Welcome to the Echo Sixty6 exclusive interview series, Get Loud!.
We’ll be featuring remarkable professionals — from photographers to filmmakers, artists to activists, musicians to businesswomen, doctors to designers, and storytellers to chefs — known for their distinctive work, and their use of social media and digital marketing to spread the word and enhance their brand.
In our inaugural edition, we interview Chef Ric Orlando, a pioneer of the world-famous Hudson Valley farm-to-table movement.
A renowned cook, restaurateur, writer and philanthropist with a rock-and-roll pedigree, showman’s personality and proven dedication to the people, places and products of the Hudson Valley, Chef Ric Orlando has become a leading culinary spokesman and top draw for events, fundraisers and festivals in Upstate New York and across the country and world.
He’s authored We Want Clean Food; perfected Asian-European fusion; produced and starred in the PBS series Ric Orlando’s TV Kitchen; beat Bobby Flay and won Chopped — not once but twice — on The Food Network; cooked with Top Chef Master Ming Tsai on Simply Ming; earned multiple ‘best of’ awards from Thrillist, Hudson Valley Magazine and Albany Times Union; owned local landmark New World Home Cooking in Woodstock and Saugerties, NY, from 1993 to 2018; and helped open Albany hotspot New World Bistro Bar in 2009.
Today, in addition to serving as executive chef and management consultant for New World Bistro Bar (where, every Sunday, the Bobby Flay-beating latkes are on the brunch menu), Chef Orlando is hosting two popular podcasts; writing his memoir; hosting cooking classes; planning spring and summer 2019 restaurant popups on the shores of the Hudson River in Coxsackie, NY; and traversing the world with guest culinary enthusiasts on international food tours (next stop, Sicily!) — while keeping fans up to date on his Instagram, Facebook and other social media accounts.
“I just cooked Indonesian food for Peruvians,” said Chef Orlando. “That about sums it up.”
1. What is it about cooking, and being a chef, that initially inspired you, and what has enabled you to continue on your path for so many years?
I started out in the arts — music, film, photography. I grew up in New Haven and worked in restaurants to pay the bills and have a meal. It was just a job. But I was good at it, always got promoted, and learned more and more. It was fun, but I was more into my band and design work.
As I moved along in the food business, I kept getting tempted to get more involved in it but held back. I moved from basic pubs and sandwich shops to a fancy French restaurant when was I was 19 or 20. It was intriguing because I was learning about culture, food and wine. But again I restricted my access, only working days, because music was my life.
I went to work at the Elm City in New Haven. It was cutting edge for the time — a stainless diner cart that served gourmet food in a diner setting. We were serving everything from duck l’orange to veal piccata to guacamole.
Yet, I left and moved to Boston, pursuing my music career. I got a few basic jobs, including one at a hardcore Jewish deli. I started as a waiter, was promoted to manager, moved into the kitchen, and learned to make kishka.
Then I had a turning point in ‘83 at 24. I moved in with a friend in Cambridge; he was a waiter at Harvest in Harvard Square. Customers included Alan Dershowitz, Isaac Asimov, the Boston Celtics, Faye Dunaway. They had a progressive menu — farm to table. Nobody was doing that at the time. Farmers were coming in, bringing whole pigs. I got involved in the kitchen there, but still insisted on only working days.
Meanwhile, my band, Skin, was doing quite well. We were psychedelic punk funk, and one of the more popular bands in Boston, a great rock and roll city. I kept working at Harvest, but I’d just quit if we had a tour, and then they’d hire me back.
At 26, I decided to get out of the restaurant business and worked for a brief time at a publishing company. After four months, though, I ended up back in a restaurant. I just liked the culture and the daily energy — it was so different from any other job.
Back then, there was no Google, so the chef would leave a note every day with what was available. We’d grab Gourmet, Bon Appetit, cookbooks, whatever we could, doing constant research, testing and experimentation. It was really exciting for me.
In 1988, my wife was pregnant, and we decided to move to New York. I tried to keep the band together, but busing back and forth between New York and Boston, sleeping on couches, only lasted four months.
I ended up managing Sugar Reef for a really amazing restaurant group, Roti Inc., which also owned Gulf Coast, Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Tortilla Flats and others. I worked there for six months, and got my mind blown at how delicious food can be when it’s really authentic — and not just fancy.
