At the Centro of the culinary universe
Centro Vinoteca's Anne Burrell on breaking balls and breaking into the all-boys chefs' club
- By Jacqui Gal
Anne Burrell is nothing if not incredibly excited. After steadily advancing through New York’s culinary scene—working at Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia and Mario Batali’s Italian Wine Merchants, with a stint teaching at the Culinary Institute on the side—she’s now the executive chef at Centro Vinoteca in the West Village.
A sleek and inviting bi-level space, “chentro” as Burrell pronounces it, buzzes with activity whenever she works the open-facing kitchen…and so far, that’s always. She hasn’t had a day off in the three weeks since the restaurant opened.
Burrell is only too keenly aware that her enthusiasm and “super-positive attitude” permeate the food. “Food is like a dog,” she says. “It smells fear.”
“When you’re cooking, if you’re nervous, if your upset, if you’re happy, unhappy, if you’re so psyched, it reflects in your food,” she notes. And for those less metaphysically attuned, there’s clearly a visual energy generated by the spectacle of spiky-blonde Burrell designating tasks in “Span-ital-glish,” in full view of the bar.
Although she became accustomed to cooking in front of small crowds at her previous posts, it was during the last two years, when she was Mario Batali’s sous chef on “Iron Chef America,” that Burrell really cemented her star power. And she loves her twist on the kitchen stadium.
“I very much feed off the energy of people,” she says. “Being a chef, you provide pleasure to people, and it’s so much fun to see that instant gratification and feedback. It’s what energizes me.” She adds, “If I was the kind of chef that was stuck in a back kitchen, it would suck the life out of me. This does exactly the opposite—it’s like putting gas on a fire.”
Burrell has garnered a good amount of attention for her piccolini, a wide selection of seasonally inspired small plates (it means “tiny” in Italian). Among the offerings this summer: truffle-laced deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms, chicken-liver pate and fried cauliflower.
“You go to a lot of places and they may have one, two or three things of that ilk, but I have, like, 15 things on my menu,” she says. “So, I really wanted it to be something that set us apart.”
She also points to her braised oxtail cakes with celery salad or rabbit involtino stuffed with sausage and pine nuts as examples of her personal twists on Italian flavors.
Reigning them in
Recent movies like “Ratatouille” or reality-TV programs like “Top Chef”—which Burrell says is her “guilty pleasure”—would have you believe that being a successful female chef requires an extra-special amount of, well, ball-breaking. Do women have to be super-tough to make it in the culinary world?
“Sure, I’m totally a ball breaker—you have to be. Guys are. I guess it’s just expected of guys, [but there’s a different reaction] when girls do it, maybe because there are so few girls.”
She adds, “This is not a vocation for a shrinking violet or someone who is shy and laid-back. There is no room for that here. It’s too hard of a business—there’s too much going on.”
Besides, says Burrell, “I have always just done my thing. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I am just having a blast with it. Whether I’m a girl or a guy, whatever, I just want to cook food. I am really proud to call myself [a chef]. I don’t know. Girl chef, boy chef, I don’t really care.”