"Patty pan squash is, hands down, the dumbest vegetable. That's the PG version of how I really feel about it but it's seriously just a bullshit vegetable."- Tony Messina
Interviewed by Kimberly di Bonaventura
Excitedly, I am sitting with Tony Messina, chef at Uni restaurant in Boston. What I am understanding is, you are bicoastal.
"Well, we haven't been because of the pandemic. I've been here trying to keep this restaurant alive so."
And how is it going?
To keep it alive, keep people coming in…
"Yeah, it's going great. Better than we could have ever expected, it's taken an unbelievable effort on everybody's part to keep it alive. It's just a lot of work. A lot of pivots; a lot of weird stuff, but we've done it! And the goal is to in the next coming months soon as I can sign a lease on something get funding, because a lot of people backed out of deals, one of my investors backed out because obviously the pandemic but as soon as we get some more money back we'll sign a lease and go."
Out here or back to LA?
"Back to LA"
And you will leave here?
Or you will do both??
"Ehh, probably. I don't know"
"TBD! So we have plans to be out there full time though, because Amy and I want to start our life up there so."
And quite successfully and safely I might add. Amy is your fiancé?
We sort of just jumped into this *laughs*
"Yeah! When you said LA, come on! And then you said Brentwood and I'm like, oh my God my buddy Kent lives in Brentwood! Well Mandeville, but whatever it's the same thing " *laughs*
Mandeville is Brentwood!
"Yeah, it's such a small world! Gosh, I want to go hang out with them *laughs* I miss the West coast a lot."
"Oh yeah...my dad lives in Carlsbad."
"Yeah, so I grew up here. Uni is here. . I grew up here but for the last 5 years that's been my home."
It's so funny because, well not funny- there’s nothing funny about it. But I'm basically a Southern California girl, but I lived in Boston and went to Emerson .
"Oh my god!"
And I fucking partied hard at the Elliot house! "My buddy Kevin taught at Emerson."
Well… I'm rather older than you are
"Well, he's older than both of us I'm sure! Kevin- he created the show Friends"
Well, I am well acquainted with some of those cast members
"Yeah, that's how I know Kevin- he came here, and we've become friendly over the years"
"but that's yeah, so Brentwood there you go!"
So, he too partied here *laugh*
"Well, he did go to Emerson for a while, so yeah!
So, he probably did!"
Yeah, that's hilarious!
"Yeah, what a small world"
It's tiny! 6 degrees.
"It's creepy *laughs*"
"That's so funny. This is so off topic but since we're on it, what the hell? His nephew Noel, was the producer on the last show that Amy was writing on."
Amy your fiancé is a television writer? Film writer? In Hollywood?
Yes, television. So, she wrote for a show called BoJack Horseman on Netflix, and the production company ended up hiring Noel Bright. So, it's just like wait, Noel Bright is related to Kevin and like this so LA and Boston is just…
Again, it's 6 degrees of separation…it's just so quick, it's so baboom bang bang fast
"*laughs* This is such a small world it's funny"
It is, it is. Well, I too worked quite a while in Hollywood…mainly film, not television…though that’s where it’s at now. It’s amazing…breaking all the boundaries and rules. You may recognize my last name.
"Yeah, okay so there’s relation. I know the last name. I know the last name from Hollywood and from Italy."
So, I'm no longer in Hollywood, but I am such a huge fan of chefs and I have traveled the world with my son's. Both sons- one just graduated Emerson and one is still at Emerson.
"Still going *laughs* That’s awesome, graduation!"
Yeah so, I get to come back *laughs*
"*laughs* You get a couple more years left in it"
It’s an honor to be sitting with you. I wholeheartedly am a huge fan of artists. Artists of all types to me are inspirational. I search, meet, greet, thrive and sometimes invest in their passions.
And I find chefs are one of my true loves, rock stars I call y’all. I mean, just what you guys do, especially when you're creating outside of the box. When I sat here in this nostalgic place of mine and your food was coming out...My son, who also has a very sophisticated palate and I were just blown away.
"Oh good, thank you!"
I don't know if you want to call it fusion but how you're co-creating the Mediterranean flavors with Asian flavors is insane!
"Yeah, it’s just me playing with food! I gave up a lot of traveling and a lot of reading and a lot of studying and I just would gravitate towards-"
You were born here?
"I was born in Boston"
“I pak my ca”
*laughs* love it!
"It's frickin’ hard to do all that stuff, I know I can't, and even the crew in the kitchen made fun of me because when I tried to enunciate the R correctly it sounds like it hurts my face and it's awful and it sounds terrible.
"So, I grew up here and it’s just everything I do with the traveling and the cooking different cuisines- I cook Italian, I cook Mexican and I cook French"
You were at Menton, right?
"Yeah, I was on the opening team!"
Uh-huh, it's one of our restaurants as well
"Yeah, I opened with Colin and- well I didn't open it with him- I was a cook there. That was a really fun experience! Just being able to travel and kind of, pick up little things here and there, and stashing different restaurants across the country, where we went…It was just kind of fun to spend a day here, a couple hours here. You pick something up and then over time."
And you were studying all different types, French, Italian?
"Yeah, but I was always going back and cooking Italian, cooking French. I got bored of cooking western styled food. "
You did? Too simplistic?
"It was just boring. I left the Industry completely and decided to go and become a police officer in Boston. So, I was in the police academy, and I missed cooking! So, I left."
Did you get through the police academy?
"I left the police academy because my mother actually became ill, she came down with cancer."
Blessings, she still with you?
"She's great, yeah! She's a bull. Tough woman. So, I left to take care of her, she got better, I wanted to go back in, I thought otherwise, and I said I miss cooking: let's do that. So that was 16 years ago, and I've just been going straight ever since. It's just kind of like, I figured if I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to this and not go to the career that I chose, that I should just always have fun cooking food. And that's really where this should come from. It's like, you know, maybe I'm going to throw a Mexican ingredient into an Asian dish and then see how that works. And it’s you know, why not throw a Mole onto a Sashimi or why not throw extra Chermoula onto you know Crudo! It’s just why the hell not! And it's how a lot of these issues came up. I had the opportunity to work for a pretty well-known sushi chef. He took me under his wing, taught me how to look at fish with a Japanese site, you know ideology and how to, you know, select them and process them. I just fell in love with it. So, I put my food into this concept and just kind of- somehow it works. I don't know, it's the best way to describe it."
Somehow it works...It's more than it works- It's mind-blowing.
You know…you're definitely…it's…it's somewhere between approachable and outside the box.
You know what I mean? You're not like...what am I trying to say…some people just can't get into the molecular world … it's just too crazy for them.
But this, anybody can eat and still your mind is being blown- and if you have a sophisticated palate, the appreciation for what you're doing is…It's amazing, I mean its genius level
"I wish you could do PR for me because that sums up everything I want to say to people."
*laughs* I'm going to say it in the magazine! To be clear, your food is for everybody: highbrow, lowbrow, street food, comfort food, the minimalist
"I tried my hardest to make things fun yet approachable and still get to do things in a highbrow - lowbrow way, you know?"
Yes! Exactly, perfect
"One of the funniest things I do is I do this hotdog XO and I put it into a risotto with shaved white truffles, you know, it's like you have white truffles and hot dogs...makes absolutely no F'n sense but…"
"It works. So, like that's it...I want to give things to people that they may recognize and they're like…this is silly and fun. What does it taste like? But also elevated to make it into a way that they've never seen before...so that's kind of like my whole outlook on this menu and it's certainly calmed down quite a bit because the pandemic. It's usually a little more outside of the box, but it's been pretty good reception overall even with the reduced numbers and new clientele who come in here the last year. So…Keep my fingers crossed!"
I think it's amazing. So, let me just jump back a sec- you're born in Boston. And then as a young lad you learned how to from…your mama's hip? Your grandmother's hip? Your daddy's hip?
Fuck, all of those hips?
"Yup! My grandfather as well. So, my whole family on both sides"
Are there cops in there?
So why...why a cop? "More robbers than cops so *laughs*"
*laughs* It's only funny if it wasn't true! But it is!
No, no I get it!
"So, it's both sides were very much into being you know...Not about the cooking for the sake of cooking, they were cooking because they wanted to be around family. And I think that's what drew me to it, it’s like a dinner party every night. It was, we're all going to sit together; we're all going to eat together."
It's the most beautiful thing…One of the most beautiful things about food
Communal- It's love
"Top of the list, always. I was in the dining room quite a bit during service, not now, but normal non pandemic time just because the vibe in the dining room is what attracts me to cooking more than actual food. It's just so much fun to be around the communal vibe. And I think that was kind of left over from when I was a child. So, I grew up, my mother's father was an amazing cook. All my Pasta Production really came from him. Everything he did growing up was just something I got to see and just truly love. Both my parents, my father's parents, they all cooked. So yeah, it's like right across the board. I think I picked it up from my family and I definitely tried to stray away from that with the police department, but I've decided to go back to it because it was just what was you know, it's in my DNA"
Yeah clearly, I'm glad you made that choice because at the end of the day being creative is such a more evolved choice.
"Yes *laughs* Yes, especially in the last couple years it's become more apparent!"
Dear God, yeah that's true...
"As chefs, we are educators. We shouldn't give criticism unless we've been criticized. We shouldn't lead unless we've been led. We should take the time to learn the craft and never feel like we're done learning."- Tony Messina
Let's talk about travel. Did you go to Europe? Did you go to Asia? Did you do that?
"Europe yes, never been to Asia, I took the Italian approach- The Southern Italian approach towards raw fish and because it's obviously a huge part of the diet down there."
"And I took what was in me and kind of applied what I learned from Sushi chefs and Asian chefs, their ideologies, and put that into play."
I think your Uni was probably the best Uni I've ever had.
"Awesome- Which one did you have there's a few on the menu?"
You'll have to show it to me.
"The spoon or the sushi?"
I had both- That spoon was insane!
"They're both fun *laughs*"
Oh my God...The egg! Oh my God. I could die!
"Yeah, it's a good bite *laughs*"
Killer bite! A surprising, sophisticated creamy bite that titillates your palate! And then you want to add a Hot Dog to your menu? As in diner food? I mean….I love a diner- who doesn't love a diner?
"Yeah, like the 101 in Hollywood "
The 101?! I lived there!
"Amy lived very close by as well, so she used to, when she was just starting off, she lived in Los Feliz, she would drive down there, have her coffee every morning, and start writing by herself. So, when I first started dating her, the first time I went to LA to visit her, that night she took me to the 101 and like…. that was our thing."
It was my thing too, I love that!
"The night we got engaged- We got engaged at the Venice canals, we went to the 101."
You went from the Venice canals to the 101?
"Well, we lived in West Hollywood, so we lived close- we went there just real late one night just to have like a drink, kick back and relax for a few minutes, and like we had friends that were there we had champagne...So it was like, you know something that was very near and dear to our hearts."
Wow… such a small World! We may have brushed shoulders back then…. ` like ‘Sliding Doors’ *laughs*
"*Laughs* I just thought you were someone who wanted to talk about a magazine! I'm like, cool! And then as soon as you said LA it just all rolled up! "
Okay…moving on…James Beard?
You won it…
I mean right??
"I said it last night. I said, Amy do you remember that time I won a James Beard award, and I took a selfie on stage? That was cool. *laughs* It still hits me like, holy shit! I won a James Beard Award! I can't...kind of wrap my head around it sometimes. It's pretty fuckin' nelly *laughs*"
It's definitely one of those...kiss the ground…blow your mind
"Yeah! I got to wear a tux, I got to go to Chicago, and I was on stage! For what? What did I do??"
You create…That's what you do, you create.
"Yeah, I guess I don't look at myself as a creative. I don't...I just put myself as- I'm blue-collar, I make food, I work hard, you know...and it's strange that I don't look at it like that."
I hear you but...no. Creative types come in all shapes and sizes, right? So, the fact that it's your blue-collar up bringing, plus this beautiful mind, creating beautiful dishes that are outside the box. You are not pulling a 9-5. You are not on the never ending treadmill…get up, go to the mill, get down, get back…do it again and again. It's not that!
You're like the Black Sheep!
"*laughs* I guess, yeah! It's kind of like a blue-collar anomaly. "
"It really is"
It's the American fucking dream right there!
"Yeah! Yeah, I consider myself very lucky. I mean, obviously we work hard for what we have in this industry"
"But it's also, I do what I want to do every day, and I have fun and I play with food and it’s something I love doing so…"
And you were awarded for it!
"And I got an award for it! Yeah, it's pretty cool...*laughs*"
"When they said my name, I blacked out…completely."
Oh, love! You weren't even breathing!
"My head was in my hand and I just I didn't know where I was and I got up and I said, okay"
*Screams* I love that! You actually blacked out!
"Yeah, my partner…well actually Amy was next to me, so she grabbed me, she's shaking me...and then I heard Ken from like, halfway across The Sembrich Opera House on his chair, jumping up and down, doing jumping jacks, screaming with his hands flailing! So, I was like…I guess I won!"
That's you! Adorable
"*laughs* I can just picture it like the movie, Derek Zoolander- when he goes up on stage to win but he didn't win…I was like if I start talking...Have I made a mistake? I’m going to feel really stupid and never show my face again!"
*laughs* That’s hilarious!
"It was a very interesting weekend, I didn't expect it at all, I didn't have a speech planned- I didn't have anything planned...hence the selfie!"
Do you have any like...dreams of becoming one of the Food Network stars? Have you been approached?
"Yes, I have been approached, and no"
"Have I thought about it, yes, I wouldn't mind doing something that was more me though…To go on and host a show once in a great while is one thing but to do it as my every day, it's just not me- I'd rather be here- in the kitchen. To take me away from that for a weekend or a couple of days...that's fine, but as my full-time gig...It's just not where I fit. And kudos to those guys and girls they have like empires! And they do it! I don't know how they do it! I just know that it's not something that I'm all that interested in- I would love to make a cameo and that's...that's kind of like the end all be all…I would do a Netflix series! Because it's a series and you're done- but recurring not so much."
Understood- okay a couple more questions!
"Sure! This is fun!"
Is It?? *Laughs*
"This is a way more fun interview than I've had in like...I do a lot of interviews, so this is great! This is just like shootin' the shit I love it!"
Yeah, yeah, no you got to keep it real! *laughs*
"Yeah, this is great! *laughs*"
In your opinion, which state has the best restaurant/food scene?
"Los Angeles and Chicago."
Seriously? Not New York?
"New York is great for highbrow, Michelin star restaurants…but innovative, progressive, cutting edge cuisine? Without a doubt it’s LA and Chicago."
New York also has the best Pizza
"Yes and the Bagel."
Fascinating answer…I quite like it and I agree.
Okay, next question. There's two processes -when you create and when you cook. Do you listen to music?
On either front?
Quiet both sides?
Wine? Drink? Weed?
"None of the above, unfortunately"
Not even to create a menu?
"No, I want to...so I get pretty severe migraines and I said, we'll try to drink, I still try all the time, and by all the time I mean like once every few days, and I will try to have a beer, I would try to have a cocktail, and then get through half -I get through a third of it and I start to feel it...and I have to stop because I'll be out for a day. So, I attempt to drink, and I try so hard *laughs* because there's nothing like, I mean, I appreciate alcohol a lot. I used to study Italian wine. I love it and I want more of it!"
Oh wow…I know about migraines…they are painfully debilitating
"I just never really got into it. "
It doesn't work for your creative process.
"No, and honestly, I don't think about it at all. My creative process is going to a farmer’s market, I'll just go and daydream"
So, touching, smelling, looking, talking…You're tactile.
"Exactly. I'll go downstairs- we have a dry storage downstairs, and we'll just order a whole bunch of stuff, like not even knowing what it is. What's on your list? I'll take the first six things and we'll get it in and then I'll go downstairs. I'm like, I want to play with this and this and this today and that's how I make a dish."
That's your sandbox.
"Yeah, it's my- it's like my own little shopping mall. I don't think about food, how to create it...I just go grab stuff and I put them together."
You don't like, sit down with a piece of paper in a basement somewhere trying to…?
"No, I can't do that. I'm not good at that *laughs* It's like there's a lot going on all the time because I don't sleep much. So, for me, it's like I'll order this stuff and then I'll go in tomorrow and I'll play. I'll make three dishes tomorrow, whatever it is and change the menu every day."
You change the menu every day?
"It's not the whole menu, but we'll change one thing two things three things here and there yeah…and it's just constantly rotating. I mean when you look at the menu it's pretty large…We’ve got the Sashimi menu, sushi menu and the food from the kitchen menu, so essentially three menus, so there's plenty of room to play there. So, if you came and had dinner three nights in a row, you probably wouldn't notice it because it's probably one thing from each item."
Oh, I would notice it!
"You may notice but the royal you may not. So yeah, there’s maybe one thing or two things from every category that changes so it's not like a complete overhaul every week. It's just a few things here a few things there."
Wow! It keeps you interested and on your toes. Your Cacio e Pepe ramen blew my mind! It was brilliant!
"The recipes on my website! Take a look, steal it!"
*Laughs* I bake! I don't cook! I know food. It’s just that timing thing doesn't work for me, too much panic…too much clock! *laughs*
"Yeah, you should try the Cacio e Pepe! It's very easy to make only a few ingredients."
I just might! So simple! And sometimes simple is just mind blowing
"Well, that’s what it is with Italian food, right? Think of Italian food, the further North you go, the less simpler it gets- but as you go South, where my family's from, everything is very simple!"
"Very peasant like…There’s a lot of frugality evolved."
"It's just you have what you have, and you have a few ingredients, and you make it delicious!"
