What Big Night Taught a Professional Chef About Cooking and Commerce

The Dissolve
Stories from The Dissolve.
Sept. 11 2013 3:25 PM

“This Is What I Want to Be”

What Big Night taught a professional chef about cooking and commerce. Plus: What to eat when watching it.

In “Perfect Pairing,” the Dissolve interviews chefs about a longtime favorite movie; the perfect dish they’d make to serve with a viewing; and the intersection of food, film, and their careers. Click here for the previous installment.

Rodelio Aglibot
Rodelio Aglibot

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Burberry

The chef: Rodelio Aglibot is a chef, a successful restaurateur, and a sought-after consultant who starred in his own two-part TLC series, Food Buddha, in 2010. Born in the Philippines, raised in Hawaii, and trained as a chef in San Francisco and West Virginia, he tends toward a pan-Asian influence in his menus for ventures like Los Angeles’ popular Koi Restaurant, where he was the opening executive chef, and L.A.’s Yi Cuisine, which he owned. More recently, he was founding chef at Chicago’s Sunda and the corporate executive chef for the BLT Restaurant Group. He’s guested on TV shows ranging from Entertainment Tonight to the Today show to Ellen. His latest venture, E+O Food and Drink, which opened in spring 2013 in Mount Prospect, Ill., is a new American restaurant that focuses on fusing elements from the earth and the ocean—hence the name.

In person, Aglibot comes across as more Buddha than businessman; he’s a warm, talkative man who can’t stand the word foodie, which he says smacks of show-offy elitism. He uses it in interviews because it’s the term du jour to convey “knowledgeable, gourmet-focused food fans,” but he says he and his friends transpose the letters and call themselves “doofies” instead: “I’d rather be called a doofie, because you can laugh at it … I appreciate any chef—or anybody who cooks for anybody, even outside of a restaurant.”

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The terrific, cultishly loved 1996 movie Big Night, written by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano and directed by Tucci and Campbell Scott, has a particular meaning for Aglibot, given its themes about the struggle between cooking as an art and cooking as a business. Tucci and Tony Shalhoub star as Italian brothers nursing a failing Jersey Shore restaurant and perpetually fighting over how to save their business. The older brother, Primo (Shalhoub), is a perfectionist chef and an artisan who resents having to bow to commercial tastes. The younger, Secondo (Tucci), manages the restaurant and his brother with equal care and is willing to compromise with the public—especially having seen how well their neighbor Pascal (Ian Holm) is doing with his popular night spot serving indifferent food. Then Pascal promises to bring Louis Prima to eat at their restaurant, which unites the brothers behind the idea of one big night to impress their celebrity guest: the kind of celebratory orgy of culinary creation and consumption that defines a food movie. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

The Dissolve: Why is Big Night your favorite film?

130911_DISSOLVE_BigNight

Rodelio Aglibot: The first time I saw the movie was in 1996. I graduated culinary school in 1995. Being a chef was a career change; I used to be an engineer. Here I was—23, 24 years old—searching for what I’m supposed to do, finally saying, “You know what? I’m supposed to be a chef. I’m supposed to cook.” And this little part of me said, “What if I’m not?” [Laughs.] It scared the crap out of me. So when it came out, I was about to embark on the next phase of my career. And somebody told me, “You need to watch this movie.” The characters really came through with me.

My favorite scenes—at the end of a service night, Primo leaves the restaurant, and he’s walking on the beach. Secondo runs and finds him, and he’s saying, “All I want to do is cook. These people don’t know what they want. I just want to cook.” It really captured, for me, the artistry of what cooking is. I don’t do it for anything else but just wanting to cook. My parents taught me that cooking is a gift. But I understanding where Secondo is like, “It’s also a business. We need to survive.”

Finding that balance—that’s where the movie captured me. My other favorite is at the end of the movie, where Secondo’s making scrambled eggs for his brother, and nothing has to be said.

I encourage young chefs now to see that movie, because it still represents the struggle all executive chefs should have. If you take the “executive” part of the title out, you’re just the chef, so you’re really with the food. But executive chef, now you’re a businessperson. I was fortunate enough to grasp that early in my career, so I’ve been able to not so much compromise as yield to my own acceptance of that.

The Dissolve: Have you seen the film again since that first viewing?

Aglibot: I saw it again on Netflix maybe two months ago.

The Dissolve: Does it play significantly different for you after years in the industry?

Aglibot: I’ve obviously grown, but what still remains the same are the scenes of “This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be.” And “What do you want me to do, cook a hot dog?”

I make those jokes all the time. But what I’ve learned is, as a chef, I shouldn’t be prejudiced about anything I cook or who I cook for. It should just be for the spirit and the art. For me, it’s not only a big night, it’s a bigger picture. That’s why it still reinforces my beliefs.

The Dissolve: The central tension in the movie, though, is between Primo’s love of elaborate, delicate, traditional food and the customers who just want spaghetti. Do you feel that tension in your work?

Aglibot: I would say in the last 15 years, that tension has lessened, because people are really well-educated about food now. It’s important to be approachable and make the customer comfortable, but once they start tasting your food and get comfortable with your restaurant, you can bring things to the next level. You know, we have bone marrow on the menu at E+O, because I want to eat it. I didn’t think it was going to sell in the suburbs. And guess what? We sell a lot of it. So the tension in the movie, where the lady’s like, “I would like a side of pasta with my risotto,” that’s lessened. Still, if someone came into my restaurant and said, “Rod, we would like a side of rice with the fried rice,” I’d be like, “Ohh-K. Really? Why?” But my ego has matured to where, if somebody wants to eat that way, who am I to tell them how to eat?

The Dissolve: Do you think this movie would play as well today? It was an underground hit back in its day, but as you say, with the rise of culinary culture, things have changed.

Aglibot: It depends on the viewer. For a chef, I think it’ll hit home when they can connect with the struggle of being an artist who needs to work in a career that doesn’t pay a lot. Me and my peers, who I’ve known for 15 or 20 years in this industry, we’re pre–Food Network chefs. In the ’90s, you were a blue-collar worker. There wasn’t the glamour. My intentions were much different than I would believe of the people getting in the industry now.

But a food-lover—would they love that movie? I think they would love the characters. I think they would appreciate the food shots, the preparation, and the comedy behind the lady ordering the pasta with risotto. But I don’t think they would look at it the same way I do. I mean, I look for foreign food movies like Le Grand Chef, because there’s a really humanistic attachment to food in those movies. This one is American, but it’s about people from a culture where food means more than it does in the United States.

The DissolveBig NightLe Grand Chef, and Ratatouille all have a thread in common, with the inauthentic chef who has a lot of commercial success cooking bad food for people with bad taste.

Aglibot: I had my own ravioli business a few years back: “I’m doing what I love. I have this opportunity; I’m going to do that.” And then some chef friends of mine: “Oh, it’s not fresh pasta?” “No, we make our own pasta, but we freeze—” “Oh, you freeze the ravioli?” I’m like, “Really? Do you want to get into a debate of frozen food vs. fresh food with me?” When that sort of elitist mentality comes into play in the arts, it’s like, “Who says one art form is better than another? I don’t know; it’s all art to me.” I tell young chefs, “If you have a foundation of perspective, and you can connect your own dots and explain that to somebody, great. But when you’re insecure about it, I can tell, because your food will show you don’t have conviction. Otherwise, you’re just sort of emulating what you think you should be.” I also think young chefs now are in love with the idea of becoming a chef, but they don’t want to do the work.

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