Dropping a degree in favor of a dream

Chrissy Raia

A server bustles into the kitchen of Lacroix with his table’s order. The server’s party of one has requested the nori-crusted Niman Ranch beef ribeye, and the kitchen comes to life. One cook dashes to the frosty closet-sized meat refrigerator and hurries back with a fresh cut of beef, shipped from the distinguished Niman Ranch in Marin County in California. It’s coated in nori (edible seaweed) and sesame seeds, fried to perfection on the kitchen’s meat-only cook surface, then plated with Chinese broccoli, fresh herb spaetzle and a tiny pile of bonito salt for dipping. Overseeing the operation is sous chef Michael Fiorello. Like a surgeon selecting his scalpel, he chooses the appropriate sauce, the spoon of which is neatly labeled so as not to be confused with its neighboring fish and poultry accompaniments, and carefully drizzles a spoonful over the beef. He examines the plate with a discerning eye and wipes an invisible drop from the plate’s pristine white surface. Then, he sends it out with the server.Fiorello moves agilely through the kitchen. He straightens bins of “veg” in a walk-in refrigerator that boasts impossibly vibrant produce and nuclear-sized squash. “John, I’m gonna need that whisk back that you borrowed the other day,” he says as he checks the temperature on 100-gallon vats of beef and chicken stock. “Laura,” he calls as he examines the salad prep area. A short, frazzled 20-something hurries over, pushing up her glasses. “I told you, you’re going to have to keep this neat,” Fiorello scolds gently. “There’s fennel everywhere.” A few green slivers soil the counter’s cutting board.Implausibly, Fiorello contends that his current intensity has decreased a few notches since he took the position of sous chef. “I used to yell and scream a lot more than I do now because that’s the way I was trained,” he says. “But I’ve learned that people have different styles of learning, so I’ve been working on treating each staff member accordingly.”The stress of the 80-hour work week often results from the desire to show respect for those who surround Fiorello. But his physical exhaustion and fatigued nerves are also the products of his unflagging desire to generate the best possible creations. And while he’s been classically trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Fiorello credits his childhood experiences in the kitchen and his penchant for perfecting science experiments with providing his drive for precision today.”All his life he’s been meticulous about everything he does, which means he can’t tolerate anything below perfection,” says Kathi Fiorello, Michael’s mother. Fiorello’s dabbling with science began long before sauté and semifreddo were a part of his vocabulary, and when it came time to help prepare dinners for his sizable Sicilian family, the chemistry of the combination of proteins in different foods was an experiment in the making. Still, inspired by the medical careers of his father and grandfather, Fiorello took advantage of his scientific smarts and aimed to follow in their footsteps.Having missed out on a spot in the U.S. Naval Academy’s class of 2002 by one Congressional recommendation, Fiorello decided on Villanova and entered, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in comprehensive science. Villanova wasn’t a tough choice. Fiorello’s 22-credit freshman course schedule put him right on track for med school. His hectic agenda also included participation in both Villanova’s Naval ROTC and underground fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha. The result was academic achievement that was sub-standard for Fiorello. After sophomore year brought a failed attempt to switch to the business school, the Florida native sought advice from his parents but settled on returning to Villanova for another semester. He threw himself into a new major, psychology, but found the solace he’d yearned for in preparing weekly dinners for his frat brothers. While the get-togethers provided a social outlet for his friends, Fiorello benefited from the experience in the kitchen. “Of course, I had no technical understanding,” Fiorello admits. Creating menus for dinner parties meant jotting down recipes while Emeril “kicked it up a notch” on the Food Network. And though he achieved his best GPA yet that year, his renewed passion for cooking filled the void that nothing else could. Fiorello returned home to break the news to his parents. “I’m the absolute most happy when I’m cooking,” he said. “And I think it’s what I want to do with my life.” “I was devastated,” his mother admits. “I at least wanted him to finish up his time at Villanova and then think about going to the CIA, but he was so determined. It was hard for me to adjust to the idea.” Anthony Fiorello provided his son with more immediate support by learning as much as he could about his son’s passion for cooking.Instead of heading straight for culinary school, Fiorello reasoned that real-world experience in the kitchen would make or break his gastronomic goals. The target of his experiment would bring him back to the suburbs of Philadelphia to the French and Italian Riviera-inspired Savona in Gulph Mills. “I’m thinking about becoming a chef, and I want to be one of the greatest,” Fiorello told then-executive chef Dominique Filoni. “I was wondering if you were hiring.” Filoni’s eyes sparked with the intensity of a seasoned chef. “I could hardly understand a word he said except for, ‘I take you; I train you; you start tomorrow,'” says Fiorello, doing his best Pepe Le Peu. