Q&A Michael Abbatiello

Michael Abbatiello

Executive Chef at City Cellar Wine Bar

You attribute your culinary knowledge from your time spent traveling regions in Italy. How did the Culinary Academy of Long Island help you hone in on your skills with the knowledge you already had? Would you recommend culinary school to inspiring chefs?

The program I attended was a local culinary school. As with most schools you learn the fundamentals and prepare yourself to step into a functioning restaurant kitchen where in my opinion is where the real learning process begins. I would absolutely recommend school to young cooks mostly for sanitation and health department purposes, which are always extremely important while running a kitchen.

You’ve worked under some greats such as Michael White and Jesse Schenker who have also been featured in this spotlight! What have you learned from your experiences working under them that have helped advance your career?

My experience at Ai Fiori as great as it was actually came about in an unorthodox manner. I ate there for dinner one night and asked if I was able to have the Chef’s business card because I would like to thank him for the amazing experience. In reality I was looking for an opportunity to get in the kitchen. I set up a stage on my day off from my job and they offered me a job on the spot. I politely turned the job offer down however, I went to Ai Fiori on my days off in order to experience everything the restaurant had to offer. In my mind that was the ideal way to learn and grasp as much knowledge as possible in a short period of time rather than working one station for months without being able to see the rest of the bliss that was going on.

I owe most of my drive for excellence and cooking at the highest level to my time at Recette. I was fortunate enough to work with cooks who were older than me and had been in some of the best kitchens in NYC.

To me the greatest part of Recette was since it was a small kitchen I was able to constantly learn about all aspects from savory to pastry.

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I’ll never forget one of my firsts nights cooking on the line, I was extremely nervous and was constantly asking questions of what I should do and if it was what they wanted. The response from my Chef was… Mike, you know how to cook, correct? I answered yes. He replied, then do what you know! It gave me the confidence in myself that every young cook needs and I’ve never looked back.

Talk about your experience at Prime Food Distributors and how your stint there has helped you utilize aspects of protein?

I was fortunate to meet Nick who is the head butcher at Prime through a close friend of mine. Once we started talking about food we realized we needed to get together on the production line.

He took many hours out of his day showing me each hanging cattle from beef to lamb and how each differs from each other by region and also the animals’ diet. Nick has an extreme passion for what he does and we would butcher and break apart full sides so he could show me his creativity for utilizing every aspect with very little waste. I use the knowledge Nick has given me every day by constantly experimenting with new ideas.

What culinary trends are you noticing nowadays and which of them are you utilizing at City Cellar?

I have been noticing that recently the trends have been moving towards fine dining techniques while simplifying them as well as the small plates movement, rather than different types of cuisines.

For my weekly specials I constantly try to use techniques. I have implemented a snack section onto my menu, which is something I have seen many restaurants using. This is a great tool to start the dining experience while sharing and tasting a few different menu items rather than just ordering one appetizer per person. I am currently running a pork shank which instead of just braising how most would do I use a confit method. I cure the shank for 48 hours in mustard seed, fennel seed, and orange and then use lard to confit the shank for 4 to 5 hours. This is a great example on implementing a great technique to such a simply used item.

Walk us through a typical day at work. What are some of the challenges you face each day at City Cellar?

A typical day for me at work starts at 11am checking my email and overlooking the previous days sales and payroll. After that I input invoices because I bring in produce, fish, meat, poultry, and obviously bread seven days a week.

Once my office duties are done I start butchering whatever needs to be prepared and check over the line for lunch service. At this point I expedite lunch and think of what specials we will be doing for the evening. Once lunch is over I go over with the General Manager any problems and concerns we might have. After this point we have a pre service meeting with staff before dinner service. Then line check and expedite dinner service. Lastly go through my orders for the 11 purveyors that I order from daily. Speak to my sous chef about the day and head home.

In every restaurant there are always challenges. The biggest ones I face here at City Cellar are training and overseeing a staff that is mostly here to make a living and not to achieve culinary excellence while still attempting to educate them. Also to help expand the customers’ palate while being smart with what I put on the menu.

On the equipment side, do you have a piece of equipment that you can’t live without that makes your job easier preparing dishes?

Vacuum Sealer. Nothing allows you to organize, maintain quality, and execute all at the same time.

What’s your opinion on local sustainability? And do you look for loyalty from your suppliers or do you go to bid each week?

I do not bid, I believe that is a way for you to just receive the price you want and never the quality.

I am very loyal to all my purveyors. They understand that whether I purchase 5 products or 50 products from them there is a reason why it is theirs.

To me local products are important for the reason that it is the quickest way to get a product from the farm to your kitchen. I receive daily sheets from Baldor and D’Artagnan based on local produce and meat and if it is possible I always try to incorporate them in my specials.

What role does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play?

It is an extremely important role to have a great relationship with both. Especially here where we are doing lunch and dinner service 7 days a week. I’m thankful that with most of them we have a respect level where when I need help they are always here for me and come quickly and solve the issue rather than pushing it onto another day.

There’s always talk of healthier eating, are your customers looking for that, and if so, how do you cater to the growing demand?

I’d say that isn’t a major issue in our restaurant at this moment. However I would cater to the growing demands of any customers’ allergy restrictions.

Crystal ball… what lies ahead for you?

This is a very tough question to answer, because I am young, there are always so many different opportunities coming my way. There is always a struggle to think and understand which opportunity would be the best in the long run. All that I know is making pasta from scratch and by hand is something that I have such a passion for and is almost an “escape” for me so I hope that it can be a major part of my future career.