Food as Life

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chef kevin garcia shares lifetime of experience at academia di vino

by linnea covington

on a recent friday afternoon, as the staff prepared accademia di vino broadway for dinner service, kevin garcia sat at the bar trying to figure out how to recreate a dish he sampled on a chefs' tour of sicily. the photo he pulled up on his phone showed a generous ball of fresh mozzarella, which, he said, was kind of a farce. beneath a mop of silver and brown curling hair, garcia's eyes shone as he explained the commonly dense dish was in fact hollow, a pretend ball filled with air, yet it had such a pure mozzarella taste, the 40-year-old chef was determined to figure out how they made it.

after 20 years cooking and studying italian food, getting surprised about a dish is an anomaly in itself. but for garcia, food has always been a part of his life. when he was a child, his parents centered time around the kitchen, making meals in their connecticut home or on weekends, at their apartment on the upper west side. through their love of cooking grew garcia's as well, and from a young age he knew he wanted to be a chef.

"i never did anything else except have a paper route when i was 15," he said.

after high school, garcia attended culinary academy at johnson and wales university in rhode island, where he simultaneously whetted his chops at the italian restaurant al forno. it wasn't until he came back to new york and got a job at pino luongo's coco pazzo that he really started to dedicate himself to italian cuisine. during that time he traveled to italy for the first time, and met the man who would later change the way he viewed being a chef.

"it was a great entrée into the italian world, and i met cesare casella who was my mentor and intro into all things italian," he said. "he taught me to be resourceful and cook regionally."

garcia stayed at coco pazzo for five years, honing his skills and eventually moving up to chef de cuisine.

when he left coco pazzo, garcia bounced around, becoming the personal chef to revlon ceo ron perelman, a chef at jean-georges vongerichten's prime steak house in las vegas, ran the kitchens at the lucca in florida and worked as chef de cuisine at del posto.

almost every restaurant he has worked in has been italian, which, given this devotion to a cuisine, proves unusual since he has no italian blood in his family. his father is cuban and his mother is from new york.

"cuban cuisine is similar to italian cuisine as it's soulful, rustic and made with purpose," he said.

coincidently, garcia's current work at anthony mazzola's restaurant 'cesca and the two accademia di vinos brings him closer to where he grew up, and now lives. and, in what he sees as fate, 'cesca lies 12 blocks away from where his parents met at st. gregory the great school when they were 6 years old.

"i thought it would be exciting to be at a restaurant in my parents' old stomping ground," he said.

to further his connection to mazzola's restaurants and the area, 'cesca is also how he ended up with his fiancée and their 22-month-old son jack. the couple met in high school originally, but never dated until three years ago when elizabeth, whom he calls "betty," stopped at 'cesca with his best friend, who is her cousin. now, she is pregnant with their second child.

when he isn't occupied making family ties, garcia volunteers for special events at the thanksgiving farm at the center for discovery in harris, n.y., where he has volunteered since 2006. the farm works with disabled adults and children and has them grow all the organic vegetables, herbs and fruits that they eat and offer in a community supported agriculture (csa) operation.

"it gives them purpose. they sow the seeds, feed the animals and pick the vegetables," said garcia. "they also come from the idea that nutrition is the best healer."

even when he isn't volunteering at the farm, he supports it by supplying the restaurants' kitchens with goods from the farm nine months of the year. he also gets the occasional cut from one of the rare chianina cows that were brought over from italy by casella, bred in texas, and then brought to the farm.

back at the accademia di vino broadway, the chef busied himself thinking about the new fall menu. squash, he said, was definitely on the list, be it in ravioli, risotto or drizzled with chestnut honey in the antipasti. also, he wanted to bring back the famous pizza alla griglia with roasted pumpkin, pancetta and caramelized onions, a sweet and savory combo that melts in the mouth.

as he contemplated the menu, the staff settled in for their own family-style meal.

garcia looked around the restaurant, content, and said, "most people's best meal memories are at home, and i want them to feel like they are eating at home here, too."

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