Chef Tony Mantuano: I want my legacy to be “balance”

Over the last decade, I’ve interviewed chefs in empty dining rooms, basement offices, bustling kitchens, city markets, and at packed tasting events. I’ve dined with them and drank with them and befriended them and loved a few of them. We share a penchant for overeating and overworking. And a drive to feed and fortify others that often comes at the expense of our body and soul.

Living with a severe chronic illness forces me to employ restoration; to work at rest and make self-care part of my daily schedule. Being vocal about this required lifestyle, chefs have often confided their health challenges to me; their want for better or less of what hurts.

And so – along with reporting on the future of Italian cuisine stateside or how to update the steakhouse dessert menu – conversations have naturally turned towards how chefs can help inspire other chefs towards that better or less of what hurts.… Which is where chef Tony Mantuano took our discussion when we met a few months back before he officially left Spiaggia, the Chicago restaurant he steered to critical and community acclaim for 35 years.

We started first discussing his generational leadership and affinity for chefs like Missy Robbins – who I’ve admired since interviewing her for Serious Eats years ago and who spoke with me at my book launch event last January. Then, he got a little tough on how we can all soften up a bit.

Tony Mantuano with chef Eric Lees, who’s taken the reins at Spiaggia

Chef Tony Mantuano

Interview taken August, 2019

Jacqueline: What do you hope they [chefs like Missy and Eric] most learned from you as far as cooking skills, leadership skills, etc.? What do you want your legacy to be?

Tony: I think – balance. I want people to know that you can also have a life. You can have a personal life and you can take two days off a week and you do your job. If you need to work six days, you work six days. But you need to know that your personal relationship – whatever it is – is as important as anything else. I’m not going to ask you to work when you have something personal that is important to you. So I’m hoping – I hope – that what I teach people is balance.

Jacqueline: Because I’m an outsider to the actual kitchen, I cannot convince chefs friends of that; they work seven days a week at more than one job because they think that’s the way it *has* to be. They stay at places long after they’ve been unhappy. What do you say to convince that person that it’s okay – it’s right – to shift that balance? What does that person get out of making that hard change?

Tony: First of all, it depends on the age of that cook or that chef- if you’re 27 years old, you’re probably working that hard. And I think that’s probably what you need to do to get ahead.

But at some point, when you learn the basics, and you learn how the kitchen works, and you have enough knowledge, you have to start balancing your life.

And here’s the example: I’ve been married for 37 years. And I don’t know how many chefs can say that – that they’ve been with one person their entire life. And that we still like each other, and we have a great family. I think we lead by example.

At the end of the day, when you get to be my age – not that I feel old – but when you’ve been around long enough, all that other stuff’s not important. Who do I go home to? Who do I travel with? Who do I talk to about getting my Italian citizenship, which Cathy and I did in moving to Italy and raising sheep and growing olive trees in a region no one’s ever heard about, not even Italians. (Molise. No one knows about Molise. It’s just between Abruzzo and Puglia, right on the coast. It’s so beautiful. And Cathy’s family is from there, so we have a lot of friends there.).

When you’re starting to turn 60, what do you want to do? Do you want to keep doing this? You won a James Beard Award, you have a Michelin star. You’ve made enough money. What do you want to do? You want to keep working? I mean, I love what I do and I love working with young people. But at the same time, I’d rather not get a phone call at 9 a.m. on a Monday and questioning why this person isn’t that this, you know, whatever.

Jacqueline: So as an executive, what do you have to do to make that happen? Because I see executive chefs in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who just haven’t figured out how to make that happen. I think there’s a lot of residual pressure, still, from what the industry puts on you all because it’s a seven-day-week industry demand. So how do you make that happen?

Tony: It’s a good point. And again, I think part of it has to do with where we are in Chicago and the talent that we can foster — that’s a part of it.

I also just think you’ve got a call bullshit on people sometimes, you know? I mean, when you get to that level, when people pressure you: “I’m not gonna do that.” I think that’s one thing Missy’s really good at — she has no problem sayin, “That’s really stupid.” You’ve got to be very comfortable and confident. I don’t know. I’m not really answering your question…

Jacqueline: No you are. I think sometimes it can be that simple.

Tony: Call bullshit. “Do it yourself. You don’t like it? Get somebody else.” It’s not an arrogance thing because they know they can count on you all the time, but you only call their bullshit when it’s really bullshit.

Jacqueline: Yeah, and working every day, week after week is bullshit.

Tony: I mean, I’ve done that. We’ve all done it. But at some point, I also want to stay married and I want to be happy.

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