Cafe Society

Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban chef Andrew Selvaggio : "You don't learn a trade; you steal it"

Andrew Selvaggio Live Basil Pizza, Tom's Urban and Smashburger,,

This is part one of my interview with Andrew Selvaggio, chef of Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban; part two of my chat with Selvaggio will run tomorrow.

"Food was a huge part of my life, of my family culture, of ritual and reward," remembers Andrew Selvaggio, the 55-year-old corporate executive chef of the sprawling Smashburger chain, Live Basil Pizza and Tom's Urban. Raised in Chicago, Selvaggio was born and bred into a family of restaurateurs: His dad owned a bakery and his grandfather ran a pastry shop. They, along with Julia Child and Graham Kerr (Selvaggio admits he couldn't tear himself away from old-fashioned food TV), paved the way for his future in cooking -- a successful future that started in the tiny kitchen of La Petite Cuisine, a long-gone French restaurant in Illinois.

See also: Live Basil Pizza opens today in Glendale with a new look -- and new things to come

"I wanted to go to culinary school at the CIA, but it was prohibitively expensive, so I got an apprenticeship at this lovely French restaurant, where I learned how to make crepes, ratatouille and quiche Lorraine," recalls Selvaggio, who then returned to the family business and helped his father open a second restaurant. By the time he was 21, Selvaggio estimates, he had done time in close to a dozen restaurants. "I couldn't stop -- I was always cooking," he says.

In his early twenties, Selvaggio moved to Arizona, where he cooked at OC Seven Restaurant & Bar, which was owned by retired Baltimore Orioles pitcher and current MLB sportscaster Steve Stone. And when he wasn't on the line there, he was a consulting chef for the Sheraton Hotel and Spa in Santa Barbara, an idyllic city to which he eventually moved for a full-time exec-chef position, a job he held for six years. But while Santa Barbara is lovely, Selvaggio fell out of love with the Sheraton, admitting that he'd become stagnant, so he returned to Chicago, taking a head-chef position at the Pump Room. "At the time, it was the only restaurant in the city that had dinner and dancing, and we used to get all sorts of celebrities in there," including Frank Sinatra, remembers Selvaggio.

And then Selvaggio's career led him to a multi-billion-dollar company, whose around-the-world burgers are also sold by the billions. "While I was at the Pump Room, I was also helping Kendall College, a culinary-arts school in Chicago, with placing interns at the restaurant, and the internship coordinator mentioned that there was an opportunity at McDonald's Corporation for an executive-chef job," says Selvaggio, whose reaction was far different from what you might expect. Instead of lumping McDonald's into the category of crap food for the masses, Selvaggio saw an unparalleled opportunity to make his mark. "I thought about the amazing potential of having a huge influence on what Americans eat," Selvaggio explains. McDonald's "was like a college education for me, because I learned everything that happens on the grand scale, from the field all the way to the marketplace, and I got hired because of my ability to take current trends and translate that into food that McDonald's customers would enjoy." During his ten-year tenure at the burger giant, he was also featured as an answer on Jeopardy. How many people can lay claim to that?

Not even Tom Ryan, the founder of Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban, whose charisma, business sense, marketing savvy and visionary prowess lured Selvaggio away from McDonald's, where Ryan was employed as the chief concept officer.

"Four years into it, Tom joined the team, and he turned everything upside down, all for the better," says Selvaggio, who immediately hit it off with Ryan, so much so that when Ryan left for Denver to do concept development for Quizno's, Selvaggio was right behind him. And things were going well, but Ryan, whose brain never stops spinning, had a lightbulb moment that would soon smash the world: a burger concept called Smashburger, the first of which opened in Denver in 2007. Ryan hired Selvaggio as his vice-president of product innovation.

Tassa, a fast-casual pizza joint in Boulder, followed in 2011 but closed a year later. And out of those ashes, says Selvaggio, "rose Live Basil," a similar pizza concept that's quickly expanding throughout Colorado. "We want to create a point of difference between us and everyone else by using nothing but high-quality, authentic, imported, all-natural and local ingredients that taste great," says Selvaggio, who in the following interview likens his dad's mozzarella to forbidden fruit, argues that butter is better, and explains why sous-chefs -- not chefs -- deserve all the credit.

Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Andrew Selvaggio: I was in kindergarten and living in Chicago, where my father owned a bakery in the Italian neighborhood. The bakery was full of fresh-baked aromas...I remember fresh Danish, Italian cookies and seeing cakes being decorated, although the one particularly special memory I recall is the fresh mozzarella. Jimmy, my father, reached into a large oak barrel filled with a milky water and pulled out this wet, white ball and took a big bite out of it. I asked what it was, and he said "mutzarelle," and then he gave me a ball so I could taste it for myself. It was cold, creamy, salty and full of fresh dairy flavor. The brine ran down my chin as I took the second and third bite, and once my father saw the expression on my face, he told me that only he could get the cheese; I wasn't allowed to get my own or else I'd get in trouble. It was sort of like forbidden fruit.

Ten words to describe you: Father, funny, Italian, loyal, focused, experienced, honest, self-effacing, nurturing and optimistic.

Five words to describe your food: Real, authentic, flavorful, satisfying and relevant.

Your favorite smell in the kitchen: When I walk into our newest restaurant, Live Basil Pizza, and the cooks are making our imported and organic San Marzano pizza sauce with live basil, fresh garlic and sea salt. That, combined with the aroma of our roasted organic mushrooms and the fragrant aroma of oak smoke, is amazing.