We were living in Queens. My wife and I were both working. She’d leave at 6 AM, and I’d get home at 2 AM. Her sister, Marie, lived in Coxsackie, and this was our Upstate hideaway. One Sunday in 1989, we were up visiting again, making a nice dinner, drinking wine, and Marie suggested we try Albany.
We drove up, grabbed a newspaper, looked at apartment prices — there were brownstones renting for $300 to $400 per month! — and immediately put down the first month’s payment. We had no jobs.
I went out job searching, with a modified mohawk, earrings, tattoos… Nobody was going to hire a guy who looked liked me for front-of-house management, period. That’s when the life-changing moment happened.
I walked into a restaurant called Yates Street. The owner, Ken Linden, was basically who I am now, back then. He was in his 50s, I was in my late 20s, early 30s. I was an underground music guy, he was a jazz cat. I applied for a bartending job, and he asked me if I’d run his kitchen. This was my first head chef job.
I still had my music, but I really fell in love with this gig. I worked five days a week, all day. They had amazing product, and were one of the top-rated restaurants. I started getting noticed as a young chef, I started getting press, and I got a little buzz going on.
Four to six months later, in January 1990, I walked into a bar I used to hang around, Justin’s, a popular watering hole on Lark Street, in the funkiest area of the city. I felt at home. The bartender there knew I worked at Yates Street, and the kitchen at Justin’s was a wreck. The owner, Joe Palma, asked me if I wanted to run his kitchen. For the first time in my life, I said, “I’ll run it, if you let me do what I want.”
We made a deal: I promised him I’d keep a hamburger, freshly roasted turkey and roast beef for sandwiches, and shrimp scampi; everything else, I’d do what I want.
I took my experience from Harvest and Roti, and built my own menu. Some of the regulars were pissed, but we were getting new customers. I worked seven days a week and, after three months, the numbers were up 7%. Then we got reviewed in Metro Land, which was like the Albany version of the Village Voice — and they said, ‘this is where food is going; it’s the hottest place in Albany.’
I took my beat-up old ‘70s Volvo from Albany to Manhattan every Monday to get ingredients. I couldn’t even make a curry, otherwise. Nobody was serving anything like this in Albany. And all of a sudden I was a 30-year-old rockstar chef, with a line out the door. A real success story.
But it wasn’t until my second year at Justin’s that I finally looked at my wife and said, “OK, I’m a chef.”
Shortly thereafter, I decided to find my own restaurant.
First, we opened a store in Tannersville, New World Home Cooking Company, where I’d stock Thai, Indian and Southwestern ingredients. We had a mailorder catalog. I was getting known as a foodie entrepreneur, the publicity was great, but money was scarce.
That’s when a friend, Bruce, took me in his car and said, “I have a surprise for you.” He brought me to Zena Road in Woodstock to the old Shirley’s, which had recently closed. It was off the beaten path. I told him, “the kitchen’s too small, the well’s too shallow…”
That night, I went home, had a bottle of wine, and signed the lease.
I spent three months renovating, rounded up $23,000 from friends and family and, on Memorial Day Weekend in 1993 — with $0 in the bank and $3,000 in checks floating around — I opened New World Cooking Company.
We were slammed. I could not believe how busy we were.
In 1997, I met Bill Crowley, an NBC weekend sports director, who lived on Zena Road and frequented the restaurant. One day he asked, “want to be on The Today Show?”
They called me at 10 AM on a Friday and asked if I could be there at 5 that night to set up to record. I would end up on The Today Show nine times over the next five years.
This was the beginning of the internet; I’d get piles of letters from all 50 states from people looking for recipes. I started getting recognized wherever I went. This was the beginning of my understanding that my rock-and-roll persona could translate. I could be a front man.
In 1998, I turned a catering business I’d opened two years earlier on 212 in Saugerties into a bigger New World Home Cooking. We’d brought in a fair amount of money with catering, but the bottom line wasn’t great — and I just hated catering season. A restaurant is like a one-night stand; catering is like an affair that never ends.
We painted, built the kitchen, recruited more staff, and the numbers went through the roof! Being visible on a main road brought in customers who we didn’t even know were there.
We had New World on 212 right outside Woodstock for 20 years and decided to close last year. We made the announcement, did a two-week run, and fed up to 300 people per night. We closed April 8, 2018.
Over the years, my wife had become a lawyer, I had done a PBS series and written a book, I’d won Chopped twice and beaten Bobby Flay on his show, and there were 20 projects sitting on my desktop that I hadn’t started. Every time I wanted to do something new, the restaurant would suck me back in. It became an albatross.
