This is part one of my interview with Fabio Flagiello, exec-chef owner of PastaVino. Part two of my chat with the Boulder chef will run in this space tomorrow.
"There's something about the life of a chef and restaurant owner that's really pleasurable, and there's something magical about the pleasure of feeding people. Food brings happiness," says Fabio Flagiello, chef-owner of PastaVino, an Italian restaurant that opened earlier this year on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall.
And the combination of food -- and feeding people -- has been front and center for Flagiello ever since he was a kid growing up in Italy. "Food is always a big deal in Italy, and it was a very, very big deal in my house," recalls Flagiello. "My mom would make gnocchi and fresh pasta every Sunday, then we'd go to church, stop at the pastry shop on the way home, and the big family meal would be ready as soon as we walked inside the house."
His mother's cooking impressed him, but it was flipping through a culinary magazine and seeing a chef in full whites that set the wheels in motion for a cooking career. "I was nine when I saw that photo and told my mom I wanted to be a chef, and I don't remember now if it was the chef or the roast beef he was cutting that inspired me, but by the time I was fourteen, I was going to culinary school," he recalls.
He graduated at sixteen, and his first real job, which he got by pure chance, was as a garde manger at what was then the most prestigious hotel in Venice: Hotel Danieli. "I had interviewed for a different job, which I got, but something happened -- I can't recall what, exactly -- but the chef asked if I wanted to work in Venice instead, and I had no idea at the time where it was, and when I found out, my jaw dropped to the floor," recollects Flagiello, adding that when word spread, his friends were "speechless."
After four years of being the envy of chefs all over Italy, Flagiello left to travel -- and cook -- around the globe, beginning in France. "I wanted to learn French and English by the time I was 25, and I wanted to see what else the world could offer," he says. He went back to culinary school in Paris and staged in several restaurants before becoming the corporate chef for an Italian company called Pasta Vino, which is no relation to his Boulder restaurant. He eventually left Paris -- but not the company -- and moved to Boston, where he opened the company's first Pasta Vino in the States.
But Boston, he claims, was "boring and cold," so he picked up and headed to Los Angeles, where he became the executive chef of a restaurant that afforded him plenty of face time, cooking for A-list celebrities including Danny DeVito, Madonna and Marlon Brando, whose birthday party Flagiello catered. And if all those notables weren't enough to make him starstruck, being Sting's private chef and training Tony Shalhoub for the actor's chef role in Big Night certainly were. But cooking for stars, Flagiello admits, wasn't all glitz and glamour, and after several years, he waved goodbye to Hollywood. "I was becoming disenchanted with the superficiality of L.A., and once you've cooked for Marlon Brando, who else is there?" he deadpans.
As it turns out, the Michelin guide. Flagiello ended up in San Francisco, where he opened a restaurant that within eight months was rated one of the fifty best "gourmand" restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area by Michelin. But while the accolades couldn't have been more sweet, his relationship with his business partner soured, and Flagiello left the City by the Bay behind...for Boulder.
"I'm a avid cyclist, and my wife was offered a job in Boulder, and as soon we got here, I knew it made sense. It was love at first sight," he says.
His first cooking gig was at Bácaro, an Italian restaurant just a few doors down from PastaVino, and while Flagiello still consults on the menu there, PastaVino is where his dream came true. "What I do here is so rewarding," he says, "and I'm doing what I love -- cooking great Italian cuisine that's very simple, but focused on quality and amazing ingredients."
In the following interview, Flagiello makes a case for the demise of fast food, extols the merits of organs, and gives a shout-out to a Boulder mama who cooks killer Chinese food.
Six words to describe your food: Tasteful, detailed, healthy, updated, interesting and unintimidating.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, friendly, energetic, athletic (sometimes too much so), modest most of the time, never arrogant, and I love to enjoy life, enjoy friends and bring people together. And sometimes I'm just as crazy as any other chef.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Fresh herbs, especially my three favorites: rosemary, sage and basil. I also love white asparagus, mushrooms of any kind, fresh seafood and shellfish (especially scallops and lobster) and organ meats, even if the general public doesn't seem to be very into them.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? All knifes, especially ones used for preparing fish; small whisks; fish-bone tweezers; and heavy cast-iron pans.
Most underrated ingredient: As a Venetian, I think all the organs are way underrated -- things like liver, kidney and tripe -- and that's such a shame, because they're so good if they're prepared the right way. Unfortunately, I don't see many chefs in the United States using organs in their cooking, so maybe it's a difference in the way Americans look at eating organs versus the way Europeans do. I'm not sure what the reason is, but I personally think organs are fantastic.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Heirloom tomatoes, peaches, melons, beets, white asparagus, porcini mushrooms and basil, all of which are produced by local farms both here in the Boulder area and in other areas within the state, and I get them delivered from organic produce companies located in Boulder, Golden and Eldorado.
Favorite spice: Oregano defines any recipe and really makes tomatoes, in particular, come alive. I also like fennel seed and cumin in seafood stews, black sesame seeds for recipes featuring seared fish, and poppy seeds for hearty fillings in recipes. Saffron is essential to traditional and contemporary Italian cuisine, whereas curry and turmeric are essential for non-conventional recipes. Oh, and I really like fresh chervil when I want to use a delicate seasoning.
One food you detest: I seriously can't stand anchovies. I know some people really like them, but they're just too salty, and the taste is overpowering. And can I just mention that they're really smelly?
One food you can't live without: I love the way shellfish tastes, and I've always found that it's exciting to cook with, because there are so many great things you can do with it.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Fast food goes against everything a chef believes in. Chefs believe in the beauty of food; they're passionate about the creation of food; they have a lot of respect for what they're creating; and they have a lot of respect for themselves in general. People eat fast food simply because it's fast -- not because it's cheap, but because it's so easy to get. I think that with a little effort, we can -- and should -- be able to eat good food at a reasonable price. At PastaVino, we offer simple, organic food that's affordable, which is something I strongly believe in. It's food that's good for you -- and good for your wallet.
Favorite childhood food memory: Eating couscous. I grew up with it, and for big occasions at home, my mom still makes it.
Favorite junk food: I can't get enough of French fries.
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Last meal before you die: Lots and lots of gelato and a chocolate soufflé. I want to die happy.