Mario Carbone is food’s most unexpected celebrity

Chef Mario Carbone

I was working for Black Sheep Restaurants the first time I met Mario Carbone. He was in town for Carbone Hong Kong’s (a Black Sheep Restaurant) second anniversary. At that point, I had been on the group’s communications team for over a year, and though I wasn’t on that particular account, co-founder Syed Asim Hussain asked me to sit in on their weekly meeting. Mario, he told me, was giving his speech.

I was curious, but not excited. In my experience, giving a chef license to speak for an undisclosed amount of time could only go in two directions: endless narcism or painful awkwardness. Mario was sitting at the table, reading glasses on, pouring over a large yellow legal pad. He was unassuming, even easy to miss. He seemed nervous. When he told us he was going to read his ‘Who We Are and Why We Are Important’ speech, my soul shrivelled and I readied for the worst.

I was wrong.

Carbone Hong Kong, a recreation of mid-20th century Manhattan

Mario came alive, and for those few minutes he was the only person in the room. He was completely captivating in a way few chefs are – they, by nature, being solitary creatures. He told the story of Carbone, illuminating the concept beyond its physical space, contextualising it into history in a way no one before him could. The speech wasn’t about him, not at all. It was about us, the people that were responsible for keeping his legacy (and history) alive and thriving each day. And it was mesmerising. It’s a speech he gives to each of his restaurant teams at least once a year to keep them inspired. Listening to it I understood, if only for a moment, how cults form. When someone speaks so passionately, you don’t just drink the Kool-Aid, you swim in it.

Fast-forward a year, and we meet again across the very same table. He is back in town to introduce a selection of new dishes. Things like black truffle manicotti, with a rich spinach ricotta filling and brown butter crespelle, or my favourite, the squash agrodolce served with whipped crème fraiche and spiced pumpkin seeds. In classic Carbone style, nothing is revolutionary, but everything is delicious.

He is hesitantly charming and cautiously engaging as he introduces each dish to the table of journalists. He cracks a softly-spoken joke, and then quickly retreats to his preparations. His attention is always on the kitchen, and his comfort zone seems to be there too. He is, by his own admission, an introvert – more comfortable behind the pass than in front of the cameras. But that hasn’t stopped him from creating some of the most dramatic, hyped-up concepts in New York. 

A lot has changed in the past 12 months for Mario and his Major Food Group team, most notably the re-opening of the iconic Seagram Building, the site of the old The Four Seasons restaurant. “It was a slap-me moment,” he explains, leaning back into the banquette and remembering when he found out they, out of countless suitors, had won the bid for Manhattan’s most storied space. Major Food did what they do best: they brought the past to the present, and resurrected a time when lunches consisted of strong martinis and thick steaks. 

A spread of family style 'red sauce' New York Italian fare at Carbone Hong Kong

They have divided the Seagram Building space into three distinct concepts: The Pool, The Lobster Club and The Grill. The latter is Mario’s pet-project, and comes complete with all the pomp and circumstance people have come to expect from him: table-side service, flaming dishes, duck presses and old-school glamour. But for him, the beauty is in the details. “When I’m cooking at The Grill, I just giggle to myself. I put so much sauce on that it goes to the rim of the plate, and that makes me giggle. That sort of old-school dining is something I love and get a kick out of.”

Though diners may not giggle at the sauce the same way he does, they obviously feel a strong draw to the era, because they’re flocking to the newly opened space in droves. There are new guests, eager to experience that bit of old-world opulence, and there are guests from the restaurant’s former life, eager to return. “For the ones who came back and embraced what we did, they’re happy. They’re back at their seats, back at their tables, eating what they ate.” He’s even hired a familiar face from the restaurant’s original team: former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton. “She has lunch here once a week, and she’s rarely impressed,” he quips with a laugh. 

He’ll even whip up an old favourite if it’s not on the menu, just to help them feel that much more at home. When he talks about his stalwart guests, he is animated once again. “To have people like Henry Kissinger coming back every week, I mean, he sat there with JFK!”

Carbone is an unlikely student of history, and yet that seems to be at the core of his passions. The man who describes himself as a “scholastically challenged” child, now lives by the words of great men gone by. “Before the New York Times review, I read the team Roosevelt’s speech, ‘The Man in the Arena’. It will give you chills. We hang it everywhere, use it all the time and talk about it all the time. I love that speech man.” Above one of his kitchen’s in New York is a quote by John F. Kennedy. Spicy rigatoni vodka, a staple at Carbone

He has built a career on reimagining the past and immersing himself in, pulling specific moments in time into the present. Moments like mid-20th century New York, the era that inspired Carbone. “This is the food of my being,” he says describing the large, family-style ‘red sauce’ dishes, “I am an Italian by way of New York, and I was afraid my culture would slip away.” To save it, he hit the books, tirelessly researching the era, so that he could revive it—if only within the confines of his four walls. “Where the food is today, I don’t love it. I wanted to put it back, like sliding the type-writer back.” 

In less than a decade, Mario Carbone has been catapulted from chef to phenomenon. He operates some of the city’s most popular restaurants, opened the most anticipated concepts of 2017 and has even been immortalised in a rap lyric. Drake gave the New York restaurant a shout out in his 2017 single “Do Not Disturb”. Mario had no idea it was coming. “It dropped, and my phone exploded! I’m not on texting terms with Drake, but I was sure to thank him the next time I saw him,” he says excitedly, “I was hoping I would be a lyric!”

Now that he has achieved it all, the only question left to ask is, what comes next? “That’s a conversation we have a lot,” he says. “We’re not going to retire, so we need to find things that will make us equally excited.” For now, that means a tiki bar. An unusual addition to the Major Food Group portfolio, but a fun one. It will open this spring in New York’s Times Square. 

In this Story: #icons / #culture / #dining