Meanwhile, in 2009, I’d started working as a consultant with Scott Meyer and Annette Nanes, who co-owned Spectrum Theater in Albany. We’d become friends when I was at Justin’s. They bought the brownstone at the end of their block and told me they were opening a restaurant. They licensed the names New World and Ric Orlando, and I began working there 10 days a month, while still working at my restaurant in Saugerties.
Now, I work in the kitchen at New World Bistro Bar one or two nights a week, design all the menus, and do a lot of special events. I’m also blogging, writing, podcasting, developing products, and hosting food tours.
New World Bistro Bar is an amazing success, a money maker. Albany’s a different market. It’s busy every night… Please, make a reservation, I can't promise you a table.
2. What is your greatest career accomplishment?
Even with my PBS series, being named ‘best chef in the Hudson Valley’ numerous times, beating Bobby Flay — most people recognize me for that; when I was in Argentina, two people said, “Hey, you beat Bobby Flay!” — and winning Chopped, I’d have to say my greatest achievement has been creating a legacy. I have a lot of respect for my customers and fans, and how do you create a legacy? You work your ass off, I guess.
There are two types of chefs: the chef who's flamboyant, he's a rockstar, and I admit that's me; and then there's the chef who's also really talented, but he stays behind the scenes — and I don't know if that guy creates a legacy or not.
3. What has been your biggest hurdle?
4. What separates a chef from an incredible home cook?
The word ‘chef’ has been destroyed by The Food Network. A chef, technically, is a managing person, and a cook is a cook. A chef’s job, as defined by Federal labor laws, has to make purchasing and labor decisions.
However, if you want to speak loosely, anybody can cook, but there are many factors to being a chef. A restaurant is a day-in-day-out cycle of buying product, turning your starting product into a finished product, marking up your finished product in a way your customers can can afford it but it still makes you money, taking what hasn’t sold and turning it into the next thing. It’s always a gamble… We're alchemists. We have to use everything. Waste is money out the door.
My father was in construction, but lost his business because he gambled on the horses. He told me, “You gamble every day, you buy product, hire staff, and try to parlay it into a win.”
5. What is one unknown, or lesser known, anecdote from your two times on Chopped or competing against Bobby Flay?
It’s a fascinating process. They record you the whole time you're there, and they create a story after the fact. There were things on Chopped I said at 10 AM in the appetizer round that appeared during the dessert round...
You get a three-minute tour of the pantry, and then you're doing the first round — they should really do a Chopped outtakes episode — and you're literally blinded by the stress. I was screaming, “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” looking for chipotle chiles.
They ask what kind of competitor you are.
On Beat Bobby Flay, the audience producer, who’s responsible for all the people in the rafters, encouraged me to be like Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, and turn to the audience to rev them up. I probably wouldn't have done that instinctively, but it did make good television.
6. What separates you from your competition?
First, I love to entertain. I’m a front man. I love to have an audience, and work an audience. I work for the love, I work for the feedback. I’m much more happy if everyone else is happy. I aim to please.
Second, I’m an avid reader, philosopher and thinker, which has a lot to do with that end of my cooking. It’s not just my hands.
Third, I understand marketing. A menu is not a list of dishes, it’s a seduction tool — it's how you get your customers to not only enjoy the food that day, but want to come back.
There are always new and exciting things happening on the menu, maybe to the detriment of my bottom line. At my restaurants, we focused on celebrating every possible holiday, season and opportunity to show what we could do with food to engage customers in the festivities around the world. New World Home Cooking was the first restaurant to make Mardi Gras a thing in Woodstock. We just had Passover and Easter dinner in Albany. It’s a political thing in a way, showing diversity through the kitchen.
7. On that note, how else do you market yourself and your brand?
We market most things through social media and online, as well as through the restaurant. I also get involved with charitable causes. I encourage chefs all the time to be involved with their community.
I’m part of the Hannaford Chef’s Table with four other chefs. I design a recipe, and lend my face for a cardboard cutout. We raised $850,000 last year to fight child hunger and improve child nutrition.
I also work with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, in Albany. I’ve been doing it every September for more than 20 years, and I also emcee the event now. It started at 50 attendees, and now we have 400.
Does it make me popular? Hell yeah. Does it bring more customers? Yes. But do we raise thousands of dollars every year for people who need it? We certainly do.