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”The first finished plate Fiorello saw being whisked from Savona’s kitchen proved he’d sought training from the right source. For the following six months, he endured Chef Filoni’s version of culinary tutelage. “He was one of those stereotypical hard-core French chefs, but he had the right to be so discriminating,” Fiorello says. “He’d worked in some of the finest kitchens in Paris and St. Tropez. He had developed discipline and charisma and, of course, ego.” When he ultimately entered the Culinary Institute of America in scenic Hyde Park, N.Y., Fiorello felt ahead of the game. “When I got there, I said to myself, ‘I’m home.’ ” The immaculately landscaped grounds contain 40 on-site kitchens run by the largest collection of certified master chefs in the world. And instead of sliding by in his courses as his classmates tended to do, Fiorello used his time to hone the skills he knew from experience were necessary for success.After completing an internship at a glitzy ski resort in Aspen, Colo., Fiorello graduated from CIA on the day before Thanksgiving in 2003 and returned to Philadelphia, hoping to continue where he left off with Filoni at Savona. But during his 21 months away, Fiorello had failed to witness a gradual decline in the standards that Savona had once held so high. Moreover, Filoni had been led to believe he would benefit as part-owner of the restaurant, but the deal collapsed, forcing him to make an untimely exit from the once-great establishment.Fiorello immediately accepted a potentially higher-status position as sous chef of an inn in North Wales. The decision continues to haunt Fiorello. “The place was a dump,” he admits candidly. “I won’t even tell you the name of it.” A surprise phone call would provide him with the excuse necessary for escape. “I picked up the call right in the inn’s kitchen, and as the head chef glared at me, the voice on the other line says, ‘Hey buddy, what’s going on?’ ” Fiorello was quick to pack up his knives when Filoni offered him the position of sous chef at the new Bianca in Bryn Mawr. Chemistry was coming into play once again for Fiorello. The pair’s innovative menus attracted diners and secured warm reviews; they also renewed their bond that had been established in Gulph Mills. But the fate of Bianca would be determined by financial backers instead of its potential for success. After another misunderstanding led Filoni to leave Bianca and the Philadelphia restaurant scene altogether, Fiorello was catapulted into the role of executive chef. Having an apartment down the road from Bianca equaled 100-hour work weeks rather than just an easy commute, but if pleasing finicky Main Liners required taking up residence in the wine cellar, Fiorello would have made the move. On one occasion, a Sunday private brunch party requested quiche, which Fiorello was more than happy to create. He constructed a masterpiece before the rush of Saturday dinner service. An amalgamation of mushrooms, Gruyère, chives and shallots with an irresistibly flaky pate briseé crust, the quiche was in the oven with time to spare. Several hours, 100 hungry suburbanites and multiple perplexing whiffs of bacon later, Fiorello’s attempts at salvaging an indistinguishable pie-shaped mass were to no avail. Now time was of the essence. The next morning he managed both a beautiful re-creation of the tartlet and a successful management of the quiche’s bake time. Still sizzling, it needed a visit to the fridge for easier slicing later, but a hastening Fiorello failed to detect a slippery floor in the walk-in. Up flipped the quiche in acrobatic slow motion, landing ineluctably face down. The incident was like a metaphor for Fiorello’s efforts to sustain the ill-fated Bianca. A fickle clientele and poorly executed marketing plan have the capacity to doom even the finest restaurants. So when Bianca closed in the spring of 2006, Fiorello needed a vacation. Several weeks’ consideration brought him back to Philly where he did a stint as sous chef for Jose Garces at Amada. While he tried to stick it out, Amada presented Fiorello with the challenge of working in a much different type of restaurant than he was used to.”It was a different atmosphere: different type of cooks, the quality of equipment wasn’t up to the level I was used to,” Fiaello says. A phone call would again seal Fiorello’s fate. Filoni was currently working at the renowned Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel, a dining space created by legendary Jean-Marie Lacroix that represented the finale to his celebrated career. Fiorello jumped at the offer of the sous chef position. “Jose was awesome, but I have always wanted to work at this restaurant,” Fiorello says. “Jean-Marie is a Philly icon. He’s unbelievable; he’s old school; he commands respect.”As sous chef, Fiorello is responsible for overseeing the kitchen’s execution of the Lacroix menu as well as room service requests, banquets and the hotel’s second restaurant, the Boathouse. According to Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig Laban, he’s getting there. Notoriously a harsh judge of Philly restaurants, the columnist recently presented an uncharacteristically glowing review of Lacroix, which focused on Executive Chef Matthew Levin’s success in taking the reigns from the illustrious Lacroix himself. Levin gets all the credit – and deservedly so. But such high achievement might not have been possible without the habitual precision of his right-hand man, sous chef Fiorello.In the Lacroix dining room, the server delivers the nori-crusted ribeye to a well-dressed woman taking in the tree-top view of Rittenhouse Square. She takes a bite of the medium-rare steak. It’s the best science experiment she’s ever tasted.