A Top Chef Goes Slumming

Harold Dieterle

The air is thick and sticky in the empty afternoon dining room of his stellar first restaurant in New York’s West Village, Perilla. It’s a Friday in September of 2008, pre-service. And its owner and chief cook in command, also the first winner of Bravo’s Top Chef, Harold Dieterle (pictured right), is about to share his childhood food memories with me.

He breaks away to turn on the AC.

And soon, stories are divulged.

Dieterle was one of the first people to agree to participate in this project, not long after he became a foodie household name in 2006. He is boyishly handsome, easy to talk to and pretty modest, given his prestigious title. Though it happened in the realm of small screen entertainment, the title is well deserved: he is fantastic with food. It was in his restaurant that I first tasted farro, and the top chef’s creamy preparation of the grain, risotto style, studded with lusciously plump, juicy grapes, I hope will never leave my collection of taste memories. It was with that dish I resolved to interview him for this project in its early stages, and he graciously agreed.

A high school tennis star, he took Home Ec to meet girls – and in the process, discovered something that focused him in a way nothing else had.

“I have really bad ADD,” he confesses. “But sometimes coming here doesn’t really feel like work.”

Maybe it’s because food was “never an afterthought” but a focal point in his mostly Italian-American upbringing in Suffolk County, Long Island.

“My mom cooked, my grandmother cooked, and all of my aunts cooked,” he shares. “Even now, there’s always good food when I go home for the holidays.”

Harold Dieterle, age 11, featured in Newsday

Circa 1988, the cameras of local Long Island paper Newsday caught an 11-year-old Harold Dieterle “crabbing” with his grandfather at a local beach. Photo credit: Newsday Photos/Daniel Goodrich

This top chef’s childhood saw many a Sunday dinner at grandma’s house, crabbing with his grandfather and summers full of blueberries, thanks to the bushes in his family’s backyard.

His first real kitchen job was as a dishwasher, “which sucked – but then I became a line cook [at about 16] and loved it.” He describes its greatness in a way that makes perfect sense from the perspective of a teenage boy: “I was cooking, in a T-shirt, around girls, drinking booze. It was great,” he laughs. This experience eventually led to a professional kitchen education at the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Though it was an “intense program” where he got good grades, he says the path to professional cooking does not necessitate culinary school: “If you want to cook, you cook!” – which after graduating, he did at a variety of increasingly esteemed restaurants before going on TV, then opening his first and, now, second (with Kin Shop) restaurants.

But first, the family stuff.

Any fans of his appearance on Bravo are well aware of Dieterle’s meatball love – he made them on the show – and naturally, his adulation of that dish stems from his childhood.

“I grew up eating a lot of meatballs,” he shares. “Every Sunday we’d go to my grandmother’s house for macaroni, meatballs and braised pig’s feet.

“We’d get there around noon, and I’d say she’d been cooking since about 6:00 am. We’d walk in the front door, and it was like, ‘Oh, grandma’s on it.’

“The meal would be pretty long, and it was pretty much the same meal every Sunday. We’d always start off with salad – my first introduction to watercress. Now, I love it, but then – I didn’t get it. I was like, ‘I want to eat iceberg with thousand island on it, Grandma. Not this.’”

He describes the salad as simple: finely chopped watercress, dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, thinly sliced red onions, salt and pepper – all mixed in a wooden bowl, with a wooden fork and spoon. Notably, his grandfather would sit at the head of the table with a jar of B&G hot peppers to accompany his salad, and his alone. “No one else would touch them.”

“But the meatballs – they were something else,” he enthuses. “Everybody in my family has made them, but they were never like Grandma’s. Not bad, just always different. Grandma’s secret – and it’s nothing crazy – was that she just cooked the shit out of them. I don’t know if nobody else had the patience or time, or what it was really, but nobody could get a four- or five-hour braise on their meatballs like Grandma.”

And then there were the pig’s feet.

“We would all be freaking out. My father’s German and Irish, and he’d be like, I’m not eating that crap.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t his Italian grandmother but the 100 percent Irish one who did the big Italian Sunday dinners.

Long before becoming a chef, Dieterle first remembers experimenting with flavor combinations when he mixed together corn and mashed potatoes on his plate. “I remember getting hollered at because my father thought it was the grossest thing ever. But it was my first experience putting different flavors and textures together – and I remember thinking, wow, this is so good.”

