Madison College Chef Series features Rick Tramonto


Leah Heidemann

Chef Rick Tramonto

Katie Paape, News Editor

Madison College held another successful Chef Series on March 6, this time featuring award-winning, and Chicago renowned Chef Rick Tramonto. He has won the James Beard award, and has written several cookbooks, and has owned many award-winning restaurants.

His most famous fine-dining restaurant, “Tru” was granted two of the prestigious Michelin stars, given only to the best restaurants in the world. In addition to his worthy credentials, Tramonto offered students valuable advice, and kept the audience entertained by providing humorous stories of working with Julia Child, and other world-famous chefs.

What makes Tramonto remarkable was his long and rocky path to the top. Tramonto’s father was put in prison before Tramonto finished high school, so he dropped out and found a job to help support his mother. There happened to be a Wendy’s burger place nearby, so Tramonto’s incredible food journey was born.

Tramonto started knocking on doors and worked his way up to some of the best restaurants in his home state of New York, and shortly after, some of the best in Chicago. However, Tramonto faced a major obstacle along the way: he didn’t know how to read. In fact, he couldn’t read until he was 28 years old. Chefs at these restaurants instructed him to read recipes at home and come back to work with a knowledge of the proper technique.

Tramonto couldn’t even read English, so cookbooks filled with French and Italian mixed in seemed an impossible feat. With the help of his mentors providing a hands-on education and his partner Gale Gand – a famous pastry chef in her own right – Tramonto read his very first book at age 28, the bible.

Tramonto certainly didn’t take his opportunities for granted. Metaphorically, Tramonto compares the journey of a chef with receiving a formal education. Learning and working for great chefs in notable restaurants was like going to college and receiving an undergraduate degree. Traveling is equivalent to grad school, and when he started his own restaurant, he considered it his PhD. After his many years of education, Tramonto said he now had a voice, as well as the skills he needed to speak it loud and clear.

From 1999 to 2017, Tramonto ran his successful restaurant, “Tru“ in Chicago with wealthy partners who believed in him. The two fine-dining restaurants Tru and Trotters essentially paved the way for the numerous respected restaurants that followed and would place Chicago on the culinary world stage.

Though Tru’s budget was almost limitless, Tramonto learned to be innovative with money when working at his previous restaurants. He would serve food on bathroom mirrors and cheap tiles bought at hardware stores, and often his dishes would be complimented with construction paper origami. He couldn’t afford expensive china, but his food was the same, whether served on a $100,000 platter, or with a paper swan. In the end, says Tramonto, budgets don’t matter. All that matters, that you have the skills to make something better than everyone else.

Tramonto’s difficult background, creativity and drive pushed him to become the successful chef he is today. As the audience was served three courses of some of Tramonto’s favorite dishes, he gave invaluable advice to students and members of the audience.

“Record your journey the best you can, because you’re going to have all these great memories.” Whether you record it though photography, writing, or film, time is going to fly by, and you don’t want to forget your life.

“I probably have 300 photos of my journey,” he notes. “I always took photos of some kind when I was working with chefs in their kitchens, or when they came to work with me because I wanted a record of any and every chef, I had respect for or wanted to learn something from.”

Tramonto showed the audience a slideshow of famous chefs he worked with, such as Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagassy, and Julia Child, emphasizing how much of an impact these people had on his life.
The advice Tramonto would give his younger self would be to get off of substance abuse, become closer to God, get more education, and stop wasting time. “Stay focused on your path, and be kind,” he said.

Tramonto also encouraged the students to have ambition to learn and the determination to learn from the best. You have to be courageous enough to say, “I know nothing; teach me,” he said. “I knocked on a lot of doors. The chefs didn’t have to let me in – a lot of them didn’t – but you still have to knock on the door.” Determination and an appetite to learn will push you forward, no matter what your background is. All you need is a little bravery to open a door to let yourself in.

“Knock on as many doors as possible, even for just a day, an hour, even if it’s in Tokyo, or Barcelona, it doesn’t matter. Spend as much time in as many kitchens as you possibly can; just to see what kind of bowls they use.”

The next Chef Series will be held on April 10 in the Culinary area of Madison College. All Chef Series events are free for students, and tickets can be reserved on Eventbrite.