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The owners of the iconic Le Cirque restaurant in New York City, the Maccioni family, were looking for an executive chef to head a new addition of their Tuscan-concept Osteria del Circo, set to open in Abu Dhabi. They needed a chef who would be able to infuse Tuscan cuisine with a Middle Eastern flair. Anne Burrell and the Chef Wanted team had four candidates: chefs James Trees, Alexandre Petard, Mike Perez, and Luca Banfi.
Two initial tests would narrow down the chefs to two finalists, who would each get to run the restaurant’s dinner service on separate nights. Ultimately the decision would be both easy and difficult because the family could see either of the finalists filling the position. The show’s ending would prove to be an unprecedented surprise to both chefs.
The first challenge was a unique one: The chefs had to take a famous Le Cirque dish and reinterpret it with its original creator, former Le Cirque chef Geoffrey Zakarian, judging it. Unfortunately Chef Alex’s presentation and execution were not up to par, so he was sent home. The second challenge would be similar: The chefs were tasked with putting a Middle Eastern spin on a popular Circo dish of ravioli. Chef Mike was sent home because his dish didn’t fully capture the fusion of cuisines. Chefs James and Luca would move onto the dinner service challenge.
A domino effect soon took over Chef James’s dinner service after his poached egg dish was sent back. Then he ran out of agnolotti, but he was quickly able to turn it around and switch to ravioli. In the end, his food impressed Mrs. Maccioni.
For Luca, though, dinner service proved to be more challenging but in a different way. Expediting was not coming easy for him, and he got bogged down in a long line of tickets. Then problems with his risotto dish put him farther in the weeds. Once he corrected the issue and got back on track, he was able to fulfill a special request from Mrs. Maccioni, which ultimately pleased her. The Maccionis offered the Circo Abu Dhabi executive chef position to Chef Luca, but in a surprising twist, they also offered Chef James a position at one of the many future restaurants scheduled to open.
FN Dish caught up with Chef Luca to chat about his experience on the show and what he’s been doing since winning the executive chef position at Circo Abu Dhabi. Read his interview below.
For the first challenge, you had to reinterpret a Le Cirque dish made famous by the restaurant’s former chef Geoffrey Zakarian. What was running through your head when Chef Zakarian actually showed up and then you learned he would be judging?
Luca Banfi: When Chef Zakarian came through the kitchen to present the dish, running through my head was a mixture of excitement and nervousness: It’s not every day you get to meet, cook for and have your dish critiqued by such a renowned chef! I do have to say that in that moment I did get a little worried about my choice of reinterpreting that dish by deviating so much from the original.
You seemed overwhelmed by the amount of tickets coming in at the start of dinner service. Did you ever think you couldn’t get through? What were your biggest fears right then and there?
LB: Dinner service was tough, and once the tickets started rolling in, it felt like there was a mountain growing right in front of me and the only way was to climb over it. It did feel insurmountable at some points, but despite that I knew that not getting through was not an option. My biggest concern actually was being able to finish service without running out food since at one point it started to feel like the reservations had gone up. Fortunately we made it through with everything!
What was your mentality going into the show? Do you think your Italian and Iraqi heritage gave you an advantage?
LB: My mentality going into this was to use and show my experiences both from working abroad and from my upbringing. Definitely having an Italian and Iraqi background was a great advantage in the sense that I grew up with those flavors, so with a bit of creativity it was fun to play and fuse the two to create something tasty.
How nervous were you to cook a dish for Mrs. Maccioni? Did you think cooking for the restaurant’s matriarch would make or break your chances?
LB: I have to say I was fairly nervous to cook for Mrs. Maccioni, and there was that thought running through my head that if I screw this up I would be done for, especially after the heavy fire I took on the eggplant dish.… It really meant making sure that her dish went out perfect in every way.
How was it working with Anne Burrell?
LB: Working with Anne was great but also tough. Despite the brief time spent doing the show, I could see that she wanted both the best for us and out of us, and I could see myself learning a lot by having the chance to work with her again. I got a lot of constructive criticism throughout the whole experience, and I truly made an effort to build on it…. I definitely took it to heart in order to improve.
What has the experience of doing the show taught you?
LB: Being on this show taught me to really pay attention to details and to everything that’s happening in the restaurant; from the food all the way to the customer in the dining room, all details have to be spot-on.
How are you preparing for the opening of Circo Abu Dhabi? Do you plan to include any family-inspired recipes in the menu?
LB: Preparing for Abu Dhabi is challenging since I’ve yet to see the kitchen and what products are available. I will definitely have some of the classic Circo dishes such as the Ravioli Mamma Egi, but I also want to incorporate some of the items I made for the show, including the Italianized version of the dumplings that my grandma used to make.
What advice would you give to other chefs competing on Chef Wanted?
LB: I would say first of all: Be yourself. It will definitely show in your food. Second, build on what you know, but don’t be afraid to take risks. Just be mindful of your time and resources or you’ll spread yourself too thin!
Watch Chef Wanted on Thursdays at 10pm/9c and keep coming back to FN Dish for updates and behind-the-scenes content.