Anna Maria Santorelli, the feisty female chef who once cooked for celebrities and dignitaries at New York City’s Gracie Mansion before fulfilling the lifelong dream of opening her own restaurant in 2006, knows how to pull culinary delights from a pressure-cooker kitchen.
After working 12 years for Gracie Mansion in greater and greater roles, ultimately achieving the title of Executive Chef, the native of Italy continues to strive for and achieve her American dream with each Eggplant Parmesan she prepares, and with every accolade, honor and happy customer served.
“I had an incredible career at Gracie Mansion. Working for the mayor of New York City is a totally different experience—it’s like working at the White House! We cooked for celebrities like Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand to the president of Italy. I had John Kennedy Jr. to dinner once and Mary Tyler Moore,” Santorelli says. “I never knew who was coming to dinner until the mayor called.”
Working in escalating positions of power, she rose from prep cook to assistant, and ultimately was named by Mayor Giuliani as Executive Chef and later Chief Administrator of Gracie Mansion.
Throughout it all, she worked fast and furiously to turn out specialized menus catering to the wants and needs of a dazzling guest list.
And then in 2006, she packed up her aprons and tools of the trade and set out for Larchmont, N.Y., where she planted her flag.
Opening to positive reviews in the best newspapers, Anna Maria’s Restaurant is the realization of a childhood dream. It hasn’t been easy. And the pressure hasn’t let up. But Santorelli rises to the occasion every time!
Q: How did you go from Gracie Mansion to owning Anna Maria’s Restaurant in Greater New York?
My dream was always to have my own restaurant. My mother was against it. She used to ask why I would want to leave such a great job and invest my own money and take such a big risk in opening my own place. She was right about the risk, but I always wanted my own restaurant.
I didn’t know anything about Westchester County, but I wanted to move out here because it’s quiet and pretty. Shortly before we opened, I was interviewed by a radio station and was warned that people here are hard to please.
Q: Not only have your diners proved the radio station wrong, but also a New York Times article specifically cites the joyous, chatty atmosphere you’ve created in a 40-seat intimate eatery. What’s your secret?
I manage it by being positive and by being very present in my own place. It’s very important that I bring myself to them. I have the strength my mother (Maria) has given me, and a passion for cooking and food that I’ve had since I was a little girl growing up in an Italian home where there was always something cooking on the stove.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in making this dream a reality?
There were times when things were bad. Two years after I opened, the economy took a turn, and shortly after that, my mother passed on. I told myself I had to make it work and I did this by getting creative with the menu.
Though I don’t do coupons or groupons because I feel that cheapens the experience and I don’t scrimp on the quality of ingredients, I realized it was more difficult for people to come out to dinner and spend money. So I introduced a bring-your-own-wine concept on Tuesday nights; and, on Wednesdays I did a pasta night with 20-percent off wine. I also ran other specials and introduced music groups who brought their own following. So with little changes, I made it work, and we got through the hard times and I’ve been here on Restaurant Row in Larchmont for 8 ½ years!
Q: What was it like cooking for celebrities?
It was intense! The mayor would call and say, “I’m bringing the president of X to dinner. Once I got the call, I would discuss the meal with the First Lady to prepare the menu. I was constantly aware that I was representing the Mayor of New York City, and it had to be flawless. I’d research people, like Bette Midler, for example. She’s from Hawaii, where fish is a big part of the cuisine, so I focused the menu on this. I worked round the clock researching and preparing meals back before we had the advanced technology we did today. The energy it took came from the inside, out. I just loved it.
Q: You’ve also been on the small screen, appearing in some impressive chef company!
I’ve been on the Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Restaurant Stakeout” and recently went on in “Beat Bobby Flay.” It all started when I got an inquiry from Restaurant Stakeout, which comes into your restaurant and films using hidden cameras. The idea was to be like reality TV, and I took a big risk. One of my waiters warned me I might lose business! But it worked out really well. I got along with the program host, and we had a great week.
After that, I appeared on Chopped twice and recently I went against Bobby Flay in his show Beat Bobby Flay. I took my mother’s eggplant Parmesan recipe, which should win an award it’s so good. It’s so delicately layered, with very light tomato sauce and cheese. But when I went against Bobby Flay I was too nervous. The audience was screaming and yelling and I was a bit too nervous. Otherwise, (chuckling) I would have beaten his butt!
Q: What advice do you have for someone hoping to pursue his or her own restaurant dreams?
My advice is to tell them that they’ve got to absolutely love what they do, because it’s very long hours. It’s a great business. But you have to have a tremendous passion for it. You’ve got to be determined. I started cooking when I was very young and then went to school for it, completing a culinary arts program. My big break came when I learned that the executive chef of Mayor Dinkins’ administration was hiring. That’s when I got my foot in the door.
My mother was my biggest fan and she kept me strong. It was challenging, it was overwhelming, and we worked round the clock. But I learned very quickly and consider what I do to be a gift. Remember: food is love.