Pazzo! Cucina Italiana restaurant Chef Abel Tirado Q&A
February 13, 2020
It’s not easy coming up through the trenches in a Naples restaurant. Have you seen the waits during tourist season? We Neapolitans are serious about our food — that’s why we understand why Culinary Concepts, the local restaurant group that includes diner favorites like Chops City Grill, saw something in broiler cook Abel Tirado when he broke the restaurant record of 432 steak dinners for 632 guests one New Year’s Eve. He was quickly promoted to sous chef and now helms the kitchen as executive chef at Pazzo! Cucina Italiana. Armed with a love of cuisine inspired by his Puerto Rican mom and the know-how to conquer Italian cuisine after coming straight off a steakhouse, Chef Tirado steers one of Fifth Avenue South’s favorite hot spots with an eye for design and a “lot of love” cooking philosophy. Read on to see how he keeps it fun and tasty.
Q. What is your culinary background?
A. After completing high school, I enrolled in the two-year culinary program at Charlotte Technical Center. I worked with chefs Jason Osborn and William Siebert, who trained at Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales, respectively. My first-ever culinary position began when I joined Naples-based Culinary Concepts in 2011 as a prep cook at Chops City Grill in Bonita Springs.
Q. What inspired you to become a chef?
A. My mom. I was always in the kitchen, always snacking on food. My passion for food began at an early age while sitting in the kitchen watching her create authentic Puerto Rican meals for the family. I remember feasting on her specialty: Arroz con gandules — known as Puerto Rico’s national dish — a loving combination of rice, pigeon peas, and pork, cooked in the same pot with sofrito.
Q. What brought you to Naples?
A. Chef-driven restaurant group Culinary Concepts, headed by veteran restaurateur Skip Quillen, transferred me from the Chops steakhouse in Bonita Springs to the Chops Fifth Avenue South location.
Q. Tell us about your tenure at Culinary Concepts? What enabled you to move through the ranks and what do you think set you up for success?
A. I work hard plus I love and bring a passion for food. People who do what I do, can only do it successfully because they have a passion for food. I have always wanted to be a chef — ever since I was 8 or 9 years old — so I always knew what I wanted to do. I was always in my mom’s kitchen. After culinary school, I learned from Chef Jason Matozzi, who was executive chef at Chops in Bonita Springs, and he taught me how to run a kitchen.
Q. Explain your “lot of love” culinary philosophy?
A. Cuisine is a profession that combines love and passion. If you don’t love what you are doing, you are not going to make it in this business. I believe you can taste the love that goes into your food.
Q. You’ve transitioned from steakhouse to Italian cuisine. Can you describe how you accomplished it?
A. My roots are in the steakhouse, so I had to learn how to cook Italian at Pazzo! Chef Jason was executive chef and he taught me how to make pasta and ravioli. Pasta is a lot trickier than I thought — it’s more of a sense of what’s needed. In fact, Italian food is more touch and flavor — use all your senses. It’s a different ratio of dry/wet.
Q. Which dishes are you particularly proud of?
A. The Berkshire pork chop “artigano” with crispy potatoes, cherry peppers and due “ad” day demi and the grilled rib-eye steak infused with rosemary fig grappa.
Q. What do you find challenging?
A. A chef’s lifestyle is hard on personal relationships because you are always working on the weekends and holidays. Family often understands, but it’s difficult.
Q. Who or what are your greatest culinary influences?
A. My mother. I also love Chef Emeril Lagasse. I grew up watching his cooking shows. BAM!
Q. What has been one of your favorite culinary experiences?
A. Sitting in the kitchen watching my mom cook is my favorite culinary experience but the personal bonds I’ve created in my restaurants’ kitchens are going to last me a lifetime. Once you’ve worked a season in the trenches together, you don’t forget that easily.
Q. What are your favorite culinary resources (books, blogs, etc.)? How do you keep your dishes relevant?