective on how it might impress the most discerning of palettes, on the biggest of stages. It was no surprise when Villa enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America at the age of 19. After graduation, he trained under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and spent three years at Tropica following.
Villa’s big break came when he was hired at JUdson Grill. Within months he trimmed the kitchen staff, cut food costs in half, created a noteworthy menu, and earned himself a new title as Executive Chef. His hard work paid off, earning his first two-star rating from the New York Times. “This would not work so well if the chef, John Villa, did not understand what people want to eat…this food is flavored with authority and geared to modern tastes,” explained New York Times’ Ruth Reichl.
At just 24, Chef Villa had already eclipsed his peers. It was now clear that Chef Villa was much more than just a young prodigy. He was well on his way to becoming one of the most distinguished chefs in New York City. His remarkable skill, unparalleled praise, and industry knowledge has lifted Tao Restaurant to new heights. Chef Villa is nothing less than a master.
What or who inspired you to become a chef, where did you study?
My grandparents inspired me to eat and cook and enjoy food. My brother is a chef, and our parents used to take us out to eat out in Manhattan. It was a combination of a lot of things growing up that made me want to be a chef.
Have any mentors? What have you learned from them?
I don’t have mentors but I try to learn something from everyone. I respect all chefs – I know what they go through but I pretty much do my own thing.
What are a few of your favorite ingredients to cook with?
Are you using sustainable sources for your dishes?
Whenever we can we do. We use Niman Ranch for all of our Pork products.
What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
Biggest thing is to make sure they love the business. It’ll never be a 9-5 job. I feel like I work 24 hours a day. If you don’t love it, you won’t make it.
Do you change your menu seasonally at Tao? What’s the process in developing new menu entrées?
We change it a few times a year, not necessarily seasonally. When we feel it’s time to change a dish we do it, but we have a lot of menu items that are Tao classics. We mostly improve current dishes. We take ideas from everywhere and roll with it – it’s a team effort.
On the equipment side, do you have piece of equipment that you can’t live without that makes your job easier preparing dishes?
A well sharpened knife.
The restaurant industry has a very broad range of foods…what’s your buying approach? Do you go out to bid on a regular basis or do you look for loyalty from vendors?
We do a little bit of both. Bid out everything, but do enjoy some loyalty and trust with vendors. Some items we buy based on pricing, others are based on quality – it depends.
What role does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play?
A big role – a really good vendor can get you stuff really fast, or get us stuff no one else has. Having a good relationship with them is really important.
There’s always talk of healthier eating, are your customers looking for that at Tao, and if so, how do you cater to the growing demand?
We are very sensitive to allergies and have added a lot of gluten free dishes. We do what we can.
Do you feel that the restaurant industry suffers too much from Zagat, Yelp, and other consumer review sights? Are consumers depending too much on review?
They’re good, but some people rely on it too much. I think people should read through all of them, not base their opinion on one review.
Whether good, bad or a mix of both, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in our industry since your career started?
The biggest change is the way it’s gotten so big. The industry used to be so small. Social media really spearheaded the industry growth. Everyone’s a critic now.