WCNY: What is it like producing a television series in your home?
Chef Stellino: It was to say the very least, a bit of a nightmare. We have a lot fine antiques and delicate pieces of Sicilian Pottery, which had to be taken down from their display in the morning and put back at night. Every piece of furniture was moved around I felt as if my home was invaded everyday by an order of barbarians!
WCNY: What time does your crew arrive?
Chef Stellino: I would get out of bed around 5 a.m. and the crew would arrive at 8 a.m. We started shooting at 10 a.m. and the day usually would end around 7 p.m.
WCNY: What was your favorite moment when you produced the first episode?
Chef Stellino: There was a moment during the break when I saw the crew not eating from the catering truck. Instead, they were all standing in line in front of my cooked food which we had made for the shows, waiting to be fed… the catering truck did not last long!
WCNY: What’s your favorite dish in this episode, why?
Chef Stellino: My favorite was Tortellini alla Panna because it was quite a festive dish of my youth. Furthermore being a true “ Northern” dish it was only served for special occasions, in spite of the fact it was readily available. My father was a stickler for Sicilian Food and my mom, a northerner herself, loved cooking southern food, and she was very good at it!
WCNY: What do you do with the food from each episode after you’re done making it?
Chef Stellino: By the time the director yells “cut” after the final plating scene, the food disappears as fast as ice melting in the Sahara desert, only we call it : “A Stellino-induced feeding frenzy!”
WCNY: What’s a typical day like on set in your home?
Chef Stellino: Stressful, exhausting, rewarding and I am always sad when we finish. For a few hours, time seems to stand still and there is such an incredible, connection with all the members of our crew that we move in unison like a professional football team at the super bowl. Being part of a team is a most rewarding experience, leading that team to greatness is an ambition of mine with every step I take. You cannot be telling people how great you are and expect their respect. You lead by example by stepping into every challenging situation as the first one through the door, for others to trust you, they must feel you are willing to take the same risks they do, before you can lead, you must prove yourself as a fearless soldier. Just because you pay people for their work it does not mean you “own” them. Since I do not live in the realm of: “Good Enough” the extra effort in everything we do can only come because your team wants to win as much as you do. Otherwise you are just a pompous caricature of yourself. No one likes that!
WCNY: What’s your favorite dish in this episode, why?
Chef Stellino: Pasta with Shrimp Amatriciana is my favorite of this episode. It represents a great commingling of ideas and an unusual combination of pork and shellfish, which yields a most delicious outcome. Furthermore I take great pains in making sure that our viewers come along for this fantastic ride feeling inspired, unafraid and full of enthusiasm!!
WCNY: What is the biggest myth?
Chef Stellino: “Cooking is just a hobby that people do to drink wine.” This is not how I feel. Cooking to me is like painting, or sculpting, I cook not because I have to eat but because cooking frees my soul and it makes me feel alive!!
WCNY: Where do your cats hang out during production shoots?
Chef Stellino: This was the most difficult part of our production. Our cats are house cats, and have never gone outside. In the part of California where I live there are a lot of wild animals, in spite of our proximity to the big city, we have skunks, coyotes, deer, bears, and lions. My kittens would not last an hour outside. So we have them securely locked in our master bedroom during our filming.
WCNY: How long does it take to shoot one episode?
Chef Stellino: This year I was solely responsible for a lot of mistakes. I chased so many ideas and most of them proved to be just wrong, in some cases it was devastating because there were so many redoes, just to get the perfect lighting, the perfect imagery and the perfect color we were all so totally focused, our nerves were on edge sometimes. I have been known to be particularly driven and tense at times, “Gladiator” is one of the nicknames I have heard mentioned about me. On some particularly disastrous days, tensions were very high and in some case when the thunderstorms came overhead or when there were planes taking off from the private airport nearby, we often had to retake entire scenes. I developed a new behavioral stance called : “Patience!” In the end this was quite a great fortune for all of us because even under the greatest of pressures we stuck together as a united, coherent team that kept moving forward as a single unit, under the moist difficult of circumstances. I consider this very achievement to be at the center of our success!
WCNY: What was your biggest challenge in this episode?
Chef Stellino: My Father’s fish soup was a tremendously difficult segment to film. I wanted to capture a poetic imagery of one of the first dishes I cooked with my dad when I was just a little boy. At one point I almost went into a trance and continued my filmed performance as if I was a kid, with my dad next to me, saying: “Bravo Nicola, cosi’ si fa! (Good Nick this is how you do it!)”I found myself overwhelmed with emotion, which came over me like a river in full. I don’t know, maybe I am crazy but I felt as if he was there. When he passed, some 11 years ago, I went into a state of depression that affected me deeply. I found a way back to the light by cooking and talking to him as if he was next to me. Whilst I have no physical proof, I am convinced he was and this is how I was able to tell him many things I never did when he was alive. It has been said that the greatest pain, is the pain of longing for something you cannot have. I believe I was granted a grace from God and that my father and I were able to connect after he went to other side, not through words, but through the ritual of making his food. There was more to this cooking show than just filming my cooking.
