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Chef Sanford D’Amato’s Life On A Low Simmer

sanfordBy Michael Casper

Sanford “Sandy” D’Amato is a native of Milwaukee who grew up on the lower east side in the apartment above his father and grandfather’s grocery store “D’Amato’s,” the same spot that would one day (1989) become the location of his notable restaurant “Sanford.”

His book, “Good Stock: Life on a Low Simmer” is both memoir and cookbook, containing more than 80 of his recipes.

“To say I never imagined that I’d write a book, is an understatement,” Sanford D’Amato said “about thirteen years ago I began writing for the Milwaukee Journal when they were starting their new ‘Entree’ section, and I pitched them an idea for a food column because a friend of mine suggested that I write great recipes, ‘Why don’t you do something for the paper?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I write recipes, but I don’t ‘write,’ which I thought might pose a problem (laugh).”

So Sandy mocked up a column on rice pilaf, sent it to the Journal, they liked it and decided to give it and him a try.

“The writing part, all through high school and college” Sandy said “I was frightened whenever I had to write a paper. So the ‘writing’ just developed. A good friend said that I told good stories, and recommended I simply write as I spoke, and to not over think it.”

Growing up on the lower east side Milwaukee, above the grocery store is where Sandy began his appreciation for food.

sanford2“And that spot also became where our first restaurant started,” he said “and that’s where the genesis for the book was conceived in the space where the restaurant is…and actually that’s where I was conceived as well (laugh). My mother was my biggest influence as far as cooking goes, but my grandparents lived right next door, so I grew up on a combination of my mother’s and grandfather’s food. We’d eat over there sometimes three or four times a week.”

Though a renowned chef, and winner of the James Beard Award, the pinnacle of the culinary arts, Sandy grew up appreciating a good TV dinner.

“I loved, and love eating in front of the TV,” he says “in fact I think I spend more time with a TV tray in front of me than I do a dinner table! Being in the restaurant business, you spend your whole life working when you really should be having dinner…because we’re making dinner for others. So in our time off, especially with the advent of DVR’s, we record shows, get off work, and it becomes our time to relax, and have dinner. When I was a kid, Swanson came out with their first TV dinner, turkey…with the dividers for the potato and corn, and the yummy dessert! You never knew what was going to come next in the next few months, what would their new dinner be?”

Sandy said his mom was a fairly demanding person, and when it was summer in the late-50’s early-60’s there wasn’t a lot of air conditioning. So when it was really hot, after a long day, she would camp out in the back of the house with the windows open, and wasn’t about to move. She would then send Sandy and his dad on a mission to get dessert.

“She had to have a dipped cone,” Sandy said “which was near impossible to transport when it’s 84-degrees outside. And my dad and I learned to not question whether or not it was possible to get the cone to her before it melted…her response was, ‘Well then don’t get me anything!’ So off we were speeding down Roosevelt Avenue in my dad’s old Chevy going to get mom a dipped cone. And there were no stoplights on Roosevelt, and you could just tear down it, dad called it ‘the Roosevelt 500.’ Dad would say, ‘get in there, get the cone, don’t worry about the change, just get back in the car!’ and off we’d race for home. And if there were any drips on it when we got back home to mom, she’d yell at us (laugh)! There was no rationale when she wanted dessert.”

sanford1At the age of 16 Sandy began to realize he wanted to cook, and it was the store’s beer salesman who set up an interview for him at ‘Kalt’s,’ a local German restaurant known for their breaded onion rings and Friday fish fry, and various German specialties.

“I worked there, and started going to UW-Milwaukee,” Sandy said “thinking my options at that time were to go up to UW Stout or off to Cornell, they were the schools with restaurant programs, but they were mostly management programs, and I wanted to cook. Then I found this apprenticeship program run by the Jewish Vocational Service that ran three nights a week after the offices would close, a chef from a local restaurant would come over and teach a group of students. I think I was 19 at the time and everyone else was at least 20 years older than me. After a few months the chef took me aside and said, ‘You’re really interested in cooking, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘Well, isn’t that why we’re all here?’ and he said, ‘Actually all these other people are on work release…you’re the only one here who doesn’t have to be here.’ But it was he who told me about the culinary institute.”

With a letter of recommendation in hand, Sandy headed to Hyde Park, New York.

“It was a 2-year program where I earned my associate degree,” Sandy said “Chef Peter Von Erp encouraged me saying that a lot of chef’s don’t have a palate for cooking, and that I did, But he said ‘You’re slow as sh#!’ (laugh) He told me I needed to learn how to produce food at a faster pace. At the time my goal was to work in a French restaurant, in the early 70’s those were considered the best restaurants. I’d go weekly to La Caravelle and Chef Fessaguet to see if he had any openings, but they never had any intention of hiring an American.”

At that time French chefs were getting paid more in the states than they could make in France.

“I’d sent out some resumes to restaurants in Milwaukee,” he said “in particular Mader’s, and Vic Mader gave me a list of names of restauranteurs from all over the world, and this fella in Mexico City had a restaurant in Acapulco. And the guy offered me a job, but I told him I was looking for a place to learn, to which he said, ‘Well you graduated from the culinary institute, had a fellowship, you probably have a lot more knowledge than some of the people already working here.’ I took the job, but within less than two years due to Mexico’s political tumult, the economy went haywire, and I ended up back in New York.”

With no job, and no prospects Sandy looked to Chef Peter who had met Chef Clement Grangier at the Culinary Institute and who was one of the original chefs at the La Pavillion, thought of as one of the “Godfather’s” of French chefs. Sandy had a letter from Grangier because the chef was going to be doing a function in the New York City.

“I didn’t even know him,” Sandy said “but with this letter I went back to La Caravelle, saw Chef Fessaguet who had turned me down for work a hundred times before, and asked if he knew where Grangier was, and Fessaguet said, ‘Oh! You know Clement?’ And even though I didn’t, I said, ‘Yes, I do.‘ He said, ‘Oh you know Clement! Well I don’t have anything here, but you go talk to friend Andre at Lutece.‘ He was referring the great Chef Andre Soltner. Suddenly, all the portals opened. And that’s how I got in as the first American chef hired at Le Veau d’ Or.”

By the late 70’s there were more and more opportunities for American chefs.

“There was another chef in the city,” Sandy said “Chef Chenus at the La Veau d’Or, and he was the first French chef who realized that there were all these Americans that would basically work for nothing. I didn’t care about money, I just wanted to cook. It was pretty much the same way for all the other chefs looking to get their foot in the door.”

After a year working on Long Island and traveling back home to Milwaukee over holidays with his wife at the time, Sandy began to get a sense that he wanted to come back home.

“I always wanted to open a restaurant,” he said “and knew I’d never be able to open one in New York City due to the cost. So we came back.”

The recipes within Sandy’s biography are as varied as his Veal Ragout Arancini with Smoked Tomato and Mint Emulsion, to his dad’s tuna salad.

“To me, there’s no difference,” Sandy said “whether it’s tuna salad, a great hot dog, or pan roasted monk fish with chive vermouth caviar dressing….if you really care about food, you give the same care to grilled cheese that you would to a pheasant. Anybody in the business that is a serious craftsman, that’s how they cook. Don’t just take recipes off the internet, learn technique, learn how to put food together, but use what you have…your case memories, because that’s what makes for great, unique food.”

Sandy and his wife Angie sold “Sanford” last year, and now split their time between Milwaukee and Hatfield, Massachusetts where they are preparing to open a cooking school…also called “Good Stock.”

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