VITAE NYC | A Sum Of Experiences | Interview To Chef Bellanco

Vitae is an authentic reflection of a sum of experiences lived by Chef Bellanco, owner of the restaurant.  Truly genuine personnel, an outstanding cuisine, a wide selection of wines from all over the world and signature cocktails; it’s just a glimpse of what you will experience at this upscale establishment in Midtown Manhattan.

  • Please shortly describe the gastronomy and lifestyle concept behind Vitae NYC. 
 When I first started the concept and business plan for Vitae it was almost the end of the world. The recession had hit hard and restaurants were closing left and right. Leman brothers, (where my wife was working at the time, was imploding and eventually ceased to exist.) The stock market was melting and big banks and the auto industry had already failed or were in the process of failing. The government was implementing too big to fail policy and bailing out the car, housing and bank industries. It was a crazy time and an even crazier time to even fathom opening a restaurant. Although I wasn’t exactly sure what Vitae was going to be yet, or even that is was going to be called Vitae, I was absolutely sure that opening a fine dining restaurant, at a time like this, would be a death sentence. I watched Chefs like David Chang having great success opening casual concepts with good food. Very early in the development phase, I wanted Vitae to hit all of the elements of a fine dining restaurant, great food, great wine, great cocktails and amazing service. I wanted it to have all of those elements but to still be very approachable. I wanted it to have a beautiful and timeless dining room. I knew that our location was going to attract all of the business men and women in our area so I wanted something for them as well. In short, I wanted to be and had to be a lot of things to a lot of people.
  •  What has inspired you to create Vitae? 
 I had been cooking for a very long time for some of the best chefs in the country and I felt that I was at a point in my life and my career where I too had something to offer to the culinary landscape. I felt that I could create a restaurant that could satisfy a certain need and clientele. I’m not trying to reinvent the New York dining but just add to it.
  • After experiencing so many different cities as a professional, why you came back to New York?
I’ve wanted to live in NYC ever since I could remember and the fact that I had an opportunity to own a restaurant in the city that I love is truly a dream come true. The minute that I finished college, I drove out here with everything that I owned, which all fit in the back of my jeep Cherokee. There is just a certain feeling that I have when I walk around this city that I don’t get anywhere else. It has a certain life and energy that makes me feel alive. I feel like I’m in the center of the world where everything is happening and it energizes me. I feel like I’m at the most happening party every day of my life.
  • What’s the meaning of Vitae as a name?
It was very difficult for me to come up with a name for the restaurant. Even during the build out I had no idea what I wanted to call it. Whenever anyone asked me what the restaurant was going to be like I would say that it was going to be the sum of my experiences. It would be a culmination of all of the restaurants and chefs that I’ve ever worked for. One person that I had mentioned that to said, “ oh yeah, its going to be your CV, curriculum vitae”. I thought about that for awhile and knew that curriculum vitae would be a terrible name for a restaurant. I looked at the word Vitae on its own, which translates to life in Latin and it suddenly it made sense to me. Vitae not only represents my life as a Chef but the life of the restaurant and the lives of the guests that come to my restaurant.

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  • What takes to be Executive Chef and owner of a restaurant at the same time?
As you rise through the ranks of the kitchen working your way from line cook to sous chef to Chef de cuisine to Executive Chef, those positions certainly help to prepare you for the chef part of the job. I can’t think of any position or anything that you can do that quite prepares you to be an owner and chef other than just doing it. I think you have to be 100% committed to making sure it works at all costs. In the beginning, we were really sucking the wind. We weren’t doing any business at all. There was a point in time where I would work the line and expedite so that I didn’t need to have another cook and expeditor on my payroll. After 5 years of being open, I still expedite all but one service. I do that because I know that the kitchen runs better, service is better and the food comes out better when I’m here. I trust my team do a good job, but who is going to be more invested in how the food goes out and how the service runs, than the chef/owner? I think that you have to be a strong but fair leader and don’t ask anything of your team that you wouldn’t do yourself. That leaves me with the ability to ask a great deal of them because there is nothing that I myself wouldn’t do.
  • What are the criteria behind the menu creation?
Seasonality is always the main criteria of menu creation. I also cook the way I like to eat every day. I never jump on fads or phases. I am just in constant pursuit of cooking good food and I will riff off of any cuisine. My emphasis is first and foremost flavor, but I also think that you owe it to your guest to make it interesting and look beautiful on the plate. I never want my guests to say “oh I can do that at home”. Even the simplest dishes on my menu exercises a great deal of technique. I always have the end user in the back of my mind when I am creating a dish. Although, I will say that I put some dishes on the menu that are just for me, even though I know that they won’t sell.
  • Simple and Clean is your mantra? Could you please extend this definition?
I don’t know if I would say that it is my Mantra, but it is certainly something that I strive for. I remember Tom Colicchio would always say that he is more apt to take something off of the plate than to put something on and that always resonated with me. It is actually a very difficult thing to do. I think its an exercise in being confident enough in the quality of your ingredients to let them shine on there own. With that said I’m always trying to balance a dish. I give a great deal of thought to acid and fat ratio in a dish. I also try to intensify any and all components of a dish whether it be through brining, seasoning, curing, poaching, confit. If I put a carrot on a dish, I will also juice carrots, reduce the liquid and mount it with some olive oil and use that as the sauce to cook the carrot. So now the carrot has a really great carrot flavor. It seems simple but that is one component on the dish. I use that mind set for every ingredient that I put on the plate.
  • What innovative components do you apply to the process of creation of his gastronomy proposals?
I don’t like fads or trends, I usually try to steer clear of those, but that’s not to say that good techniques or ideas don’t come out of that. For instance, I helped a friend of mine open a restaurant and it received great reviews. It was right at the time when everyone was doing everything out of the El Bulli playbook. Foams, sphereification and savory ice creams were ubiquitous. We had foams on eight different dishes little pearls on five different dishes and an onion ice cream that we served with the foie gras. The problem with these types of trends is that they go out as quickly as they came in. People that once loved foams now despise them. Critics that thought pearls and spherefication were so amazing now find them passé. I think that all of those techniques have a place, just like braising, sautéing and roasting. They are techniques that can be interspersed through your menu and sometimes I do. Taste and flavor never go out of style.