WCNY: What’s the funniest thing that happened?
Chef Stellino: Everything that could have possibly gone wrong in the making of the Pannacotta did, as a matter of fact it took us the best part of the next day to complete that segment. With every retake we did, we ate the Chocolate Pannacotta we had used before. To make a long story short we went through some 10 pieces in just the first day, and by the next day I was in need of some sartorial services so that I could fit in my pants again.
What’s the funniest thing that happened in this episode?
Chef Stellino: The name of one of the recipes Cavoli Arriminati (Mixed Cauliflowers) was an impossible tongue twister for everyone involved in the shoot. We had so many retakes of producer’s intro that at one point even I forgot how to speak Italian and found myself tongue twisted. It was hilarious!
Do you have a garden at your home?
Chef Stellino: No, the garden in my home was designed as if it was a living painting. I planted an enormous amount of trees, flowers and native plants. I choose to sacrifice a working vegetable garden because I chose to focus solely on a beautiful design of colors and aromas. My garden is a reflection of the fantasy world I keep hidden inside my head, where everything is beautiful and joyful and nothing is wrong.
What’s your favorite vegetable?
Chef Stellino: Cauliflower. The reason is because as a child I hated it, and did not want to eat it. My mom would just boil them and served them with olive oil on top of it. It was not until I discovered the cuisine of central Sicily , via my visiting cousins , that I came in contact with enormous variety of preparation. It was true eye opening. That moment was the discovery of my freedom, in culinary terms.
What is your favorite dish in this episode?
Chef Stellino: The making of the red wine sauce was an iconic moment for me in the developing of my culinary skills. This was the first experience I had with “Continental” cuisine. And it all started after my first trip to France.
I remember trying for months to get this recipe just right, a most typical way in which I do things. I keep trying until I find a way! My wife is both in awe and bothered by this bullish determination.
How do you decide which recipes to feature in each episode?
Chef Stellino: Sometimes there is a linear connection, like a story line of some sort; many times instead it is dependent on what is fresh at the market. I am often inspired by ingredients, which I feature in a recipe. Other times this takes place when we least expect it and I choose something simply because cooking it, gives me great joy!
What’s the best part of cheese?
Cheese for me was a late discovery in life. Meaning that aside from Parmigiano, Gorgonzola, Provolone, Pecorino and Ricotta, in my youth I did not know much else. It was not until I started to travel Europe in my early teens with my father, that I discovered a world of cheeses I did not even know existed. It was a mind awakening revelation, a discovery of something I had not seen before. Nonetheless I was tremendously excited about each discovery. Especially goat cheese and Camembert which soon became a favorite of mine.
What’s your favorite cheese?
Chef Stellino: Provolone is the favorite because in Italy we have several kinds of provolone and some of its cousins like Auricchio. Sicilian Pecorino is my other favorite especially the pecorino pepato from central Sicily where the cheese is mixed with whole black peppercorns. However, there are so many variations as well in the Gorgonzola family that I always find a new version to discover, eat and then eat some more. The problem is that as I age, cheese becomes more difficult for me to digest and often I have to hold back because I am unable to eat it in moderation
What was your favorite dish as a child?
Chef Stellino: Pasta! No questions. Even though I must say that “Gnocchi” pasta is made with potatoes was and is my all time favorite. It was a very special dish that my mom and my aunts would make on special occasion. There was even an unspoken rating system, amongst us cousins, and in my opinion, my Grandma Adele was the best of the best. We used to serve them with a meat sauce called : “Ragu,” a traditional sauce which achieved incredible culinary heights at the hands of my Grandma, she was and still is, the best there ever was!
What do you do in your free time when you aren’t cooking?
I have a passion for watches and I must say that, as of my knowledge, I am the only Celebrity chef who has ever assembled his own watch and here are the photos to prove it: https://www.facebook.com/nick.stellino/media_set?set=a.2110408280574.2124064.1256632051&type=3
A watch to me is more than fashion, it is a miraculous apparatus that marks incessantly the passing of time, reminding us all that life is short, and to not to wait for tomorrow for all that can be done today. Dreaming is an engaging business, turning a dream into reality is akin to going to war, it is a series of endeavors that we all need to undertake in order to realize our dreams. This is not easy and often is fraught with failure. A watch on my wrist marks the passing of time, with my incessant need to turn my dreams into reality. It is also a grim reminder of what we waste away, when we do not win in our attempts to succeed.
The fact that such a miracle of mechanical engineering happens to look so great on a wrist… well, that is just an added benefit!
