By Vincenza Di Maggio
“We have an opportunity to do something really special here, and things that are special take time,” says Chef Alex Stratta as he casually raises his hot cup of coffee and motions towards his surroundings.
He’s sitting at a table inside of his latest culinary endeavor, his newly opened New York City restaurant, Bigoli — http://bigolirestaurant.com/. It’s only 2pm and the restaurant has not yet opened for dinner. It’s quiet… peaceful – well, except for the occasional sounds of clinking plates and running water emanating from the kitchen as the staff prepares for the dinner crowd. The chairs still sit on top of the wooden tables. Light floods into the dining room through the enormous skylight above, and the brick oven has just been turned on, the fire slowly warming up the room. The relaxing atmosphere suits him.
He’s right, things that are special do take time. And who would know it better than him? For over 30 years the renowned chef has worked and succeeded in developing an exciting career; the majority of which was spent working in the kitchens of Michelin two-star restaurants. Stratta’s name has become synonymous with “fine dining” and often evokes images of white tablecloths, elegantly folded napkins, mahogany coffered ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and tiny food portions. But with the opening of Bigoli, a casual neighborhood Italian restaurant located in Greenwich Village, he has decided to leave the luxurious dining experience behind. In fact, he’s stepping away from heat of the stove entirely and exploring a different aspect of the culinary industry – restaurant consulting. He says, “After 30 years of experience I’m doing something completely new which is what’s exciting about the restaurant business.”
It’s a business that’s in his blood. Stratta’s roots in the hospitality industry reach back to his great great grandfather who once owned a hotel in Piemonte, a Northern region of Italy bordering France and Switzerland. Generations later, across the Atlantic Ocean, Stratta’s father continued the family tradition by running a hotel company that required Stratta to make frequent trips from New York to Connecticut. As a fifth generation hotelier Stratta says, “I grew up surrounded by good food and good service. It became a part of who I was. I naturally gravitated towards the kitchen.”
Stratta started working his first kitchen job at the age of 15 at Manero’s Steakhouse in Greenwich, Connecticut. He slowly worked his way from dishwasher, to line cook, and 20 years later to executive chef at Mary Elaine’s restaurant at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. Years later he was invited by Steve Wynn to the Wynn Las Vegas Resort where he worked as executive chef of his two namesake restaurants, Alex and Stratta. It was in the kitchen of these fine dining restaurants that he really established himself as one of Las Vegas’ most notable chefs.
Stratta, who has become somewhat of a celebrity, thinks back to the beginning of his career and recalls, “When I was a cook and becoming a chef it wasn’t such an admirable position as it is now. The biggest challenge for me is finding the balance between being someone who is in the kitchen just doing their trade, and now being someone who is in the forefront representing a brand or a level of quality that is at the center of the media’s eye.” Following in the growing media trend, Stratta decided to make a few television appearances himself, first on Iron Chef as the “Italian Scallion,” and then on Bravo’s reality competition show, Top Chef Masters, about which he laughs, “I thought that in order to reinvent myself I would do some appearances on television to see what it was really like. I learned that it’s probably not for me. I’m pretty low-key.”
Stratta may have discovered that the world of reality television stardom does not suit him, but reinvent himself he has. His lengthy career has allowed him to explore various aspects of the culinary industry, but recently he has ventured into a field that he admits he had never before given much consideration to, healthcare – a growing interest undoubtedly sparked by his personal struggle with cancer. Through his participation on Top Chef Masters Stratta donated $20,000 to Faster Cures, an organization that researches all life-threatening disease and “puts it’s money where it’s worth.”
His effort to help others does not end here. Stratta contemplates his career and says, “If I had to do it all over again I would have taken my classical training and gone into more nutritious things rather then focusing on luxury things only. I always just paid attention to making something taste good and using exotic products, never to the nutritional value of a lifestyle that’s conducive to health. If I had started eating better earlier maybe I wouldn’t have the health problems that I had. Maybe we in general wouldn’t have these health problems if good flavorful healthy foods were more approachable and more available.”
Stratta is currently working with Solutions Recovery, an Alzheimer’s clinic in Las Vegas. He says, “There is nothing worse than losing your memory. I’m spending some time trying to develop menus and food programs that will facilitate great health. I’m taking brain foods (foods that that are high in anti-oxidants) and making them taste better. My goal is to develop menus and nutrition programs that are tasty so that you can actually look forward to your meal instead of say, ‘Oh great, here come the carrot sticks.’”
