What got you into the culinary field? Did you always know you wanted to attend culinary school and why did you choose ICC specifically?
I tried out the traditional college education route, but I quickly realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m not one to sit still for hours on end in a classroom. I wanted to find something where I could be active, busy and productive in my own way— culinary school was the answer for me. From day one, it just felt right. The first day when I put on a uniform and showed up to class, I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
As far as why I chose ICC specifically, it really had to do with the faculty. Take, for example, the founding Deans of ICC— Jacques Pépin, Jacques Torres, Alain Sailhac, and André Soltner. They are basically the godfathers of French cooking. If I were going to play on a football team, I’d want to join the Patriots. It’s a similar sentiment. From the chef instructors, the people who built ICC, to the alumni that have graduated and gone on to do really incredible things, I think all of their resumes speak for themselves.
What was your fondest memory of attending culinary school?
My fondest memory was really the day to day experience of traveling to and from the school. ICC is an amazing school in the middle of Soho, Manhattan. You walk off of Broadway, go up to the locker room, get changed, head into class, and when you leave you’re dumped back onto the streets of Manhattan. It was incredible.
How do you think your classical French training has influenced you in the kitchen?
I own predominantly French restaurants, so my French training has been extremely useful. Even with my restaurant George’s Chophouse, which offers a more American concept, the basics are rooted in French cuisine. Take the mac and cheese at George’s, for example. I learned to make a roux in culinary school and that’s how we make mac and cheese in the Chophouse.
What led you to open your first restaurant?
I really just wanted to run my own show, have my own team and a restaurant of my own.
How do you view your role as chef/owner of three restaurants?
First and foremost, I consider myself a teacher. Every day, I come into my restaurants wanting to inspire my staff to do well, both in front of house and back of house, and encourage them to want to do better than they did yesterday. My role is much like a team captain keeping my players motivated, working toward the same common goal and doing so the right way, without taking shortcuts.
What is it like managing your time between the three restaurants in different locations?
I schedule my time based on the needs of each restaurant. For example, if I have fifty reservations on the books at my restaurant Duck Duck Goose in Baltimore, and I know I have a fully staffed kitchen and front of house, plus managers are there, chances are they don’t really need me there that night. However, say George’s Chophouse in Bethesda has the same number of reservations, but I’m down a line cook, a dishwasher called in sick that morning, and one of my managers isn’t feeling so hot, I’ll choose to spend my time there instead.
What have you learned from owning such successful restaurants, specifically Duck Duck Goose?
I’ve learned there’s nothing more important than building up the team of people you choose to work for you. No matter how good you are, you cannot work 365 days per year, 7 days per week. And when you’re not there, the way your team feels about you will show in the product they serve when you’re not around.
You recently cooked a 5 course dinner at the James Beard House that bridged your love of French Cuisine and added a modern twist. What was it like to cook at the James Beard House? Did you ever think that you’d end up there?
I remember showing up to orientation at culinary school where they told us we might be able to volunteer at the James Beard House to help some of the notable chefs that go through there. I definitely never thought I’d end up serving dinner at the James Beard House. Cooking that dinner was a very intense and exhilarating experience. As a chef, I’ve cooked a lot of ‘make or break’ meals, for example the opening night of a restaurant. But as soon as I got a call from the James Beard House, I realized every other meal I’ve ever cooked did not matter at all, and I’m going to be cooking on hallowed ground. It was very, very intense, but also incredible. I am very thankful for the opportunity and experience.
What is the best part about opening a new restaurant?
Opening a restaurant is essentially the culmination of to-do lists that are thousands and thousands of items long. The best part is the sense of relief once opening night has arrived. The checkered flag drops and you know you’ve checked off every item off of every list and now it’s show time.
What advice would you give to young Al on his first day of culinary school?
I would tell myself to keep my head down and just work on being a phenomenal cook. A lot of people go to culinary school thinking they’re going to become a world-changing chef. But I think priority one should be to master being a great cook first. Learn how to run a good station and how to do the small things right first. If you focus on being a good cook and have a shred of talent or a sliver of creativity, I believe becoming a great chef will follow after that.
What is your favorite dish to cook for yourself at home?
Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and something green.
What or who inspires you the most?
I am very inspired by Marco Pierre White. He’s the kind of chef that I think that other chefs should aspire to be, just considering the amount of passion he brings to the table. He embodies the idea that the chef is just another cook.
Who were you inspired by while in culinary school at ICC?
When I attended ICC, there were two instructors there by the name of Jeff Butler and Pascal Béric (ICC note: they’re still teaching here today!). I had the good fortune of learning from them through a lot of my time there. The intensity and precision with which they work is incredible. Even today, if I cut a fish, I’m doing it the way Chef Jeff showed me. When I make sausage, I’m using Chef Pascal’s techniques. Those two instructors are what being a chef and cook is all about.