We recently interviewed Culinary Arts alum and Eastchester native Dante Giannini about his recent win on the Food Network’s “Chopped” reality TV show and how the SWBOCES Culinary Arts Program helped prepare him for what has already become a phenomenal career. It includes working for a number of celebrities, including his current position as estate chef to Jimmy Buffett and his family.
Was food a big part of your life growing up?
My mother was a really, really good home cook and my dad was an adventurous eater. When I was 18, he took me on a trip to Napa, California, where we toured the region and tasted different types of food. It was a trip I will never forget.
How did you hear about the SWBOCES Culinary Arts Program?
My guidance counselor at Eastchester High School came to me one day and told me about a BOCES presentation that was happening at the school. After it was over, she suggested that I think about choosing a trade as a future career. At the time, my parents knew nothing about BOCES, but looking back now, I have to say it was the best decision I ever made.
What was it like being in the Culinary Arts Program?
One of the highlights of my time at BOCES was participating in the SkillsUSA competition. Even though I didn’t win anything, it was a great experience. Chef Tomaskovic worked with me for weeks before the event, choosing recipes and practicing my skills. I owe so much to the teachers in the program, including Chef Gerry Murphy.
Besides learning about the culinary arts, were there other benefits to attending BOCES?
Absolutely. Chef Murphy got me my first job at the Bronxville Field Club. I had the chance to work with the French-trained chef Michael Dolan. The guy was the best of the best. He had so much patience with me. I was only 17 at the time, but it was the best work experience of my life.
What did you do after graduating from BOCES?
I attended the Culinary Institute of America, where I received an associate’s degree. To be honest, I feel that if I had another two years at BOCES, I would have gotten the same education I received at CIA. I was planning on getting a bachelor’s there, but then I got a job at Oceana in New York City as an Amuse Bouche chef. Driving to the city every day and working 12 to 14-hour shifts a day was hard, but I was doing something I loved.
What other jobs did you have before becoming a celebrity chef?
Around that same time, my father saw an ad in Westchester Magazine for Equus at the Castle Hotel & Spa in Tarrytown. I discovered that they were looking for someone with knowledge of French cooking. I applied and got a job as a cook. It was amazing. I learned so much over two and a half years. I was actually named the youngest sous chef ever at the Castle, and I was only 21 at the time.
From there, I moved to the Hamptons, where I worked at a five-room hotel and restaurant called “1770.” I was initially hired as a sous chef, but then the executive chef left and I got the job. While I was living in the Hamptons, I found out about the opportunities I could avail of as a private chef.
How did you get your current job as an estate chef for Jimmy Buffett?
After my initial stint in the Hamptons, I returned to Westchester and sent out fliers advertising my skills as a private chef. Slowly but surely I started to get work. Then I started working for a concierge service, which gave me a lot of contract work, including assignments with Ralph Lauren’s son and Madonna. After that, I got the job with Jimmy Buffett, who is such an amazing, amazing guy.
What is your typical day like as an estate chef?
I cook each day for the family, but the Buffetts also like to host a lot of lavish lunches, so there are days when I might be cooking a meal for, say, 20 people, and in that case, I call in a sous chef and other staff. For the most part, though, I work alone in the family’s kitchen, which takes away a lot of the mental stress I would normally experience in a busy restaurant kitchen. I move between their New York City apartment and their homes in L.A., St. Bart’s and South Carolina.
What kind of food do you typically cook for the Buffetts?
I focus on New American French cuisine. I like to cook light, which means I use olive oil and lots of citrus and herbs instead of butter and sauces.
What advice did your BOCES teachers give you that has been invaluable to your success?
Both Chef Murphy and Chef T told me to focus on flavor profiles over everything else. That means if you have something that is naturally salty, pair it with something sweet. They also taught me an important lesson, which is, you only get out of life what you put into it.
What would you tell current BOCES students who want to pursue careers in the culinary arts?
Stick with it, find a mentor chef and do your best work.