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  • Wine and Food. What’s your vision on that?
I never like to pigeonhole anyone into what wine they should enjoy with a certain dish. My very broad thought about it is that good wine goes with good food. We try and steer our tasting menu in a direction where we think the guest will find It most enjoyable based on their preferences. There are some classic pairings as we all know. A great Cab with a really bloody piece of beef or a nice Sancerre with fish poached in duck fat, but wine is infinite and endless and I don’t think that you always need to stick to the hard and fast rules. The best part is to experiment and discover new wines that pair well with different types of food.
  • Could you please describe your passion and love for cuisine?
 At the end of the day, I think everyone has a certain level of passion for food. We all need to eat to live. When we are hungry and we eat it satisfies the most primal need we have. We as humans refined this process of creating food and cuisine to satisfy those needs. Some are more passionate than others but most people love to satisfy their hunger. Where it becomes different when you’re a Chef is that you aren’t just trying to satisfy your hunger. You’re trying to satisfy your hunger in the most extraordinary ways. I often said that if I’m incredibly hungry and the food put in front of me is not good, I just won’t eat. A counter to that is if I’m not hungry, but someone puts something amazingly flavorful and delicious in front of me, I’ll eat it all.
  • How would you define the service your offer in Vitae NYC?
I think that our service is friendly, approachable and efficient without being stuffy and boring. That sounds like a stock answer, I know, but I always like to think from the perspective of the guest. I always like to envision myself as the guest at my restaurant and one of our captains walks up to the table. The question I answer immediately is, am I excited that this is the person that I’m going to be with for the next two hours? Or am I pulling my hair out because this is going to be the longest two hours of my life and I just want it to be over. Naturally, I would say that I genuinely like all of our FOH team and I feel lucky to have them working at Vitae.
  • What is top service for you?
Great service is one of those things that’s tough to put your finger on. You know when you’ve experienced it, but sometimes its hard to pinpoint what it is exactly that made it great. Our captains are challenged to read the tables. Sometimes there are guests that are conducting an important business meeting and they want our team to be as scarce as possible. Some of our guests are coming there for a very special meal and they want the big show and for us to make them feel like this Vitae was the best choice that they could make to celebrate their occasion. When I dine I like the captain to be incredibly knowledgeable about every aspect of the restaurant. I like for them to make me feel important and appreciated because after all, I am a guest in their restaurant.

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  • Could you please describe your client?
Our Clientele is a wide range, and rightfully so. As I mentioned we are trying to be a lot of things to a great many people. I want us to be the best of what the best cocktail bar, wine bar and fine dining restaurant have to offer. Are regular clientele think that we are a modestly priced restaurant where they can come and eat at a few times a week. Then we have some guest that have saved and this is going to be there one big blow out meal for the year. Then there is everyone in between. We have guests on their way to Grand Central that want to a have a pasta and a great glass of wine and a pasts and be out in an hour and we have guests that want to enjoy a seven course tasting with a wine pairing and spend a few hours doing it. We love them all!
  • How do Vitae’s gastronomy and culture get represented through the interior design?
 I think that Vitae’s design is clean, approachable, timeless and unpretentious and I feel the same about the food that we create and serve.
  •  Why does a wall of apples are exposed in the entrance Vitae’s vestibule?
The apples are a nod to David Bouley, one of the most influential chefs that I’ve ever worked for. He was not only influential to me but to many chefs here in the city and across the country. There are many chefs that have gone on to achieve great success and acclaim and a great deal of them have spent time in Bouley’s kitchens. I’ve also heard many people tell very nostalgic stories about the original Bouley. One detail that was constantly mentioned was how they would be transcended by the smell of apple the minute that they walked into that dining room. I loved those stories and I wanted to have people feel that way when they entered my restaurant.
  • What kind of private events services you offer?
We have sold out the entire restaurant for any type of event from Weddings, rehearsal dinner, to closing parties for law firms. We also have a mezzanine that overlooks the restaurant and we can do sit down dinners for up to 35 seated guests or cocktail parties with passed canapes for 45 to 50 guests.

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  • Are you planning to expand Vitae nationally or internationally?
I am certainly looking to grow nationally, but more specifically NYC. People have always asked me why I opened in New York City, it’s the toughest market in the country. I agree that it can be the toughest, but it can also be the most rewarding. Its also true that if New Yorkers don’t like you then your done, but if they do like you, then they really support you. I just take a very humble approach to try and satisfy their dining needs. I don’t know if I have some control issues, but I think you need to have a great presence in your restaurant. Your employees and your guests need to see that you are invested and care about what is happening in the restaurant. So if I were to open another restaurant it would more than likely be in close proximity to Vitae.
  • What is luxury for you?
 I have three kids under seven so my definition of luxury has changed a little bit at this point in my life. Now I would say that it is being able to enjoy a nice meal with my wife without one of my kids spilling something, crying or complaining through the entire meal and it is usually all of the above. With that said real luxury is going to a restaurant where they have thought of everything and leave you wanting for nothing.
  •  “Do you believe you can be, do and have anything you want?” What’s you take on that?

I Believe that given time, hard work, dedication, ultra laser focus on a vision, actually knowing what it is that you really want and the right backers, Then, yes I believe that you can be, do and have anything you want.