John Villa is the executive chef at Tao, the city’s highest grossing restaurant. Read on to learn how this Italian-trained cook — who counts Daniel Boulud and Ruth Reichl as fans — ended up whipping up Peking duck every night.
You hit it big right after culinary school. In a highly competitive New York restaurant scene, what’s that like?
There’s a lot of competition among restaurants. Chefs in general are competitive with each another but we want others to succeed. Everyone wants everyone to be busy. We’re more competing with ourselves to do better.
Who pushes you as a chef?
At Tao, the owners know what they want. If something is not right, in a positive way they tell you that you can do better or you can do more. Our goal is always to make the guest experience as good as it can. We really stress that from the dishwaters to the top. Every day you come in thinking about what you can do better for the company and the guest. I’m constantly pushing myself, but if you don’t have support like that you could fall into a lull.
Who has influenced your career?
My brother was a chef. He got me in the business. My parents always went out to eat and I loved being out in restaurants, so that gave me the love of restaurants, and my brother showed me behind the scenes. I realized later on that a lot of my inspiration came from my Italian grandparents. My love of food came from them. They made their own pasta and canned their own tomatoes.
How did you go from an Italian cooking background to becoming executive chef at an Asian restaurant?
In New York you really see a lot of everything. You’re not pigeonholed into one thing. Growing up with Italian food and knowing it so well, I didn’t really want to cook Italian. Coming up in New York I worked with chefs that used a lot of Japanese ingredients. It just grew from there.
What dish matches the style you want to convey for the restaurant?
Peking Duck. It’s sharable but it’s also a technical process to make that duck. I think we do it as good as anybody. It’s a certain way you have to make that, and you have to be really skilled. People look at us like we’re a factory but you eat that duck and realize it’s some of the best Peking Duck you’ll have in the country. That’s what Tao’s about. You’ll have a great time when you’re there and you realize the food is as good as can be.
What separates a chef in New York from a chef anywhere else in the country?
I don’t realize until I leave the city how everything moves very fast in New York. There’s always something going on. We never let down. We’re busy from the minute we open to the minute we close. You really can’t slow down.