West Ender Carl Michael Savino remembers the exact moment he fell in love with food. He was 7 years old and out to dinner with his family at a restaurant called Lee’s Hawaiian Islander in Clifton, NJ.
“It was a Chinese restaurant with Tiki decor,” he remembers fondly. “I was never afraid to try any kind of food and the second I tasted Wor Shu Duck, I thought to myself, I don’t ever want to be around anything but food.”
While other kids his age were checking out story books from the local library, Carl was pouring over its collection of cookbooks. He was especially interested in the colors and flavors of other cultures. His earliest influences were his French mother and grandmother who he says were “fearless cooks,” whipping up an Asian meal one day and Italian the next. When Spanish-speaking people began moving into his Manhattan neighborhood he was introduced to an array of new ingredients and found himself “captivated by yucca.”
Food kismet arrived one day when he was home sick from school. Lying on the couch watching television, Carl saw a commercial for a restaurant school. This was his future and he knew it. He immediately picked up the phone and called to apply but was told he had to be eighteen to take classes. Disappointment set in. He had nine more years to wait.
But wait he did, and in 1997 Carl graduated from the Culinary Institute of American, also known as CIA. His wife Leslie said the first time she met him and he mentioned CIA she thought he was a spy!
At the Hyde Park campus of CIA he learned how to analyze ingredients, master cooking techniques and create his own signature style. It was an experience that fully prepared him for the demanding role of being an Executive Chef.
His first job out of school was at Kitchen Magician, where in addition to cooking, he chauffeured the owner around to business meetings in his royal blue mustang. Carl sat in on meetings, listening closely as his boss negotiated prices and locked down catering deals. It was an invaluable opportunity to learn the financial side of the business.
He also got his first taste of touring – going on the road with Billy Joel and Elton John.
He went on to cater tours with many famous bands including: U2, David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones – where he recalled – “Keith Richards smoked pot that peeled the paint off the walls.”
“Touring is fantastic – but then you hit that certain age where you find yourself saying – sorry – I just can’t go to Thailand.”
In 2008 he started his own business, Carl Michaels Catering and bought a mobile kitchen. Today he caters feature films, photo shoots, commercials and television projects in the NYC area, employing about 25 freelance chefs on a rotating basis. Recent credits include Showtime’s Inside the NFL and Boxing International.
Celeb favorite meals? He says Blake Lively loves his quesadillas, Keanu Reeves is crazy for his salmon and Katherine Heigel adores his Pad Thai. (Me? I love his lemony mashed potatoes – and yes, I know I’m not a celebrity).
When I ask him the most difficult thing about being a chef I expect him to mention the long hours. But he surprises me. “The hardest thing for a chef is not hearing any feedback about your food even though I know that’s a good thing because it means I’m doing a good job. No news is good news, because if it’s not good you’ll hear complaining.”
His wife Leslie, originally from Inwood, runs the non-cooking part of the business. I ask her what’s it like having a chef for a spouse? She just chuckles and says “it’s been so long since he cooked something for me.”
Local restaurants he enjoys? Jimmy Hayes tops his list for fine dining and when he’s keeping it ultra-local you’ll find him at The Laurel Diner or The Inn.
Carl and Leslie moved to Long Beach about a year ago because they wanted to be close to the beach. “Leslie brought me here and I just fell in love with it. I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere I felt this comfortable. Everyone knows everyone else and people look out for each other, welcome you with open arms.”
His next venture may be a restaurant in the West End if he can find the right location for it. Perhaps something multi-cultural to match his passions. Stay tuned for more on that.
My final question – what is his “go to” meal is for something quick and comforting? “PBJ,” he says with a grin, checking off the ingredients with his fingers: Arnold white bread, sliced diagonal, with banana – and get this – bacon!
I guess everything really is better with bacon. I wonder if he also puts it in his Wor Shu Duck…
Polar Bear sweatshirt count: 0 (But it’s on his radar!)
Contact Carl at: email@example.com
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: Twisted Om Yoga with Rafael Rivera