Donatella Arpaia’s growing empire includes Mia Dona, Anthos, Kefi, and Eos in Miami. Her recent public split from partner and chef Michael Psilakis in two of those ventures has tongues wagging about her vision for both her restaurants and her career. A blog post by Frank Bruni suggested that Arpaia has her heart set on becoming a celebrity cooking sensation. While a cooking show is in the works, she tells Fork in the Road that she’s thinking much smaller. After building a string of successful restaurants, she’s looking to go against the flow of restaurant world traffic: from restaurateur to chef. Arpaia says she’s been in the kitchen more than you know and has plans to be there even more.
Her first cookbook, Donatella Cooks, is out in mid-April. Its angle is simple foods that look much fancier than they are, with a particular focus on good, pretty ingredients and what can only described as “flair” items. Think fresh herbs and gold dust.
Where do your recipes come from, the home or your restaurants?
I think some of them come from home. Its’ inspired from home, but the twists and the drama come from the restaurant. So, I added a restaurant twist to home meals and simplified restaurant recipes for the home. It’s 60/40 home v. restaurant.
You’ve talked about filling a gap between the easy home cook book and the fancy restaurant recipe book.
I had something personal to say. I heard people – women – say all the time that they didn’t know how to do this or that. When they get in the kitchen, they get paralyzed. But many of them know what is good, they know food, they just don’t know how to make it great. I’m trying to demystify it. I relate to that girl. I just happen to be in the business – otherwise I would be clueless, too. If you know how to shop, that’s half the battle.
Like, you’re accessorizing the food?
It’s like going through your closet. What are the trendy pieces, what are the bling pieces, what are the necessary tools and what aren’t? I help you clear out what you do and don’t need. And I can give it to you straight. I try to make it easy and accessible, but with fabulous results.
So, what are the some of the essential tools in your fridge or pantry?
Truffle oil. Egg whites. Edible gold dust. I gold dust everything.
Pretty plating certainly doesn’t hurt.
I’m also bringing a certain tableside drama to the table, like pouring soup tableside or sniping herbs on top of salads or serving crudite in a vase. All these little touches make women giddy. Or cotton candy: I don’t have a ton of kitchen gadgets, but one appliance I love is a cotton candy maker. It’s like $50 and, instead of pink or blue, you just use it to make pure, white cotton candy to put on desserts. I’ve always thought of plating as a key part of delivering a dramatic and enticing experience. We eat with our eyes, and then our stomach.
Is being a woman restaurateur difficult? Is it still much of a man’s world?
There aren’t many of us! I wish there were. I think [it is a man’s world]. Until 10 years ago, not many restaurants had female servers even. All of a sudden, I’m seeing a lot more women. Even in management. I think women are well suited to the industry. We are natural hosts with a great sense of hospitality and [can recognize that] everything is in the details. When I put together my restaurants, women notice everything… even the bathrooms!
You used to be a lawyer. That must have helped when dealing with the business side of things.
Being a lawyer trained me how to think, and has been an incredible asset to me in the business. Although it [involves] artistry and passion, it is still a business and you have to make money at the end of the day. And be the calm in the storm of the restaurant.
Speaking of storms, will you be replacing Michael Psilakis with a new chef?
I have the team that’s been there and worked under Michael for a year. I’m very proud of Anthos. It’s the only Greek Michelin in the country and I want it to continue being great. I’m kind of excited about it… I always think of change as an opportunity. Sometimes it’s difficult, but I’m looking forward. I’m going to be in the kitchen a lot more.
Are you saying you will be the chef?
It’s been fun being in the kitchen with Mia Dona. When Michael departed, I went back to the kitchen. People always associate me with being in the front and making great chefs, which I love to do. But they didn’t realize how much I was involved in the back… I have so many plans. It’s really exciting and it involves me being in the kitchen a lot more. But that’s all I can say for now.
Will you stay partners with Psilakis in your other restaurants?
Absolutely. I’m staying partners in Kefi and Eos in Miami, where we’re nominated for a James Beard award. Michael and I have been friends and partners for a long time. We had a lot of things going on and were going in different directions.
Will you miss working with him on Anthos?
I think the media likes to hype the drama between us because we’re a man and a woman. But it’s not a sexy story. It’s about the economy and making choices as things evolve. I see our relationship as a huge success. He will go on and do great things. I want only happiness for him and his beautiful family, and I think he wants the same for me.
What’s your favorite recipe in your new cookbook?
I am partial to the mac ‘n’ cheese and the meatballs, which are my mom’s. And you know I love my Nutella hot chocolate!
Will you be getting your own show?
I have a really good relationship with the Food Network from doing Iron Chef. We have been talking for quite a long time and we are very close to doing something together. A lot of things are happening at the same time for. It’s an exciting time for me. In this economy, people were forced to look at their lives and explore new parts of themselves. It’s definitely been the hardest, but the best year of my life. I’m excited for the next couple of years.