What are your ingredient obsessions? Whole, unsalted butter to mount sauces and melted butter brushed on breads and buns, which creates that wonderful caramelized flavor. I also like it clarified and mixed with olive oil to sauté with, or infused with flavor, like in our salted caramel butter that we top our pancakes with at Tom's Urban. I jokingly tell my staff: "If anything happens to me, God forbid, whatever you do, never stop using butter."

One ingredient you won't touch: Marjoram. I must have had a bad experience with this herb in a former life, or perhaps I was burned at the stake and it was used to start the fire. No matter how I attempt to use it, dry or fresh, it just seems to be too assertive for my taste. I made beef Bourguignon when I was apprenticing at a restaurant called La Petite Cuisine in Illinois, and one time, I added too much marjoram, and it ruined me for life. I wonder if they have such a thing as a culinary counselor to work through the food issues that chefs have.

Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd love to see the resurgence of tableside preparations, and I'd also love to see Denver do a restaurant like NEXT in Chicago, which changes its menu all the time and then sells tickets to its dinner events. The current menu is Chicago steak, and I feel like there's some great talent in Denver who could pull it off.

Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I look at food trends as exactly that: a direction where something is either developing or changing. It could be directly related to the food itself, or to a specific diet preference or ingredient. I feel there has been -- and always will be -- a natural swing of consumer desires based on their personal needs. Guests will reward those restaurants that give them what they want with their continued loyalty and increased visits. The challenge is to have an awareness of trends and how you can incorporate them into your business without being on the fringe. I'd like to see more freedom given to restaurants to prepare and present food to their customers without the threat of being overregulated.

Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: At home, it's my four-quart heavy-bottom saucepot, which I use to make my traditional Italian tomato sauce, aka "gravy," as our family called it. If you took that away from me, I'd be lost. At work, I love working with new restaurant equipment, but I always turn to my Robot Coupe, especially with the bowl attachment. It's great for all types of blending and chopping -- you name it, it does it -- and it's a great time-saver. There's also something to be said about having a great chef's knife and some good knife skills to go with it.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A can of Heinz Spotted Dick sponge pudding, which Tom Ryan gave to me.

Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A copy of Le Repertoire de La Cuisine, by Louis Saulnier, which is available in both English and French. I found it instrumental in the development of my culinary style. That and a big can of Garrett's Chicago Mix popcorn.

What's your fantasy splurge? Participate in -- and attend -- the Hand's Tourney Feast as listed on, from Game of Thrones, the book. I'm a big fan. The menu: "Aurochs that roasted for hours, kitchen boys basted them with butter and herbs until the meat crackled and spit; tables piled high with sweetgrass, strawberries, and fresh-baked bread. A thick soup of barley and venison; salads of sweetgrass and spinach and plums sprinkled with crushed nuts; snails in honey and garlic; sweetbreads and pigeon pie, baked apples fragrant with cinnamon, and lemon cakes frosted in sugar."

If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? It wouldn't be a restaurant; I'd fly to Acerra, a city outside of Naples, which would take me back to my family roots. I'd be invited to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts at the home of a local family who practice and celebrate the Italian food traditions of the season. I'd participate in the shopping and preparation and immerse myself in what would be the rich culinary heritage of Italy.

If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It would be in a coastal town with a vineyard and olive trees. The restaurant dining room would extend out to a veranda, where it would overlook the ocean and sunset, and the food would be as local as possible and not pretentious. Think rustic Italian, spit-roasted meats, seafood, fresh pastas, house-cured meats and Italian pastries. It would be reminiscent of the restaurants in Florence with the old-world charm of Naples. And, of course, there would be great wine and lots of limoncello.

If you could train under chef in the world, who would it be? I've always admired the straightforward approach of Jonathan Waxman's style. His less-is-more approach brings out the true nature of the food he's prepared, and I'd love to spend some time in his kitchen at Barbuto.

What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? "You don't learn a trade; you steal it." One of my relatives always used to say that when I was a kid. If you want to be a chef, take the blinders off; be aware of what's going on in the kitchen; don't pigeonhole yourself in a defined role; ask questions; and make mistakes and learn from them. Go to culinary school if it's within your means; otherwise search for restaurants where you can work and learn -- and seek out the ones that are doing it right so you can learn from the best. And don't be a floater: There's something to be said about a person who's committed and loyal. Along that same vein, if you find yourself stagnating, then find another kitchen that energizes you. Last but not least, leave on good terms and don't burn bridges.

What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? While I leave it to others to hire kitchen staff, I always walk through the restaurants we operate, and I can always tell the one person who's the extrovert, full of desire and hungry for knowledge -- that someone who has high personal standards and is focused, loyal and dedicated. As far as skills go, I hope they have some base knowledge of ingredients and some basic knife skills. But if you have desire, you've won half the battle.

Which talent do you most wish you had? I've always wanted to have the same level of talent as my grandfather Salera. He owned a bakery in Chicago, Sarno's Pastry Shop, where he made these amazing wedding cakes that resembled churches in Europe. He handmade all the lattice for the cakes, marzipan and pastry, and even made his own spumoni in the basement while churning the ice cream by hand standing in ice water in waders. My father married the baker's daughter.

If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Being raised in a family restaurant is all I know, although in retrospect, I was always interested in cinematography and making stop-action animation. It's very creative and involves making the vision of a screenplay into a reality.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson