Chef Tony Mantuano has proven himself in the kitchen as the owner/chef of six restaurants and on television as a season two finalist of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” Now, Mantuano takes on a new job as spokesperson for the 11th annual S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, in which competitors from 75 of the country’s top culinary schools compete against each other.
Mantuano didn’t start out as a chef, however. In fact, in college, Mantuano was a music major. He quickly discovered, however, that he liked the restaurant business more than the music business and his culinary career began in earnest. He tells BusinessNewsDaily how he found a way to do what he loves for a living and how you can, too.
BusinessNewsDaily: Explain you what you do for a living.
Tony Mantuano: I’m a chef and restaurateur. I oversee six restaurants (four in Chicago, one in Kenosha, Wis., and one soon to open in Miami). [Mantuano is the owner/chef of Chicago’s Spiaggia, Wisconsin’s Piano Terzi and newly opened Chicago restaurant, Bar Toma. He is the winner of the 2005 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Midwest.]
How did you end up doing this for a living?
I started out as a music major in college and worked in restaurants for spending money. But working in restaurants for money led me to the decision that I wanted to be a chef more than a trombone player. I was living in Milwaukee and was hired by Swiss Chef Kurt Weber, who had several restaurants in the city. I signed on to do a five-year apprenticeship program endorsed by ACF, which was a big deal at the time. From there, it’s pretty much history.
What was the crucial decision you made that led you to this place in life?
Realizing I had to leave Milwaukee in order to be a better, well-rounded chef. I moved to Chicago at the age of 25 to get a larger glimpse of the world and culinary education. It was in Chicago that I met Larry Levy, who hired me to open Spiaggia.
My wife Cathy, who was my girlfriend at the time, was a waitress at Chestnut Street Grill, which Larry Levy owned. She knew him well and when she heard about his new Italian restaurant concept, she made an introduction.
Why do you love your job?
Because I get to work with a lot of great people, young people — mentoring them and then seeing them succeed is highly gratifying. I also love the way we bring happiness to people through food. It’s a great feeling when you’re walking through your dining room and you hear guests expressing their joy for the food.
What's the biggest misconception about your job?
People think I’m the one cooking all their food every night at every restaurant. When I’m seen at one restaurant, they always ask who is cooking at one of the others. It’s not like Henry Ford putting a tire on every car. You need to build a solid team and trust they can execute your vision. I have some of the best in the industry.
If you didn't do your job, whose job would you like to have and why?
I would organize luxury trips to Italy, and expose people to my favorite places, restaurants, vineyards, hotels, sites, etc. I sort of do that now with my wife Cathy and some of our Spiaggia guests.
Do you think having a job you love has made you a better person in other areas of your life?
Absolutely. When you’re happy with what you do professionally, it helps your personal life.
What about the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition intrigues you and caused you to agree to be spokesman for this year’s competition?
I think mentorship is lacking in the culinary industry. This program, throughout the course of the competition, allows students to meet different high-profile chefs and get exposure to professionals they most likely wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s a wonderful program and I wish I had this when I was first starting out.
What's your best advice to other people who are trying to pursue their career dreams?
I can’t remember who said this, but it was something like, “hang on while all the other hanging on-ers are falling off, just preserve.”
What's your idea of the perfect retirement?
Living in Italy six months out of the year — growing a lot of vegetables and grapes, and making our own wine.
Jeanette Mulvey has been writing about business for more than 20 years. Know someone who loves what they do? Tweet @jeanettebnd with the hashtag #dowhatyoulove.