How long does it take to film one episode?
Now, this is a very good question. In some cases just one day will do. But these cases are more often rare than the norm. It often happens especially when experimenting with new filming and lighting techniques that we run into unexpected problems that requires reshoots and pick up scenes. The kitchen in my home is near a private airport where many of the Hollywood elite park their private planes. Every day at 2 p.m. they start going at clip heading out east. Sometimes the authorities at the airport change the departure course and some of these jets fly right over our property making it very difficult to film. We had so many unfortunate incidents that ruined the perfect take. We also learned how to be patient and how to roll with it!
Why did you choose to partner with WCNY?
I met WCNY’s CEO Rob Daino in 2015 when I came to Syracuse to perform at their Taste of Fame fundraising dinner event. Within a matter of minutes, we closed the door behind us and started to talk, what was supposed to be just a handshake became an hour-long meeting where both of us found in each other the kind of qualities we each admire.
What is it like partnering with WCNY as your presenting station?
After 20 years I was looking to chance the look and feel of my own show and I wanted to start a whole new production company with a completely different approach to “cooking on TV.” I wanted to establish a cinematographic look, which has seldom been used on TV. There were many new approaches both in sound, lighting, editing and filming. I felt that Rob, the WCNY team, and I would be the perfect partners for this. Indeed I was right. We shook hands on the deal and following the shortest contract ever written, these two men went about changing the world of cooking on TV. This was for me a privilege and an honor, something I look forward to continue for a long time.
How long does it take you to cook each dish?
This is a tricky question. The cooking of the dish on TV is pretty close to real time. However, there is an exhausting amount of rehearsals we need to go through in order to secure the perfect look. These rehearsals often reveal a need of a different techniques for lighting and filming. Any technical change requires ample time and in the end it is the 1-2 minutes scene that are the most difficult to shoot. One quickly develops patience or else you will not make it in this business.
What was mealtime like in your family?
Growing up, the kitchen table was the most important piece of furniture in my home. In truth the kitchen table was our tribal meeting ground, that was were we discussed our daily life as a family. This is a tradition that, to some extent, I repeat in my home here in the USA. I am sure that whilst most families might find it difficult to do this every day, there is a willful effort, especially amongst the young parents, to reestablish this habit. My recipes are the best for these endeavors. They are all prepared with basic ingredients and the average pots and pans people have at home. I found joy in exalting the simplicity of our culinary tradition; I find pride in inspiring others in their kitchen.
How do you get ready to film each episode? Do you have a routine before the filming begins?
For a moment I envision in my mind all that could go wrong. I dream of it with the most painful accuracy and I allow myself to taste the bitter juice of defeat. I let myself taste what it is like to lose. The act in itself is violent, perverse and cruel, yet it puts the fear of GOD in my heart and having felt, even if just trough my acting skills, the feeling of defeat and failure, I am able to ignite all that is the best in me, to do whatever needs to be done to be victorious and to avoid, under all circumstances the acceptance of defect. In other words, I scare myself straight; to make sure I know full well the cost of losing. I told this story once to a friend and he told me that this approach is similar to the code of “ Bushido” as it was employed by the Japanese Samurai. I don’t know about that, but all I can say is “May the Angels help whoever stands between me and where I need to go.”
What is the best part about having a TV show?
I do not know what to say here. This is my passion, my love, my life work and also the greatest assembly of failures I have ever experienced. I am never happy and I am always certain it can be done better. I did not even take time off when I won my Emmy, the statue sits on my desk and it don’t mean much to me.
The pitiful thing about me is that I am a slave to my ambition and it has nothing to do with money. I want to create an approach to filming which will shape the future of “Cooking Shows” through my words and my innovative filming techniques I aim to become the Caravaggio of televised cooking. An idea, a great idea, if it only lives in your head, it does not exist. I want to be the man who is able to express his thoughts and ideas and who can inspire a team of professionals in realizing such ideas and improve upon them. This very statement, is what defines the purpose of my life, a continuous state of advancement, not by brute strength, force and sheer will, rather though the collaborative process brought on by others who have the same care, intent, purpose and determination as my own. A team who moves forward as a single unit, is the encapsulation of beauty by itself, a team who can create the sound and the imagery that accompany the storytelling of our life, is the team I want to build for all my projects. This is just the beginning; I can do so much better!!!!
What other cooking programs do you enjoy?
There is only one King and his name is: Jacques Pepin. Besides him nothing else exists. I became a chef because of his books; I developed my whole professional style inspired by him. In a world where manners, restraint, elegance and style in the seem to have been overtaken by aggression, impatience, ill manners, swearing and unprofessional misconduct, Jacques still, in my mind, shines as the bright beacon of all that I admire in a man, he always points us toward a better world of cooking. One filled with love, manners and elegance. Some of which even I have left behind. I want to be Jacques when I grow up!
