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Interview with Gina DePalma, Executive Pastry Chef at Babbo Ristorante (Part One)

23 Nov

ginadepalma1.jpgAs I mentioned yesterday, I’m cooking up an exciting contest for you where you’ll have a chance to win a personalized, signed copy of Dolce Italiano, the new Italian dessert cookbook by Gina DePalma. Aren’t you curious to know more about the author? I was, so I threw some interview questions her way and have the results for you in a 3-part series starting today. Enjoy!

1) Your first cookbook has been out for about a month now… how are you feeling?

I am basically a lump of raw emotion. It was actually released a little early; the warehouse ships the books to retailers on a certain date and anytime after that it can appear on shelves. I found out it was out while I was home, watching Dancing With The Stars on my couch with my two cats when my agent called me. It was after 9PM, and my agent never calls me that late, so I picked up the phone with fear of what might be going on, and he said, “I am walking my dog in the West Village and your book is in the window of a bookstore.” I can’t tell you the rush that went through me. It was fantastic. Since then I have been on a whirlwind mini-book tour on the West Coast, I have done some radio interviews and received some really positive press attention. So basically, I am trying to enjoy the ride and I feel incredibly blessed to be on the bus.

2) Lots of people probably think that working for a famous restaurant in NYC is pretty glamorous. Would they be right? How would you sum it up?

Ha! Those are the people who are flooding the cooking schools and dreaming of some other glamorous life. It is great to be at a restaurant like Babbo because the food is so wonderful, and the service is excellent, and the wine list is gigantic. It is not really about glamour, it is about being proud of what we do, and that we have been doing it for ten years. When you are on the inside, constantly striving to maintain that level of excellence, I find that it is hard to really grasp that it is a “famous” place. It is my job, my workplace, and like any other workplace, it has its ups and downs. Working in any restaurant is hard life. Long hours on your feet, lots of repetitive tasks that must be done with precision and consistency, constant pressure. The challenge is to keep the passion for this kind of life going, to be able to miss time with your family, time to yourself. And then there is the low salary. It is a lot of sacrifice.

3) Tell us one of your most amusing behind-the-scenes kitchen stories.

Hmm…. I’ve got a few. But I am not a kiss-and-tell type of girl. I once fell asleep standing up, and the entire kitchen thought that was pretty funny. They took a picture of me, leaning against the wall, snoozing. I think I worked a double, 20-hour shift that day. Yeah. Funny. Ha Ha.

4) What was the most difficult situation you’ve had to handle so far in your career as a chef? What did you learn from the experience?

Well, being a chef is a series of difficult situations that you come face to face with, and if you are good at it, and are strong, you meet the challenges head on and overcome them. Then they don’t seem so difficult anymore, and you meet up with the next challenge.

If I can generalize, I would have to say that my biggest challenge is finding good staff. Not everyone is cut out for the life of a cook, or they have unrealistic expectations, or they can’t withstand the physical demands, or the stress, or the monotony. Unfortunately, most prospective employees don’t come with a warning sign around their necks that says “I will give up on this job in four months after you have broken your back training me.” I always hire people with every intention of it being a success for both of us, and sometimes it turns out to be a disaster, and let me tell you, it is always heartbreaking. I think this goes back to the second question and the challenge of this kind of work. It is somewhat of a crap shoot when you hire someone – that they have what it takes to go the distance. It is also a question of chemistry. Every kitchen has its own balance and one person who doesn’t quite fit can throw the entire operation sideways. So finding people who both fit the puzzle piece and have staying power is a HUGE challenge.

5) How has the NYC chef world evolved since you first started?

Oh my gosh. It is virtually unrecognizable. When I first started, the Food Network didn’t exist, there weren’t really “celebrity” chefs as we know them today, and there were about 10 super great restaurants that a young cook was hungry to work at. And now, of course, that has changed 360 degrees on all counts. The upshot is that in the flood of new cooks, new restaurants and new chefs, there have been some real superstars emerging. But there has also been a flood of mediocrity. The media can hype a place up and then it may not deliver. That kind of worries me sometimes, because it lowers the bar of excellence for all of us. But in the end, the diners—who have become even savvier and food-conscious (or crazed, depending on your perspective)—ultimately decide who will succeed and who won’t. As long as that is the case, I think we are A-OK. And New York has some competition, I think, from places like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Each of those cities has a vibrant, educated food scene and excellent local products.

…Stay tuned, more coming tomorrow!


Dolce Italiano CONTEST Preview

22 Nov


Yep, it’s about time for a good old-fashioned giveaway here at AHIR. This is actually a contest that I cooked up (no pun intended, you’ll see…) back in late September, but the supplies (books) for getting it rolling took two months to arrive! However, the timing might even be better now, considering that this contest is all about making delectable Italian desserts (don’t worry, to enter all you have to do is admire them with a simple blog comment), some of which would probably be just PERFECT for that holiday party you have planned, or for warming up your kitchen on these chilly days. Might I also add that the book featured in this contest would certainly make for an easy, beautiful, and sure-to-be-appreciated holiday gift? Yes, I might.

So?! What the heck is the Dolce Italiano contest, anyways, you ask?

Well, allow me to explain. I feel very lucky to count among my friends just a few true EXPERTS in the fields of Italian food and wine. Since last summer I have been fortunate enough to develop a friendship with an all-around truly delightful woman who just so happens to be a goddess of Italian desserts as well. (Lucky me, I know!) Not only that, but shhhhh… she’s famous!! (She probably wouldn’t agree with me, but she’s famous in my book!)

Have you ever heard of Mario Batali? If you live in the States, I’m betting you have. He of the orange clogs and blue socks, master of Italian culinary creations, and Iron Chef to boot.

What about Babbo Ristorante in NYC? Temple of fine Italian cooking where I dream of one day sitting down to a nice plate of pasta and… let’s not forget dessert…

Which is where my friend Gina comes in! Gina DePalma has been the executive pastry chef at Babbo since it opened in 1998, and has just released her first cookbook, Dolce Italiano. The book is getting truly rave reviews from both professionals in the field and reader chefs, just came in an impressive #3 on Amazon’s Best Books of 2007 (Cooking, Food and Wine), and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the Best Books of the Year (Lifestyle).

Now I know you want one, don’t you??

I have joined forces with four other fantastic bloggers to bring you a chance to win this book, and along the way, to admire and perhaps even try your hand at making up to 10 different recipes from this amazing Italian dessert masterpiece.

Every day for the next two weeks (starting next Monday), one member of the aforementioned Dolce Italiano Blogger Team will be featuring a recipe from Gina’s Dolce Italiano cookbook. We’ll have Ms. Adventures in Italy on Mondays, Lucullian Delights on Tuesdays, Bleeding Espresso on Wednesdays, back here on Thursdays, and The Leftover Queen on Fridays. All you have to do to enter the contest is stop by, check out the post, and leave a comment! Semplice!

You can therefore enter up to 10 times to win the cookbook, which, by the way, will be personalized and signed just for you by Gina herself!!

You can only enter once on each post (two comments or more will count as one entry) and the winner will be randomly chosen by number from among all the entries.

Get excited, this is going to be fun!

Tomorrow I am going to introduce you to Gina through a charming interview in three parts, which should keep you entertained and intrigued throughout the Thanksgiving weekend.

So, I wish all you Americans a very Happy Thanksgiving, everyone else a great weekend, and get ready to start dreaming of Italian desserts!