Several years into a career that included stops through storied kitchens like Daniel, Tabla, and Lespinasse, and then a role commanding the back of the house at Freeman’s, Michael Citarella disappeared, exiting the industry altogether, it seemed, back in 2009.
He was no longer in the spotlight, perhaps, but he wasn’t exactly letting his kitchen knives languish, either — he’d picked up a gig working as a family’s private chef, a position that kept him happy for a few years. Officially, he says, “I have been waiting for the right opportunity to communicate my love of American seasonal cuisine through a menu that is entirely my own. After Freemans, I took a year off to focus on what I love most about cooking and to work on developing my own path in the culinary space.”
And as suddenly as he’d vanished, Citarella reappeared, this time in charge of the kitchen at The Monarch Room (408 West 15th Street, 646-790-7070), a restaurant near Chelsea Market, which opened last year. There, he’s putting out a New American menu that’s more ingredient-driven than anything else.
Citarella’s exposure to food began when he was young; he remembers watching his grandmother and parents cooking for holidays. While his older brothers found other hobbies, he wound up hanging around the kitchen, tasting dishes in progress and helping prep. He began trying to re-create things he’d eaten in restaurants, and, he says, his palate developed as a result.
Citarella spent years as a musician, and even then, he spent his spare time cooking. So one day, when he saw a TV commercial for culinary school, he decided to switch careers — and he went in full force. Postgraduation, Citarella landed a job at Daniel. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was,” he says. “It was intense. The food was amazing, the technique was so solid. It was a really great foundation to go from school into that.” Once he’d built his base, he began pursuing an understanding of specific ingredients, making his way through gigs at a southwestern restaurant, where he learned about chilies; Lespinasse, where he began building a base around spices; and Tabla, where he deepened his spice knowledge. Citarella spent a year and a half cooking in Ireland, where he was inspired by ingredients he could find in Europe.
All of those experiences ultimately informed the ingredient-driven philosophy Citarella applies at the Monarch Room.
In this interview, the chef talks about returning to the fold, lessons learned in prolific kitchens, and why there will always be a place for fine dining in the industry.
What was it about the Monarch Room that made you decide to return to the industry?
I didn’t want to keep going in private cheffing. The joy of cooking is cooking for people. Cooking for myself is not fun — it’s never for myself. I’ll cook to eat because I’m hungry, but I wanted to cook for more people. I’d do parties for other people, but it wasn’t the platform I really wanted. I got the call for this place, and it sounded interesting. The whole concept was in line with things that I do, and there were some parts I don’t do — that was the challenge. I thought I might as well jump into something big.
What was your vision for the food here?
It’s always evolving — and the way I cook is always evolving. I’m driven by ingredients — they inspire me — not by recipes and certain dishes; that’s limiting. So the food here is designed that way. There’s a balance — I went from fine dining to not fine to fine, and that gives me a lot of flexibility. We’re always looking for that style. The owners really believe in the whole fresh market approach, and that’s not just words, which is a big deal to me. If I don’t feel comfortable, I think the guest is going to notice. Personality comes through in food. So you have to work for owners that allow you to be who you are. If the food is too precious, it won’t work for this space.
You’ve worked in some prolific kitchens. Any big lessons learned?
Attention to detail. I remember this thing that Daniel [Boulud] told me — when he’d finish garnishing, he wanted it to look like the wind put it there. That sticks with me. Gray [Kunz] taught me to really push the flavors and the combinations.
What’s your view of the evolution of the industry since you started cooking in it?
Overall, we have better choices these days. There are a lot of great chefs and cooks out there. We have a lot more options. That’s the good side. The other side is that a lot of menus have become the same. Diners expect certain things. In the past, you could tell the difference between French and Italian. Fine dining is being redefined — and that’s good; we have to keep redefining — but I hope we can find a spot where we can see menus move in different directions.
How about the evolution of fine dining?
Things have become a little more casual as a whole. But it’s nice that there are people out there who still want to get every detail right. They’re trying to make the experience the best it can be for the guest, and I don’t think that will ever go away. Whatever direction the rest of the industry goes, there will still be people who want to do it perfectly.
Seems to me that Monarch Room really tries to strike a balance between fine dining and more casual dining.
That’s what we’re striving for, and that’s the spot I’ve always wanted to be. It’s like playing music: blues is one of my favorite genres. You see a lot of the same things done over, but you can tell the personality of the person playing — there’s something that changes. It has a certain soul. And we all understand the music — there’s something that occurs when something has real soul, but we can’t always define it. I think that’s important. Ultimately, it’s about the guest. I love the perfection, but I also love the pasta you get and not every piece is the same, which shows it’s not from a box. I try to bounce between the two. I like pushing the flavors, but I want to make food you can sit down and eat.
How does the media impact the evolution of the industry?
It’s part of it, and it’s always been part of it — and it’s a little more out there now. I’ve taken the approach that I’m doing what I do, and whatever happens, happens. It’s become so big.
Does the excitement of a four-star review still exist?
Yeah, I don’t know. But does it not exist because of the media, or because I’m older? The media move so quickly; it’s not long before they’re on to something else.
What are your biggest challenges right now?
The diners are so educated now — and that’s a great thing, but it’s hard to do what you do because of their expectations. You have to become really, really conscious, and that can be overwhelming.
What about particular challenges with running the kitchen at a high volume restaurant?
I try to stay focused on consistency. You have to have a different eye for a place of this volume, but you can’t disrupt the rhythm on a night when you’re doing 250 or 300 covers. It’s being aware and looking at every detail but not forcing it on cooks in the middle of service.
What advice would you give to people just getting started in the industry?
I talk to my kitchen about staying focused, staying driven, and not letting little things getting in the way of what you want to accomplish. I ask everyone I interview what they want in the future, and then I try to give that to them. New people should look for those opportunities. Follow the direction of people you choose to work with. You help each other.
What keeps you motivated?
Life. I think it’s interesting. Food, ingredients, people. The process is fun, even in the challenging times.
What about goals?
My focus was to get this place open. I had a great experience the other day, when I brought someone in who sells Japanese knives. One hundred percent of my staff bought new knives. I thought, this is going in the right direction — we can work on greater details with knife work now. We’re building, and I’m teaching and giving them what I can to make them better — when they leave here, I hope they remember those things.