Chef-owner Michael Ayoub opened Fornino Park Slope a week and a half ago, but it’s not the first time Ayoub has cooked at 256 Fifth Avenue. In 1990, in that same space, Ayoub opened Cucina as co-owner and chef. The Italian restaurant was reportedly the first high-end restaurant on that stretch, and some credit him with kicking off the Brooklyn restaurant boom. Ayoub left Cucina in 2001, moving on to other projects, including a Fornino branch in Williamsburg, where he serves wood-fired-oven pizzas.
We caught up with Ayoub on Park Slope’s charms and former grit, growing up in the kitchen, and why he jettisoned the wood-burning oven for the grill.
Click here for the second half of the interview.
Where did you grow up?
In Brooklyn, Bay Ridge.
What’s your first food memory?
I remember, at a very young age — and actually we have some pictures of it — making cookies with my aunt. I was probably two and a half. Rugelach — I remember she would let us roll them.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking probably at 13 years old. I got my working papers and worked in a deli. Making salads and things like that. And then I was working in a summer job — I started as a prep cook when I was 13, and by the time I was 17 I was the chef of the restaurant. It was Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor, a very big restaurant, 400 seats. It was American food, a typical, big American place with steaks, chops, seafood, and don’t forget the fisherman’s combo.
How did you become the chef so young?
The executive chef unfortunately lost his mind one night. Well, his name was Happy — you know how miserable you have to be to have the nickname Happy? And I took over.
What was that evening like? Was it a nightmare?
Let’s say that as my career goes, over 33 years there have been some highlights and some tough nights.
Is that when you knew you wanted to cook for a living?
No, I wanted to go to school to be a veterinarian. It was just a summer job.
And how did you figure out you weren’t going to be a vet and that you wanted to be a chef instead?
I bought my first restaurant when I was 20 years old. … I didn’t get into veterinary medical school, the program I wanted, and I was actually taking X-rays by day and working at a restaurant called Skaffles by night. In the ’70s, the owners were having a fight and I bought half the restaurant.
Did you ever think you were crazy to do such a thing at 20?
I didn’t … have enough time to think. It was a very busy restaurant. … Those days it wouldn’t be millions of dollars, the way it is today to open a restaurant.
What was Fifth Avenue in Park Slope like when you first opened Cucina in 1990?
Twenty years ago on Fifth Avenue, people didn’t walk, they ran. This is a totally different neighborhood now. There were vacant buildings, an abandoned building right across the street. Cucina was a destination restaurant — people came from other neighborhoods to eat there. The difference is that now Park Slope is quite the neighborhood. Actually, New York magazine just deemed it the best neighborhood in New York, and most Park Slopers will tell you that.
Do you think it’s the best neighborhood in New York? Maybe there’s no way to answer that.
[Laughs.] It’s a fantastic place to have a restaurant.
It’s a great demographic. Some very intelligent people live in Park Slope, and it has great diversity.
Do you think anything is lost when a neighborhood changes so much, becomes so nice?
I certainly like it the way it is today, absolutely. The neighborhood has certainly improved.
How does it feel to come back to the space that you left as Cucina in 1999?
It’s the same bones that I built. The bones are still there. It’s a great restaurant space because I happen to know the guy who built it — me. My desk is in the same spot as it was 20 years ago, which is very comfortable. I know the neighborhood, the space, the kitchen, the people. There’s a comfort that that affords.
Sounds very comfortable — is it also surreal?
A little of both. The day I got the key and walked into the space and stood in the middle of the room with the keys in my hand, it was like, “Oh my goodness.” I mean, to be honest with you, I always wanted it back. I loved it and built it with love and sweat. It was a labor of love. It took 10 years to build it, and then I missed it for the next 10 years. It’s like being reunited with an old girlfriend, with your first love.
Did you expect pizza to become the high-end trend that it has? You were ahead of the curve on the wood-fired pizza trend and doing things like making your own mozzarella …
Actually, 20 years ago my original Cucina menu had pizza. I loved it from first bite. And then five and a half years ago when I opened Fornino in Williamsburg, I was certainly ahead of the curve. I was the first to use artisanal ingredients. I bring a unique quality to the pizza game. Pizza is a very serious game in New York, and I enjoy being a part of it.
At Fornino Park Slope, I [have] created a pizza that has never been done before. It’s a grilled pizza that is round and is cut into triangles and rectangles; it’s not cut into regular wedges.
Why did you decide to cook the pizza on the grill rather than in a wood oven?
Simply, as a person I like to challenge myself. Wood-burning: Been there, done that. Next. I enjoy many things and like to push myself.
And why are you cutting it into rectangles and triangles?
The grilled pizza is so crisp that if you cut it into old-style wedges, the points would break. If I have square corners, they won’t break.