When he was unexpectedly diagnosed with colon cancer almost four years ago, shortly before the birth of his twins – his eyes light up at even the slightest mention of them – Stratta was forced to make a few major lifestyle changes. He says, “I was always very focused on my job; I needed to prioritize.” He is now ready to embark on his next adventure as a restaurant consultant for Bigoli. He says, “I decided to go into consulting so that I had more time to spend with my kids. I can work very hard for 6 days and then get away for 6 days.”
Bigoli is Stratta’s first foray into restaurant consulting. When he and his sous chef from Alex restaurant, Joe Swan, opened Bigoli they decided to venture outside of their comfort zone and try a different variety of restaurant that does not include fine china and the use of three different kinds of forks. With the opening of Bigoli Stratta is aiming to provide New Yorkers with an Italian restaurant that is “casual and rustic in a sophisticated way. Something people can identify with at any level, whether they’re foodies or they just like to eat.”
Bigoli is located on a quiet, residential street. Passers-by who walk down West 14th street are inevitably drawn to the brilliant red awning of the restaurant. As they venture down the stairs and pull open the intricate iron wrought doors they retreat into the cozy atmosphere of the restaurant which echoes Stratta’s vision of creating a “fun, relaxed atmosphere where people can enjoy a nice salad or bowl of pasta, cooked with utmost care, and feel good about it at a price level where it’s something they can come back to 2-3 times a week.”
However, as the saying goes, you can take Stratta out of fine dining but you can’t take the fine dining out of Stratta. Upon entering the restaurant customers are immediately greeted by the manager and led past the patrons who are casually socializing while enjoying a glass of wine at the bar, into the dining hall. This, as well as the delicately refined presentation of the dishes, and the use of fine ingredients are just a few instrumental touches that lend in filling the restaurant with an elegant air reminiscent of Stratta’s previous experience in fine dining restaurants.
While Stratta is most known for making his fine dining mark in Las Vegas he is no stranger to the New York Food scene. In the early years of his career, during the mid 1980’s, Stratta worked at Le Cirque under Chef Danielle Boulud, who Stratta says, “has almost become a brand within himself.” Now that Stratta is back, twenty years later, he says that one of the main challenges of his job as a restaurant consultant is crafting a menu that will adequately serve a very “food-focused” New York clientele.
Stratta notes a significant difference between his clientele in Las Vegas and New York. He says, “In Vegas people are there for entertainment purposes. They are there for three days with their wallets open, looking for a quick fix good time. You catch people who are on their snippets of vacation, you have to give them one snap of what you do.” The New York food scene is a very different experience, one that he must adapt to. He says, “It’s amazing how important food is to [New Yorkers]. I think it’s exacerbated by the fact that there is so much competition. It’s very much more a part of their daily lifestyle. [In New York] you have to develop a relationship with the clientele so that they will come back. It’s a lot more challenging.”
The challenge to keep demanding New Yorkers happy is magnified since, as a consultant, Stratta is only present at Bigoli one week a month. In his absence he trusts his sous chef, Joe Swan, to be in charge of the kitchen. “Discipline and passion” are the two most important qualities for a person to have when working in a kitchen and Stratta promises, “[Joe Swan] has got what it takes to make it happen. I’m finding that when you have very good people who know how to do things, appreciate it and understand, they can develop through just an introduction of your system and your style of cooking. I spend about a week a month here and we talk about the restaurant, what the challenges are, what’s working, what’s not, and we change the menu.”
It may seem odd that after having finally established himself in his career Chef Stratta has suddenly decided to make a change and shift gears, but he is ready to embark on a new exciting chapter in his life. In his efforts to sustain healthcare and his new role as a restaurant consultant Stratta has not abandoned the skills he has honed throughout the 30 years of his career; instead he takes his experiences with him and is now applying them to different aspects of the culinary industry. Stratta shares his excitement over the new route his career is beginning to take and says, “I’m excited to be part of the New York food scene and to see the progress of the restaurant.” Making it in New York City is no easy feat and Stratta admits, “The growing pains are substantial. Sometimes I’m not as patient as I’d like to be, I want everything now.”