Radio-engineer-turned-chef focuses on authentic Italian dishes at Carlucci
Growing up in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood, chef Kevin Provenzano, 40, learned to love family-style Italian-American cooking. His culinary education and career have refined and extended his range and his palate. Today, he prepares authentic, regional Italian dishes at Carlucci in Downers Grove, but he still appreciates a good, meaty red sauce.
A career changer, Provenzano left radio engineering for cooking school when the lure of saucepans grew overwhelming. While earning his culinary degree at Kendall College, he worked in the kitchens of Whole Foods, and then at the American Club in Kohler, Wis. He cooked on the line and for banquets by day, while at night he worked at Jill Prescott's Ecole de Cuisine cookware shop and cooking school, serving as a teaching assistant, as well as a kitchen assistant on Prescott's PBS cooking show "Professional Cooking for the Home Chef."
Provenzano's resume includes time at D & J Bistro in Lake Zurich and Caliterra at the Wyndham Hotel in Chicago, where he worked with chef John Coletta. Later, he followed Coletta to Carlucci restaurants, where he spent four years as executive chef at the Rosemont spot. After a stint at Figo Ristorante in Glen Ellyn, he recently became executive chef at Carlucci in Downers Grove.
Provenzano lives in Batavia with his wife, Mary, and her three children.
Why did you become a chef? I started cooking back when I was a latchkey kid. My middle sister and I would come home from school and get dinner started. I just seemed to have a passion for it.
This is a second career for me. I have a degree in audio engineering, and I worked as chief engineer for a radio station for eight years. But I had this itch of wanting to cook. Even my general manager at the radio station said, "You should consider culinary school." Not that I wasn't a good engineer.
So when I was 29, I went to Kendall College. It was an opportune time. It was a lot of fun.
What was your family's reaction? When I told my parents I was quitting my job and going to culinary school, my mother romanticized it. My father wasn't so sure. Now they're sure.
What was working on the TV show like? I basically was a prep cook. Jill Prescott asked me to stay for another season and promised me some airtime, but I had to go back to school, so I never got on the show.
What led you to Italian cooking? My father's side of the family is all Italian, and just growing up, food meant family. I've always liked Italian cooking. Caliterra really is where I learned what Italian cooking is supposed to be. From John Coletta, I learned the right way - the real way - not the Italian-American way of Italian cooking. I started reading cookbooks from Italian chefs. I went to Italy and looked for my family in Sicily.
Are you more traditional or more innovative? I do my own thing but take it out of the Italian basket.
What kinds of foods do you like to cook? In the last couple of years, I've gotten more into using greens like chard and kale, and more varieties of dried beans. I'm trying to find the Italian varieties.
My personal tastes usually lean toward southern Italy, although Carlucci is more associated with Tuscany.
There are a lot of Italian restaurants in the Chicago area. What are you doing to stand out? I don't know that I personally am doing anything to make myself stand out - I'm just doing what I do. I've gotten a lot of compliments since I've been here from our regulars.
Are you making changes because of the economy? It's slowed down at dinner quite a bit. Lunch has been consistent.
We've just gone through the final phase of a menu change. We've added some things like braised short ribs - we cook the whole thing and then slide the bones out. It seems to be a hard sell, though.
I like to mix things up with interesting specials. Recently, I got in some ivory king salmon. This wild salmon has an extra enzyme that processes the carotene in their food, so it has a white flesh. It's not albino - it looks just like any salmon on the outside. It has excellent flavor. I wasn't sure how it was going to sell, but it did very well.
I've also served tilefish, a white fish with quite a rich flavor. People don't know it.
Where do you see yourself in the future? My wife and I would like to have our own place one day. I don't know if we'll ever get there. She's in the business, too - we met at D & J Bistro.
Tell us about this recipe. Bolognese Sauce. This is a classic.
Try this at home or at Carlucci, 1801 Butterfield Road, Downers Grove, (630) 512-0990, carluccirestaurant.com.
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1/2 cup olive oil (not extra-virgin)
31/2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped or ground
11/2 cups finely diced carrots
11/2 cups finely diced onion
11/2 cups finely diced celery
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
2/3 cups white wine
1 can (14 ounces) whole peeled plum or San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
12/3 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
Salt and black pepper to taste
Put the olive oil and pancetta in a wide stockpot over medium-low heat. Stir frequently. Do not allow the pancetta to brown. When you see the pancetta begin to brown, add the diced vegetables. Turn the heat up to medium, let them cook slowly, stirring occasionally. The vegetables need to be cooked well and the carrots should have some caramelization.
Add the ground beef and pork; increase heat up to high. Stir to break up the meat and mix it with the vegetables. At first, stir only occasionally while the water from the meat cooks off. As the meat browns, you will need to stir more frequently. If the bottom of the pan gets brown bits stuck to it, this is good. The more brown bits, the better.
When the meat is nicely browned, add the wine and stir and scrape to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Continue to cook, reducing the wine until it is almost all gone. Add the tomatoes, chicken broth and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat. Simmer 30-40 minutes, until the meat is very tender and the sauce has reduced by about one third. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Serve with your favorite pasta and grated Parmesan cheese and enjoy.
Makes enough sauce for at least 4 pounds of pasta. The sauce can be frozen in small portions.
Chef Kevin Provenzano, Carlucci, Downers Grove