By Vicki Salemi
Whether they’re appearing on TV, making personal appearances with cooking demonstrations, penning a new cookbook or opening a new restaurant, there’s no denying it – celebrity chefs are part of a booming business with one common denominator among them: their passion for cooking.
We caught up with culinary stars Donatella Arpaia, Terrance Brennan and Mary Ann Esposito at the annual Sun WineFest at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. and with Kelsey Nixon on the phone to dish about their favorite summer dishes and how everything always comes back to the basics of good old-fashioned cooking.
Restaurateur, author and TV personality Donatalla Arpaia knows a thing or two about cooking. The head judge on “Iron Chef America” and “Next Iron Chef” grew up spending summers in Puglia, Italy – influential not only with her recipes but infusing balance into her busy schedule as well.
As Arpaia serves her signature meatball at the Mohegan Sun WineFest, her lips are sealed to protect its secret ingredients. “It’s based on my mother’s and grandmother’s recipe – a family tradition. I’m not going to tell you what it is but they’re really good!”
Meatballs aside, she credits past summers with creating a balance between enjoying her weekend home in Connecticut and living in New York. “I need to be near water and to grow my own vegetables and also to savor the moment and not get too caught up.”
As for her entrepreneurial endeavors like creating new HSN products for busy moms and opening a new restaurant concept in St. Petersburg this fall, the author of “Donatella Cooks” proudly states, “I am a die-hard New Yorker. It’s so much a part of who I am, it drives my ambition.”
New York fuels your desire to always strive for better, she says. Case in point – Sienna Restaurant and Ultralounge in East Hampton hired her to elevate their cuisine. “Only the best come here and it keeps you on your toes,” she adds. “I love the energy and I love New York.”
Just ask Terrance Brennan how New York City inspires his cooking and he’ll tell you it’s in the clientele.
The chef-proprietor of the restaurants of The Artisanal Group, including Picholine near Lincoln Center and Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro & Wine Bar in Murray Hill, says, “There are just so many cool things you can do with food here in the city.”
Here’s why: Because it’s such a competitive place, there’s a very educated clientele, he explains. “They’ve traveled the world so I can do a lot with white truffles and dishes that perhaps wouldn’t work so well elsewhere.” The author of “Artisanal Cooking” can put a sea urchin dish on the menu and it will sell. Other geographies? Not so much.
“That aspect is great because the clientele is really sophisticated,” he adds. Sounds like this cultured crowd will perhaps be the inspiration for new ventures he has cooking up like a fast casual restaurant, trattoria and an American brasserie.
Fun fact: Brennan, a frequent guest on “The Today Show,” is the unique holder of the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest fondue! Created on the show, it weighed one ton and helped serve 5,000 meals for local charity City Harvest.
Kelsey Nixon, host of “Kelsey’s Essentials” on The Cooking Channel, calls herself a “small town girl who wanted to live in the big city.” Hailing originally from northern Utah, this transformed Manhattanite is a huge fan of urban farming.
“What’s crazy is even being in New York City, you still have access to ingredients that come from small town-type places,” says the author of “Kitchen Confidence” who alludes to Bobby Flay as her mentor. Whether it’s fresh apples from only an hour away or getting turkeys raised a few hours away, there’s still “access to incredible ingredients that a farm has access to.”
One of her favorite go-to spots? Brooklyn Grange. “It’s huge – an actual farm on a rooftop! It’s something like 40,000 square feet on top of a building in Queens.” Considering they grow everything, it’s the biggest urban farming operation this celebrity chef has ever seen.
“For any city dweller that loves food and a unique experience, I can’t recommend it enough,” she adds. Aside from the amazing view of the city, they grow a ton of herbs, peppers, heirloom carrots, mushrooms and more – essentials for any delicious summer salad and perfect for Nixon who avoids turning her oven on “at all costs in the summer.”
“I’m a big fan of meals that come together really quickly together and are just easy, breezy and look as good as they taste.”
Mary Ann Esposito
Meet Mary Ann Esposito, the host and creator of “Ciao Italia” on PBS, the longest running cooking show on television! Before Rachael Ray, Emeril and Anthony Bourdain catapulted into the spotlight, Esposito has been charming audiences with her Italian cooking in the cucina.
Now in its 25th year, “Ciao Italia” started out with a “little proposal” and a nudge by her husband to approach a local cable show in New Hampshire. “They looked at me like I was nuts,” she recalls. They didn’t even have a studio kitchen, so she returned to her catering business and writing.
When they finally got a studio, Esposito shot the pilot, and was quickly approved for 13 more episodes. “The following year PBS picked it up and it’s history,” explains the author of 12 cookbooks who focuses on regional cooking and the history behind recipes.
One of her favorite dishes, timbalo de melanzane, embodies preparation in stages – an ideal recipe for busy New Yorkers on the go. “If you know how to multi-task, think ahead and do things in stages, then cooking is simple.”
With multiple steps like frying eggplant and then filling a springboard pan with it, parts can be made ahead of time. “On the day you’re baking this, all you need is 20 minutes in the kitchen and then you’re done.”
What’s Your Favorite Summer Dish?
“Crudaiola, which is no-cook pasta. Take very good homemade pasta and seasonal vegetables like cherry tomatoes, garlic and buffalo ricota. I make a marinade and toss it into the pasta. Just boil water and combine it together. It’s delicious.” ~ Donatella Arpaia
“Because I don’t cook with tomatoes all year-round until June, July and August, there’s something about tomatoes and garlic and zucchini. I just love all the summer market vegetables.” ~Terrance Brennan
“Veggie panzanella salad – it’s rustic Italian bread salad. Veggies and a day-old baguette. It’s filling but it’s not too heavy … the perfect summer food.” ~Kelsey Nixon
“It’s got to be those fabulous tomatoes my husband grows with caprese. Fresh basil from his garden, fresh mozzarella … what could be better than that?!” ~Mary Ann Esposito