What Big Night Taught a Professional Chef About Cooking and Commerce

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.”

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.

The Dissolve: That need for conviction and that problem of people who want instant prestige and instant success—both of those are true in a lot of fields, including filmmaking.

Aglibot: Yeah. I think there’s been a lot of glamorization of what we actually do. And at the end of the day, it’s still a lot of work. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The Dissolve: Pascal’s character is a chef villain—a sellout who deliberately undermines other people’s work. Does his archetype resemble anything you’ve seen in real life?

Aglibot: Yeah, that’s media. [Laughs.] I mean, could there be people like him? I don’t know. He represents ego. It’s what you see somebody else having that you want to strive for. There’s always that person you compare yourself to, and that’s what that character brought. And he’d probably encourage you to do well, but not really want you to do well.

The Dissolve: But you feel that kind of pressure from other restaurants or other restaurateurs?

Aglibot: I think so. I think at the end of the day, you have to take care of your own four walls, but you also have a duty to your industry. Our neighbor’s success is our success, and we can thrive off each other. People ask me, “Who’s your competition?” and I say, “McDonald’s. Someone needs to eat, and they’re going to decide where they’re going to spend their money. Isn’t that competition?” And what makes them choose that? Is it that they want to spend X amount of dollars that day, or that’s what they’re craving? But at the end of the day, that’s my competition. Also, luxury-item stores. If someone’s going to spend more money on a bag or something, that means they have less money to spend when they’re dining out, so they may not choose me that night. They’re going to choose Panda Express or something else. In commerce, we’re all competing for people to spend money at your business.

The Dissolve: There’s so much attention and excitement in the film revolving around the timpano, the complicated showpiece dish. What’s your equivalent?

Aglibot: That’s a good question. When I first saw the movie, I came out of it thinking, “I just want to eat something Italian!” Then I was like, “No, I want to do something that has more process, and more pomp and circumstance, like the porchetta.” On E+O’s menu, I freak out on anything to get it right. But in terms of that sort of fussiness … my most requested dish in any restaurant I’ve been in the last five years is probably the Brussels sprout salad. It has 12 or 13 different ingredients, and the pomp and circumstance for me is how it’s presented and how it’s dressed. The sauce is actually two sauces that have to be mixed right before serving. One of the cooks said, “Chef, why don’t you just mix both sauces together and put it in one bottle?” And I’m like, “No! It has to be separate, because I want it to interact at the moment before it goes out to the table. And the Brussels sprouts have to be cut in a certain way, I want the shrimp minced a certain size. I’m so particular about that salad, because now everybody’s the expert on that salad, so that’s probably why it’s become a pomp and circumstance piece.

The Dissolve: Why porchetta with this movie?

Aglibot: Because it wasn’t like making pasta, or pizza, or a sauce, or a salad. There were a lot of separate processes, getting the pork belly, and flattening it out and scoring it, and then what goes inside. I like to use a tenderloin vs. a loin, because the tenderloin has more moisture. And then I want oomph to the flavor, so we had to stuff the inside with Italian sausage. And then we had to make this rub for the inside. It’s not a simple process, but what I love about it is that I’m using my knife or my hands. At all points, I’m touching the product. Watching that movie, watching them cook really from scratch, I wanted to do something that used all of my senses. Any dish that feels like that is like therapy for me, and I love to make it. I probably wouldn’t love making the timpano, though, because it’s so labor-intensive.

The Dissolve: Any last thoughts?

Aglibot: I wish there was a Big Night 2. And what would that movie be? Would you find Primo is a car salesman or whatever, and then Secondo is like, “Let’s do another go at this thing”? I don’t know, there were other movies to choose from, but not a lot of them really touched me. But Big Night … to this day, I always tell young chefs or even people who love food, “Watch Big Night. Watch Big Night.”

E+O Food And Drink is located at 125 Randhurst Village Drive in Mount Prospect, Ill. Find it on Twitter and Facebook.

Rodelio Aglibot’s porchetta recipe

Ingredients:

5–7 pounds skin-on or -off pork belly
2 pounds pork tenderloin
1 pound Italian sausage, bulk, no casings
½ cup equal parts minced sage, parsley, rosemary
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
butcher twine, about 5 feet
12-inch bamboo skewers (3)

Directions:

1. Place the pork belly skin-side down and cover with plastic wrap on a cutting board. Using a mallet, pound it until it’s uniformly 1 inch thick.

2. Turn it over and score the skin side of the belly into 1-inch diamonds. This allows for less shrinkage and more crispiness. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Place the pork belly skin-side down on top of a fresh piece of plastic wrap.

3. Mix the olive oil, mustard, and mixed herbs. Rub half the mixture onto the flesh side of the belly until it’s fully covered. Then spread the Italian sausage atop the herb mixture, leaving about 1 inch clear of sausage around each edge.

4. Place the pork tenderloin on one end of the pork belly. If the belly is longer than the tenderloin, you can add extra pieces of tenderloin to the end, to equal the belly length. Using both hands, roll the belly around the tenderloin. Use plastic to help lift the belly off the table if needed.

5. Roll tightly, and position seam side down, using 12-inch bamboo skewers to keep the roll together. Use butcher twine to tie the roll, keeping the twine loops 1 to 2 inches apart.

6. Rub the exterior of the porchetta with the other half of the herb mix.

7. Preheat a convection oven to 325 degrees and roast for about 90 minutes. Using a meat thermometer, check the internal temperature, which should reach at least 170 degrees.

8. Once the meat reaches that temperature, turn the heat up to 450 degrees and roast for about 20 minutes or until skin gets crispy. Once it reaches the desired crispiness, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 30 minutes.

9. Remove the string and cut into slices, cutting across the roll. Serve in a salad or sandwich or with polenta.

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