Steve Martorano can tell you exactly what’s wrong with the Food Network cooks. “They don’t taste their food! Ever see them taste as they cook or eat the final plates? That stuff must taste really bad. It’s all about entertainment – not cooking.”
He’s out to change that. The South Florida celeb chef, owner of Cafe Martorano in Fort Lauderdale, and restaurants in Las Vegas and Hollywood, Fla., stars in his own cooking show online: Yo, Cuz; The Italian-American Cook starting July 20.
In a phone interview, he explained his show and why he went to the Internet for broadcast.
Networks turned him down
“The Food Network approached me four years ago, but they wanted me to do a reality show – more about me and the people I deal with and following me around. I wanted a cooking show to teach my food – they didn’t want that. They thought I was too big – I had too many tattoos, and was too edgy to just teach cooking. They said I looked too orange.”
It was ironic, he said. The chefs on TV he was watching weren’t working a stove behind a restaurant line seven days a week as he still is – and many no longer even own a restaurant. “Who are they teaching – other chefs? Who will learn from that? I want to teach the home cooks – people who don’t even know how to hold a knife and give them confidence in themselves in the kitchen.”
Martorano got backing for the production from the Hard Rock Casino where he has Martorano’s Italian-American Kitchen, and went his own way — online.
“I don’t have recipes. No,” he said. “I grew up like everybody else in the Italian-American community – we learned by watching. My mother never had a recipe, my grandmother never had a recipe – none of the aunts, cousins, their grandmothers – nobody had recipes. If I wanted to learn to make something, my mom would say, ‘Watch.’ That’s how I learned.”
No recipes – ‘Cooking is passion’
Martorano, from south Philadelphia, is self-taught. He’s gained notoriety not only having the best meatballs in the country — according to Gourmet magazine — but for his larger-than-life presence and celebs he’s attracted to his club-like restaurants.
He has a boxer’s physique he displays behind tank tops and tight T-shirts, which also reveal all the inkwork along his arms. He wears rap star-like bling – including an NBA Championship ring given to him by his friend, Shaquille O’Neal. He drops names, talks about respect and being “real” in a Stallone-as-Rocky patois.
But he repeatedly attributes his success as a restaurateur and entrepreneur to constant work, and above all, passion. “You and I cook. It’s not always perfect, nothing is ever perfect every time. Cooking is supposed to be about passion – you gotta have passion to cook. You’re making something to feed someone, to nourish them. You should have a passion about it.”
The creativity has been removed from most TV cooking shows, he said. “We’re talking about having fun, the creativity of cooking. Not science. You cook from only recipes, and that’s science. That’s math. We’re not building a car or a rocket – we’re cooking – providing nourishment and comfort. It should be creative – not always perfect.”
Peasant, simple food
He’ll be teaching comfort Italian dishes he grew up eating and still eats today. Chicken cacciatore, homemade pizza cheesesteaks, roasted peppers, linguine with clam sauce and orichette with escarole and beans and sausage.
“This is simplistic food with good flavor – peasant food, if you will,” he said. “Beans, greens, eggplant, mozzarella. Simple tomato sauces – not complex sauces. It’s what my restaurant is all about and all about fresh ingredients.
“Anyone can make this,” he said, “and they’ll learn by watching. I’m going to talk about the ingredients and tell them, if you want to add more garlic, go ahead. Make it to your taste. And don’t worry if you add too much – next time, you’ll do it better and that’s how you learn to cook – from experience.”
He’ll talk on the show about what’s made him the man he’s become – the self-professed “godfather” of a mini-empire of businesses, including the successful and critically acclaimed restaurants, a line of pasta sauces, and soon, perhaps a pizza-by-the-slice chain that will be in hotels with clubs. “It’s not for the Marriott, but for hotels with hip clubs and pool scenes,” he said. “They’ll be 400 square-foot places, no tables or chairs, where you can go late night and get a slice to go or stand there and eat. There’s nowhere to go in the hotels where you can get a bite after your shift at a club. That’s what I’m looking at.”
A sandwich shop is still a possibility, too. But for now, it’s TV. “I’m sitting down with the Food Network again. They saw one of my shows and things are different there now. You’ve seen their changes – I’m not so edgy as what they used to think. They have guys with tattoos on there now.”
He’ll end each show with a bit of inspirational wisdom that keeps him humble and always watching out for what he has. “You can’t let your guard down. Someone’s always after it. I’ve had all kinds of s*** come at me – everyone has their own type of troubles. You can get through it, though and it makes you a better person. That’s what we all strive for everyday – to be better.”
Martorano has detailed his rise to fame in a new book, Yo Cuz. My Life, My Food, My Way released this fall.
Watch the first episode of the web show starting July 20 on his website, www.cafemartorano.com.