"So, it's…I think like, when it comes to Italian food, or anything involving anything Italian, I think the simpler the better- just have to execute it well, and this way it shines."
Well, you did
"Good! Thanks *laughs*"
"I mean I tried, real hard!"
You did! And no music?
"No. If the team in the kitchen want to listen to it, by all means, they should do what they want to do and have fun- but for me to create and cook...I want to hear every sound of the cooking process. I want every clink of the spoon when I'm basting. I want to hear every single part of it. Like I want to hear the sizzles, I want to hear the pop's, I want to hear everything. It's important. Like, if you're not listening to what you're cooking you, you're probably going to miss something… "
So, you're tasting and smelling...
"Yeah, if you don't hear-"
"It makes sense! Very tactile, right? Everything I do is tactile. So, if you're if you're listening to it, you're going to hear something maybe cooking too long or too little"
Too fast, too hot…
"Exactly! It might be too hot- why is it sizzling so hard? You might not hear it if the music is on…or you may hear it, but your mind is somewhere else, and I want to be completely focused on it. I enjoy that...I'm not like OCD it's just I like to focus on what I'm doing *laughs*""
To me that’s sexy! It's sexy food…I'm going to call your page sexy food! *laughs*
"I’ve got to make something sexy for the page! *laughs* When will this article debut?"
Right now. My partner Kelly, who’s also “in the business”...no longer “in the business”…
"Like my business or Hollywood business?"
I'm so sorry. Sorry. That's fucking obnoxious, isn't it? I'm like 'Hollywood business is the only business!' *Laughs* Sorry!
"I'll tell you a quick story about this. You first…."
Kelly and I met in Hollywood, in “the business” Fuck, I'm so sorry. She became a lover of food because I was always a foodie and a wino. So, with movies also came restaurants, food, wine and travel...and then…we’d be traveling...on a premier or somewhere out in the World and be running for the Michelin Stars! *laughs*
"That's awesome! "
Yeah, so she hopped on that bandwagon with me, and we decided while we're quarantined at home during the Pandemic...she cooks...I bake… so why not put up a foodie magazine that makes our toes wiggle?
"It's so cool!"
To keep our love of food alive during this pandemic, I have hosted small private dining affairs with beyond talented chefs...with Covid safety measures in place, of course!
"That's so much fun…Oh my gosh *laughs*"
It's cool, it's very cool. The minute you visit your fiancé, you must grace my kitchen at Chez di Bonaventura.
"Yeah, for sure!"
Now tell me your story….
"My story was, when I met Amy she came in for dinner- that's where I met her."
"Yeah, way back in the day when it was just the little 23 seat sushi bar. *His phone starts to ring* Speak of the Devil it’s her!"
*Laughs* So she came in as a patron?
"Yes, so when the little 23 seat sashimi bar was just that, it was a very much wide-open kitchen, we could see every guest, every guest could see me...So, I had an assistant and me, and she wanted to meet the chef! And my assistant was Asian- so she thought she was going to meet my assistant...and they're like no... its him!"
*laughs* she’s racial profiling! *both laugh*
"And she was like, Oh! And she had a crush on me. I didn't know that…so she said you know, I'm in “the industry” and…"
Her industry?? *laughs*
"And I'm like, oh cool I didn't know you were in “the industry!” Where'd you work? and she's like, I worked for, you know this production company...and I'm like...what the fuck are you talking about...she's like, we call it “the industry!”"
Yeah. Yeah! *laughs*
"So, this is her story to everybody now when I met her…this is going back like 6, 7 years now."
That's hilarious! Déjà vu. *laughs*
"Yeah, all over again! *laughs*"
That's great…Truly hilarious
"Yeah, but she's great…Hopefully you'll get to meet her at some point when we're back in LA"
I would love to!
"You guys would have fun"
I'd love to…Well, thank you very much!
10 FACTS ABOUT CHEF MESSINA
He can’t say the letter R. It sounds worse when he tries to annunciate it correctly.
Obsessed with animals.
Started cooking when he was 14 years old.
Would rather eat his Mom’s pasta and his Dad’s grilled vegetables over anything else.
Huge Star Wars and Marvel movie fan. Like, HUGE. Geek level huge.
There is no limit to how many tacos he can consume in one day.
Has been to Disney 26 times. It’s the happiest place on earth!
He’s a huge sneakerhead and keeps every shoebox to maintain his sneakers’ pristine condition. When you can only wear clogs to work every day, your out-of-work wear gets pretty intense… in a good way.
St. John USVI is his happy place.
Does a surprisingly perfect impression of Hootie and the Blowfish.