As I watch chef Amy Brandwein call out orders to line cooks across different stations while juggling dinner tickets and checking plates before they go out, I can see how she managed three jobs, planning a wedding and culinary school all at the same time. The executive chef of Casa Nonna says that even 10 years into her career as a chef she still feels like she’s just scratching the surface.
“The learning never stops. I’m an inquisitive person by nature,” says the chef who gravitated naturally towards cooking Italian food. “There are all different regions [of Italy] with their own foods, their own dialects.” Each month Brandwein focuses on a different region and its food at Casa Nonna.
Prior to becoming a chef, Amy was doing political research for a lobbying firm in DC but was “cooking in all her spare time.” Growing up, her dad was a good home cook and vegetable gardener who was always clipping recipes and inspiring Amy. So when she came to the fork in the road of her career, Brandwein decided that rather than go further into politics, she would go into cooking. “I didn’t want to waste any time not doing what I love to do,” the Arlington native says. So she went to culinary school and started staging at Roberto Donna’s Galileo.
Today, Brandwein still taps into her inquisitive and research-driven side by reading up on Italian food and by returning to old cookbooks for the beginnings of new ideas. “The process of learning is rich. Some of it ends up on the plate and some of it just ends up in my brain,” Amy jokes. “It’s my duty to pay respect to the people who taught me and to this cuisine. I dig in deep and it drives me to know as much as I can.”
For Amy, the most rewarding part of being a chef is when customers give her good feedback on her food. She adds that seeing her cooks succeed is also rewarding. “I want to see them do well and teach them. It’s a good sign when a cook who might have found me difficult comes back and wants to work for me again,” she says. “Hopefully I’m doing for them what was done for me.” Of course training and working with a crew of cooks isn’t always easy. The biggest challenge, she says, is “staying on top of the consistency of the food” and “[eliminating] as much human error as possible.”
When I asked what she loves about DC, Amy didn’t hesitate to praise the beauty, greenery and “spectacular views” around the city. “I’ll never get sick of it. It’s all around you. It’s a fringe benefit,” she says. As for the food scene in DC, she says that a more stable economy in DC has helped bring restaurants to town and that more serious restaurateurs are changing the scene and making others raise the bar. Though we both agreed, as have other chefs I’ve talked to, that DC could use some more “hole in the wall” places. “It doesn’t have to be a culinary destination,” Brandwein says. “Just more places where you could walk in, be casual and not have it be a big deal.”
At a certain point, our conversation turned to focus on being a female chef. Amy brought up a scene from Gabrielle Hamilton’s book, Blood, Bones and Butter, where someone had introduced Hamilton as the “best female chef he knew in New York.” Hamilton proceeded to make a crack about wondering when he and everyone else would drop the “female” qualifier in the sentence. For Brandwein, the scene is familiar–you just want to be recognized for your talent as a chef, not as a female chef. “Women should be proud as a minority in the restaurant industry. Only so many women try to cook and are successful at it,” Amy says. “My experience has been if you work hard, you cook well and you’re loyal to your chef, you’ll succeed.”
For now, Amy is focusing on helping with the launch of the second Casa Nonna location in New York City, as well as incorporating Sicilian food into the menu for September. Check back at 3 PM for Amy’s recipe for tortelloni della nonna.