Are one-dish wonders easier to cook than your other recipes?
Rolaids are fine remedy for any amongst you who believe food can be microwaved. Rome was not built in a day. I seldom find an all in one “quick“ dish, worthwhile considering. If you really need to eat “bad” food, there are many great and prosperous fast food companies who have made a fortune selling skinny, overcooked disks of meat, that look like flat brown overcooked patties, they call them “ hamburgers.”
Do not under value the cost of “convenience,” always keep in mind that the road to hell is paved with good intentions!
Do you ever get nervous being on TV?
I am always afraid, terrorized and in general frozen with fear right before we start. It is important for me to acknowledge these feelings to avoid their deployment into my psyche, I accept all that is imperfect about me, and that is a lot. Then with the same precision in which I have let my fears have free rein inside my heart, I open the door to the beast I keep hidden inside. That is another side of me which does not accept defeat, which shuns surrender and retreat and which pushed by the winds of ambition only knows how to move forward, at all costs, at all time. I take pride in knowing that at every moment I am the most dangerous man in the room, and that all I want to be and do is to be the best and win! I have never been in the military, but I seem to deploy all my undertakings with a militaristic approach, even the simple things, I always feel as if I am a Roman centurion trapped behind enemy lines trying to make his way back to Rome.
What would you tell an aspiring chef?
If you never fail, you have never tried.
If money is to be your master prepare to live always as a slave.
When prompted to jump into the unknown in the undertaking of any challenge in the kitchen and in life, once you have made a commitment to move forward , do it decisively, without hesitation.
Do not be cocky for you will fall like a tree with no roots.
Do not waste time hating or getting even, figure out what the big picture is and always: “ save the braciole!”
How do you best enjoy artichokes?
Braised with sausages, stuffed and baked or in a pasta sauce, even in risotto!
Actually I have a real funny story, my mom who was incredibly talented in the kitchen, did not know how to handle artichokes and for the first part of my life her artichoke soup was to say the least…”hell!”
It was not until we went to the family farm and had our usual big Sunday meal with the family that my uncle: “Mimi’ ” roasted the artichokes in the ambers of the fireplace. When I ate them, cooked this way, I saw the future before me. This was for me an astonishing revelation. This is how I started developing a love for this ingredient but also a continued curiosity of how many different ways there are to cook an artichoke. Life is full of possibilities!
What’s a typical night of dinner like in your home?
You need to know that I am a very vain man. I love my clothes as much as I love my wife. I do not allow myself any kind of overeating. While well meaning, I often fail on this front. But usually we always start with a salad and then some kind of grilled meat or fish with plenty of roosted veggies on the side. I am not too crazy about chicken, I only eat it once on while, same with turkey. Pork however is one of my favorite meats!
What is the best part of this episode?
Some ideas come to me unplanned; this was a particularly difficult episode since we had not quite gotten the exact positioning we were looking for in our preproduction meetings. On that weekend at home, I was looking for some old photos. I found a series of old pictures, which I had not seen in decades, when my mom and dad first came to visit me in America. They were so happy and smiling, I had forgotten my father’s smile, the last year of his life fighting against the cancer, which ravaged his body, and he had forgotten how to smile. He could not do so, he was always in so much pain and his heart was always filled with sadness every time he saw the look of helplessness in our eyes. When these photos fell to the ground and they went all over the floor, each and every one of them had my mom and dad together smiling while holding hands. I do not know why I admit to such weakens but the truth being told is that I started to cry, and I could not stop myself. It had been so long since I had seen that face, so joyful and so full of life. I had forgotten it. It was at that moment that I wanted to create a show that would memorialize the best of my father’s smile inside the kitchen, when he was teaching me how to cook and how to be a man. There is more to this man than the inglorious end of life, there is a whole life he lived before, a life, which shaped my own, I wanted to honor that. I wanted my viewers to know the great man that he was for me.
This is the last episode of the series, how can I get more recipes?
Come to my site www.nisckstellino.com featuring 1,000 recipes. As for me I am already working on a new TV series in my head, actually two. One that has a style format of a one to one interview, the other would be a continuation of “Storyteller.” But then, there is always the unexpected. What if I come with a brand-new idea I have not even thought of yet?
There was a movie line I once heard which I have committed to memory: “get busy living or get busy dying.”
For as long as I will be granted life, I hope to always inspire others about the beauty of life and especially in cooking. If I could be granted this for the rest of my life, I would have achieved my dream. Giving joy to people’s heart is to me better than cash in the bank. I hope to become that force of joy that brings a smile on people faces and joy in their hearts. If I can do this, my father would be proud, I am sure right now he is cooking like a madman at the big restaurant in the sky, I am sure my mom is next to him, making her hand made mayonnaise, just the way he always liked it.