Chef Jonathan Scinto cooks with passion in every dish he creates!
Growing up in an Italian and Jewish family, the Long Island native utilizes rustic Italian flavors and Asian influences to create what he calls: “Itasian”. Chef Jonathan Scinto has helped raise over $250,000 for numerous local and national charities. He sat down with Total Food Service to discuss his culinary journey and next destination.
Can you share your background?
I grew up on Long Island and lived there for a good 30 plus years. My parents lived in Little Neck and Douglaston for about 10 years and then we moved out to Long Island.
How did you get into the business?
As a little boy, most kids were watching Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street but I loved watching cooking shows like Julia Child. Later in life after school, I found myself working in cooking and catering. But it wasn’t something I pursued heavily. I went to work in showbiz for a post production company and when I got to college I did client services and catering for them. So we did a lot of stuff on movie sets with full-fledged catering for the clients that came in. Many of these folks were some of the top directors and producers. We were in the old Daily News building in midtown Manhattan. There were guys like the famous New York ad legend Jerry Della Femina.
How did 9/11 change your career?
As with so many businesses, 9/11 impacted the production business in NYC. So when the company I was working for closed, my Dad and I decided to open a restaurant in Bayshore. We were doing great and I learned a ton but my Dad got sick so we sold.
What were the lessons learned from that venture?
No question that you have to really understand the space that you are getting into. We were directly across from a health club that had all kinds of traffic so the key is to lock in the customer that is walking by the door every day with the right menu and then to work really hard to attract the rest of the community as a destination.
The other lesson is that if you are going to be dependent on serving traffic like that, you better go in with a complete understanding of what you are signing up for. We were working 16 hours a day seven days a week. We opened up about 5:00 in the morning for breakfast. We closed at 10:00 o’clock at night and it was backbreaking. I missed events including family get togethers.
You have a unique perspective of working in both the City and the Suburbs. What’s your read on the differences in being successful at both?
Funny with or without social media, there is way more pressure on Long Island. You make one mistake and it is spoken very quickly and everyone knows. This was before social media was really big and there was no Facebook. When I was working in the city in catering, I noticed New York City was more of a melting pot. With 7 to 10 million people, a customer’s life tends to be more liberal and lenient.
So what led to this incredible career you have built on TV?
I was working all kinds of hours as an Admissions Counselor for a culinary school. My wife saw me come home one day and said this has to change. ‘You have too much talent, I’ve been watching these cooking competitions on TV and you are better than any of those chefs.’ I told her that she was crazy but I would go to the audition anyway and the rest is history. Sure enough I got past all the New York City auditions over three months. Then they flew me out to Los Angeles for more auditions there. I’m convinced that the experience of the post-production job I had in Manhattan made me comfortable working on the other side of the camera. I created this character that the producers wanted: the Long Island/Brooklyn Piper kid. So that’s exactly what I gave them and the viewers loved it.
What are the differences between cooking on a line and competitive cooking?
Reality TV cooking is not even close to working in a real kitchen. It’s a different kind of pressure than creating 300 covers a night. But don’t kid yourself with the camera rolling the pressure is very real.
How did you turn the TV experience into the Chef Jonathan Scinto brand?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind. I left the studio and right away when I landed home here in New York I created a brand. Instantly I started networking within the first day and said I’m going to make sure people know exactly who I am not just because I’ve been on TV and I’m going to use that as great PR. I had been given a gift of national TV exposure, which is an enormous value you simply can’t buy. So I used that and the first thing I did was I reached out to local charities.
During my first year, we did 15 charity events and we were doing at least one a month. That’s how I got my name out there. We did meet and greets and I cooked. I spent tens of thousands of dollars of my own money because as a business I was buying supplies and cooking for a thousand people and giving out samples. What I did was I used every event to capture emails. That enabled us to build a social media brand quickly. I realized that we could leverage Instagram to upload videos. Within the first year, it all paid off with calls to cook for many high profile people and A-list celebrities. That later turned into companies engaging us to promote their brands like Chicago Cutlery.