8. How do you use social media, and what has it done for you?
I use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I do it for fun, and to keep my personality out there. I promote my food politics and my restaurants. I post about my home meals, as well as my food tours — and, frankly, I’d say 80% of the foot tour sales come from Facebook.
I piss some people off, but I think I make more people happy.
As a publicist said, ‘You are Anthony Bourdain meets Tony soprano.’
9. Yeah, those home meals seem to inspire a lot of engagement. If you had to choose just one, what is your home-cooked seduction meal?
What seduces people the most is when I cook outside, and do stuff that people just don’t do themselves. I use different, uncommon apparatuses, like the time I used a 40-inch paella pan in the snow. In the summer I do a lot of variations on the seafood boil, like when I cooked 20 pounds of head-on shrimp in a giant vessel and then dumped it all out on the table. Those meals seem to get people the most excited.
10. Tell me about your food tour program — where have you been? Where are you going? How do you choose your destinations? How do you determine your itineraries?
Over the years, travel agents had approached me about doing cruises…
I wanted to take people to New Orleans, and we just did our first food tour last fall. It sold out. We went for Halloween. We didn’t just go to restaurants. New Orleans is one of those places that has a reputation for being a wild party town, but it’s so much more, culturally. It’s so deep, so rich, and I wanted to share that. We met so many people layered in the culture and the history. And we're doing it again in the spring.
Our next tour — already sold out — will be in Sicily. My whole family is in the process of getting dual American-Italian citizenship, so I decided I wanted to go there. It’s much more expensive, but we got enough interest. We’re taking 16 people next month – eating, meeting farmers, going to wineries.
We’re also planning a tour of San Francisco, Sonoma and Napa for the first week of November…
I was just in Peru and Argentina for 17 days with Yono Purnomo, who’s Culinary Ambassador for the Indonesian government. He was the first celebrity chef I met in Albany. I cooked my ass off, and got to see the countries, and now Peru is on my map as a possible destination for a future food tour.
It’s not for the money, it’s fun, and sometimes being a guide or being a teacher you learn more at the same time. I’m a food person, not just a restaurant owner. I want to experience, and share those experiences.
11. How about your podcasts?
I have two. One Million Stringbeans is an industry podcast. I tell stories and interview people in the business. Clam Bellies and Apizza is what I call ‘my memoir of eating my way to chefdom.’
I’m writing a memoir in essay format, and my agent, who researched my salability and wants me to get a bigger national audience, recommended I start a blog and podcast. I’m three episodes in, writing about growing up, and how the food I ate as a kid impacted my ascent — or descent — into chefhood. This one’s from the heart.
12. Sounds like a great listen, and you’ve got a smart agent! With that in mind, based on your experience, what’s the number-one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring chef or restaurateur?
You have to care about every single aspect of your job. You have to care about how a person feels from the time they see your sign to the time they leave your restaurant. Empathy is the word — empathy for your customer.
Dinner is no longer a meal, dinner is an experience.
13. Well said, and reminiscent of your comments on the difference between a chef and a cook. It’s about so much more than putting food on a plate… Now, speaking of putting food on a plate, what’s the best dish you’ve ever eaten? Where were you? Who made it? And why was it your favorite?
One of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had was sitting at the kitchen counter at Au Pied de Cochon, Martin Picard’s restaurant in Montreal, which literally translates to “at the foot of the pig.”
I was by myself, literally sitting in the kitchen. He does these crazy seasonal menus. It was spring, and it was all about the foie gras. I was seated between a couple from the art world in Manhattan and two businessmen from the Midwest. We didn’t even know each other, but we shared plates, and ate food so insanely over the top.
I ordered the famous pigs foot and lower shank. He slowly cooks it, cuts it open, takes the bones out, stuffs it with foie gras, and puts it in a wood-fired oven. We also had his ‘duck in a can,’ which has duck breast, foie gras, duck confit, cabbage and potato, all sous vide in the can. The server brings the can to your table, uses an old-fashioned can opener to open it, and lets it all just slide out onto the plate.
It’s the epitome of decadence.
14. Wow, sounds awesome… And now for our final question: when was the last time you were in awe?
When I went to the Mercado Municipal San Isidro in Lima a few weeks ago, I was literally in fucking awe of the produce and fish there. One of the fishmongers was popping open scallops from the shell, squeezing on some lime juice, and we just ate them right there.
For more from Chef Ric Orlando — named the New York Capital Region’s “sexiest chef” — visit his website at RicOrlando.com, or follow him on Instagram at @chefricorlando.