Q & A With Whist Chef Tony DiSalvo: Homemade Meatballs, Sicilian Roots + Tales Of A Private Chef
From W Hollywood's Delphine to The Montage's Scarpetta to The Four Seasons' Culina, transforming L.A.'s hotel restaurants from forgettable to five-star is seemingly becoming routine. Now Tony DiSalvo (Gramercy Tavern, Jean Georges, Jack's) is making his mark as executive chef of Whist, inside Santa Monica's Viceroy hotel. We talked to the Sicilian chef about his inspiration behind Whist's new Mediterranean menu, how long it takes to make 1000 meatballs, and why he'll never, ever work as a private chef again.
Viceroy Whist's Executive Chef Tony DiSalvo
Squid Ink: So where were you before you joined Whist?
Tony DiSalvo: I spent seven years at Jean Georges, from 1997 to 2004, working my way up from a line cook, to eventually, spending the last three years as executive chef. Â In 2004, I moved to La Jolla, California, to open Jack's. After a few years I left La Jolla and went back to New York to cook as a private chef for five years. It was a really tough; some of the clients were pretty bad so I came back to Southern California and joined Whist in August 2009.
SI: How did working in a NYC kitchen compare to L.A.?
TS: I actually work longer days here than I did in New York; I'm [at Whist] about 12-14 hours a day. In New York, I rolled in around noon and was done by 10 p.m. But that was also when I wasn't executive chef when I was at Jean George. The talent pool was much more concentrated and everyone was really disciplined. But I had to add on a two-hour commute since I was going from NYC to Westchester County. Now I just ride my bike five miles to work, although it takes me twice as long to ride home at night because I'm so tired. It's also hard to bike home when you're all sweaty from the kitchen and have to bike home in the cold.
C. Bishop Chef DiSalvo's Garlic Shrimp
SI: When did you start revamping the menu?
TD: Any time a new chef takes over, he/she works very hard to get the menu changed as fast as possible to his own food. I had a plan in place and start to finish it took about 6 weeks. There was a lot of training involved, plus in a hotel, there are a lot more parts than in a freestanding restaurant.
SI: What were the biggest changes you wanted to make?
TD: The first change was a smaller menu. Eight apps and eight entrees. The menu grew gradually, since then, and now we are up to about 30 items. There are a lot of options, at many price points. Portion sizes vary as well, from shareable bites to large, hearty entrees like the glazed lamb shank. There are two parts to the menu; a casual part and a more refined part. The whole menu now offers a more casual way to eat, because it's mostly small plates geared for sharing like the meatballs, flatbread and garlic shrimp. At the same time, there are more refined dishes that still make the restaurant a good place for special occasions. But we really wanted to make a lot of changes to the place, because it was... pretty stuffy. But we're trying to change that and give it a much more casual feel. We get a lot of [The Viceroy's] hotel guests eating here, but we also get a lot of locals. We want to cater to them.