He also recalls how he first realized the way salt accentuates flavor. “The first time I put it on a piece of steak – it was like magic in my mouth.” At the time of the interview, Dieterle was using four different kinds of salt in his restaurant: fine sea salt; kosher; super coarse, flaky sea salt; and Hawaiian pink.

Though his palate has evolved to welcome most foods he may have disliked as a child (like watercress), he admits he still despises raw bell peppers – especially green.  “Green bell peppers I really won’t eat, ever.” This, I secretly love, since I find them to be disruptive in my own kitchen as well.

When it comes to desserts, he says he likes acidity in his sweets and gravitates toward citrus curd and passionfruit preparations, the latter especially in soufflé form. He also loves blueberries.

“We had blueberry bushes in our backyard growing up,” he says. “With two bushes the amount of blueberries we would get was insane. It was ridiculous how many blueberries we had in our house between late July and early September. They had to be picked because they would go bad, so we’d just be doing stuff with blueberries until October.”

Without blueberry bushes of my own, I have to rely on the local farmers’ market for my buckle supply. These came to Oakland from Alpine Blue Farms in Stockton, California.

His mom, a great baker, would find myriad ways to manage all these berries – but the three things she made best were pie, muffins, and “this thing that she used to call a blueberry buckle.”

“I’d never really heard of it,” Dieterle confesses about the classic American dessert, essentially a cross between cobbler and coffee cake. “It’s got cinnamon crumbs on top – a cinnamon streusel – and it’s served with vanilla ice cream, and it’s on.”

Though the family has long since moved out of that house and away from the prized blueberry bushes, Dieterle remembers the dessert fondly and has had to find alternate ways to get his fix as an adult.

“I’d walk into the kitchen with my old chef and have one of those little coffee talk boxes with the blueberry pie in it,” he reminisced. “He would totally make fun of me. He’d be like, I love blueberries but you’re eating that shit! What’s wrong with you?

“’Dude,’” he quoted himself, “’it’s December. Where am I going to get blueberries?’ This was when I was working around 120 hours a week. It was like, ‘I just want a blueberry pie, man, don’t break my balls. I just want some blueberry pies.’ In certain situations, you’ve got to go slumming every once in awhile.”

As he’s laughing at himself, I giggle a little at the baseness of blueberries, still in disbelief that I’m sitting there chatting with Harold Dieterle, who I fell a little for in the TV way two years prior. I think back to my dinner at Perilla – nary a sign of a canned or packaged item in any course of the deliciously bright meal. I love that his story reminds me that even chefs, those committed to the freshest ingredients and most flavorful food preparations, have their vending machine moments.

I wonder about his father. Did he contribute to the family meals?

“After my parents separated, my father started to cook,” he shares. “He didn’t used to, but my stepmom doesn’t cook,” he chuckles, “so I think he thought he’d better figure it out.

“He’s really good on the barbecue, he makes good brownies,” Dieterle ticks off the patriarch’s culinary skills. “Nothing crazy, but he can put a nice roast together.”

Put a nice roast together. This phrase stays with me. It seems to speak to generations of family cooking and a task that typically falls to the mother, reminding me of my mom, my friends’ moms, and now Harold Dieterle’s dad. Whether a perfect meatball, a nice roast, or a blueberry buckle, Dieterle seems to hail from a family of culinarians, be they natural or situational. Knowing this makes me appreciate that creamy farro risotto in a new way. And with his mother’s buckle recipe, I need never lower my standards for a serious blueberry fix…

Harold Dieterle’s Mom’s Blueberry Buckle

For the blueberry cake:

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • Nonstick spray, as needed

In a mixer, cream together the sugar, egg and butter.  Alternately add the milk and dry ingredients. Mix till smooth. Spray a baking vessel (earthenware or glass baking dish or large pie plate) with nonstick spray. Add the mixture to the vessel, give it a quick shake until it is evenly level. Add the blueberries to the top of the mixture.

For the crumb topping:

  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup) butter
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix all ingredients together. Place on top of the blueberry mixture. Bake entire vessel at 375 for about 30 minutes or till cooked inside. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

4 thoughts on “A Top Chef Goes Slumming

  1. Laura: What a wonderful piece. Shanna told me about your blog, raved about your wonderful writing style, and guess what… she was right. I just signed up to follow your posts. What a treat.
    Rodger Stein

  2. Laura, this is fantastic! I’m so glad you posted this one. I remember when you interviewed Harold and how excited you were at starting your food writing project. This is awesome! Miss you.

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