SLICE OF SOTTO {Our New Chef de Cuisine, Craig Towe}

 

A note from Chef Steve:
I had been looking for the right chef to take the lead at Sotto while I focused on Rossoblu for a while. Craig Towe proved to be the right person for the job. After working with him in Sotto's kitchen and then traveling together throughout Italy, I was able to immediately appreciate his passion for cooking, his experience with Italian food, and his commitment to family. More so, after more time in the kitchen, he showed a rare maturity and quiet leadership. These have always been core to Sotto’s values. I feel extremely lucky that Craig has joined the family to stay the course and help us grow.

How long have you been cooking professionally?

I've been cooking for 11 years

You've been making Italian dishes for a long time. What drew you to this particular type of cuisine?

When I began cooking, I had no idea what type of food I wanted to cook. I just wanted to work at the best restaurants where I could to learn as much as possible. The third restaurant that I worked at (Vespaio Ristorante in Austin, TX), was the first time that I had cooked Italian food. It really embraced the Italian spirit and using the ingredients that were available at the market. We were a very seasonal Italian restaurant, so I was learning how to handle each ingredient, and exactly what I could do with them. Vespaio worked closely with a few farmers, so we would get a whole hog every Monday, and would routinely receive lamb, ducks, chickens, goats, etc. It was my time at Vespaio that made me fall in love with Italian cuisine.

Prior to studying at the Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, TX you had a 9-5. What was the moment you realized that that kind of life wasn't made for you?

Oh, I knew right away that 9-5 life wasn't for me. I had worked in restaurants since I was 16, but had always been a server. I didn't know how to cook, or really even start learning until college. I wanted to finish up my marketing degree and try to get a job with it, but I knew deep down that I wouldn't last long in that line of work.

Many people switch careers throughout life. Do you have any regrets of getting a BA in Marketing from Texas State University? Has what you learned in college helped you become a better chef?

I don't necessarily regret getting my bachelor's degree, as it taught me to be disciplined, how to prioritize and multi-task, but I have thought about it from time to time. I would have had a few more years experience cooking, and possibly have been able to cook abroad if I had started younger.

A highly skilled chef makes cooking and plating look effortless, you are one of those chefs. Can you share a moment, from any of the restaurants you worked at, where things got a little too hot in the kitchen?

Well, as I said, I've been cooking for 11 years, with 7 of those being in NYC. There have been many times when things have gotten "hot" in the kitchen. I've seen plates thrown across the room, been yelled at and belittled in front of peers, and have seen quite a few people brought to tears. I've seen 2 girls fight and try to choke each other, and some really gnarly burns and cuts. It all comes with the job. There are many times when things get intense in the kitchen, but these are also many of the same reasons that people like me love it so much. You just don't get that if you're not in the industry.

You worked at some amazing restaurants such as A Voce, Marea, Ristorante Morini and Osteria Morin. Now you are here at Sotto! Before coming here, which restaurant was your favorite to work in and why?

Well, this is somewhat of a catch 22. Working at A Voce, under Chefs Missy Robbins and Hillary Sterling, was the toughest kitchen that I've ever worked in. Every day was crazy intense and stressful. Many of the things I mentioned above happened in that kitchen. For about the first 6 weeks that I was working there, I was planning on walking in and quitting every single day. It was just so intense, and mentally exhausting. But, we were a family. We all pushed ourselves and were striving for a common goal. Most of us worked doubles Monday through Friday, and then were dinner only on Saturday. We were closed on Sundays, so we all went out every Saturday night to celebrate the end of the work week. It was just such a great crew of line cooks, all with tons of ambition, and as much as our chef's pushed us, we pushed them to be better and teach us more as well. Most of the cooks that I worked with at A Voce are all running their own kitchens today. So, while it was the toughest kitchen and the most mentally & physically challenging job I've ever had, it was also the kitchen that taught me how to be a chef and hold yourself accountable for your own work. They taught me how to push yourself and how to accept nothing but the best. If you don't have standards, you simply will not be successful.

You've moved around a lot in your career. From Texas to Philly to NYC. You moved to Philly to help open a restaurant, but why did you decide to move to NYC?

The restaurant that I helped a friend open in Philly was my first departure from cooking Italian food in a few years. We were doing the whole "modernist" approach to food, and it just felt very robotic to me. I wasn't cooking with any soul, or love involved. I was only there six months and was really just missing cooking Italian food. Being in Philly, I was already so close to NYC, and from the moment I made up my mind to move there, I was determined to work at the best Italian restaurants the city had to offer.

You left NYC to study the history and techniques of pasta at world renowned La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese in Bologna. That is a big jump! What prompted such a major decision? How are you applying those techniques at Sotto?

I had been cooking Italian food for nearly 8 years, and had never been to Italy. Working under really talented chef's and cooking Italian food is one thing, but going over there and just immersing yourself in the Italian culture is something completely different. It's something that I should have made time to do a lot sooner, but I guess I'll just have to start going every year or two. I met up with chef Steve and some of the Rosso Blu crew in Bologna, and we traveled around Emilia-Romagna eating and drinking until we couldn't anymore. It was an amazing experience, and I think I probably gained 10 lbs. I stayed behind in Bologna for another week after they left and studied the art of handmade pasta at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese. It was a great learning experience and something that I had really wanted to do. I learned some really invaluable tricks and techniques.

When you returned from Bologna you came to Sotto. Why did you choose Sotto out of all the other Italian restaurants in Los Angeles?

Chef Craig: When my wife Melody & I moved to LA from NYC, we signed a short-term lease b/c I didn't know where I was going to be working. We happened to live off Pico, about 5 minutes from Sotto. We had eaten there a few times and really liked it. Obviously the food was amazing, but I was also really drawn to the room. It felt like a restaurant should feel, and with the dark wood, I just really loved it. I happened have worked with a friend at Marea, in NYC, who is involved with Rosso Blu, and I asked him to pass my resume along to Chef Steve. I think it was meant to be.

What is the difference between Southern Italian cooking and Northern Italian cooking?

There are many differences between Southern & Northern Italian cuisines, and between regions all across the country, but these are some general differences.

Sauces: Southern: tomato-based
Northern: Pesto, or cream-based

Pasta: Southern: almost exclusively made without egg. Only water and semolina, maybe a little olive oil. Usually dried and have more chew.
Northern: prefer egg noodles, and generally fresh pasta

Olive Oil vs. Butter: the South is a poorer region than the North, so you will see olive oil used here, whereas you will see more butter and cream used in the north.

Spice: Northerner's don't have a fond liking of spice, whereas in the Southern regions you will find copious use of chili's.