Do you have the job you said you wanted when you were a kid? Do you even remember what it was? To have such a clear a vision at that age, let alone realize it, is rare. It takes a lot of luck, failure and fortitude to chase and achieve a big dream. But that’s exactly what Food Network Star winner, celebrity chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur Christian Petroni did.
How does a first-generation Italian-American kid from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx wind up in the company of master chefs? We asked Petroni what it takes to go from vision to mastery (and how to finally get our spaghetti to come out al dente), as he prepared to host a cooking class and dinner presented by InsideHook and our friends at The Glenrothes. Here are a few pearls of wisdom gleaned from his years in the kitchen.
Authenticity is a superpower
Petroni credits his success to his unwavering sense of authenticity, which he calls his superpower and attributes to his upbringing in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. His parents were born in Ponza, an island off of Naples, and his mother cooked traditional Italian staples for family dinners at 5:00 every night. When his mom returned to Italy for Easter, Petroni’s father, a union carpenter, would take him to local red sauce joints. The family spent summers in Ponza with Petroni’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a small complex connected to a central courtyard where they’d all eat together.
When his family got cable TV, Petroni became obsessed with Discovery Channel’s Great Chefs of the World. In Petroni’s world, food was everywhere — and everything. At some point in high school, Petroni finally convinced his mother to let him cook the family dinner: salmon and asparagus with store-bought hollandaise. “They were sweet about it, but it probably sucked,” he laughs
That didn’t matter. What mattered was that Petroni spent those formative years and thousands of hours authentically pursuing his passion.
“We were maybe the only Italian family in the neighborhood. We had mom’s home cooking, dad’s red sauce joints. We lived in a damn cantina on a little volcanic island every summer. What is anyone gonna say to me about Italian food? It’s not cocky, it’s just how I grew up.”
Embrace every opportunity, even (especially!) the scary ones.
Petroni got his first job at 12, when he lied and told the owners of the famed Bronx catering hall Alex & Henry that he was actually 14. For weeks, he came home with the clanging sounds of silverware-filled bus bins rattling in his head. It was tough work, and the grown cooks and barbacks cut the preteen Petroni zero slack.
“I remember walking through the kitchen and there’s this guy Chief with his arm up the back of a giant suckling pig, greasing the inside. He stops, looks me dead in the face and says, ‘This is your brother.’”
Just slightly traumatic for a 12-year-old, right? Nah.
“I worked there for six years. The best memories and friends I’ve made in my life were from that time period,” Petroni says. The experience taught him to embrace every opportunity. “There’s no better way to learn than working and getting your ass kicked.”
Petroni had five restaurants driving millions of dollars a year but lost it all due to a falling out with his partners and former mentors. He was gutted by how it all unfolded but rather than sink into despair Petroni reframed the situation as a “hard reset.” He mapped out a new path — digital media, television, cookbooks, consumer packaged goods. It was risky, and less stable than other restaurant gigs that came his way, but Petroni embraced the opportunity to stay true to his vision. He’s since sold a cookbook to Harper Collins and has a signature line of garlic bread available at Yankee Stadium.
“There’s been so much sacrifice to be able to do the things I love, but I’m grateful for it,” Petroni says.
Hold tight to your goals but keep evolving
You don’t need a celebrity chef to tell you that success requires commitment to a goal. But Petroni has acute insight into the balance between chasing those goals and evolving as a person. Especially after losing his business.
“There’s no higher accomplishment than owning your own restaurant. But I would think, how do I open five? How do I sell it so I can open more? Now how do I get into TV to drive traffic to the restaurants? How do I get into frozen foods, jarred sauces? It changes all the time.”
Petroni tells a story of how he always coveted luxury watches. As his restaurant career grew, he put together a solid collection — Panerai, Rolex, Patek Philippe. Then he lost the businesses, and had to sell some of them to feed his family.
“Chef Carl Ruiz, god rest his soul, once told me, ‘Always have two months rent on your wrist because you never know when you’ll need it.’ And sure enough…These watches bring me joy, and I want them back some day, but to support my family, I was happy to do that.”
For Petroni, constantly reevaluating and changing your goals as circumstances and priorities evolve isn’t a problem. It’s the point.
“There’s always a new grail. Goals change every day. My goal now is to be happy doing what I love and support my family and have a great life with them. I don’t think there’s gonna be anything higher than that.”
Mastery takes luck. Sometimes you have to make your own.
Every big win requires luck along the way. But there’s dumb luck and then there’s luck that finds you because you put yourself in a position to receive it. Petroni has experienced this while building his brand on TV and social media. He writes, shoots, edits and stars in all his videos and posts multiple times a week. It’s a ton of work that can feel overwhelming and thankless, but there’s a bigger purpose.
“If somebody with 7 million followers reposts it, they change my life with a flick of their thumb. That’s luck. But a lot of work went into making sure that luck hit.”
Never stop learning
Though he’s flattered by the compliment, Petroni shrugs at the idea that he’s a master chef, or a master anything, really. It’s not for lack of trying — it’s that the pursuit is what defines a master.
“I have a thirst for knowledge, and I keep learning every day — a life lesson, a technique, anything. So to me, a true master of their craft isn’t ever done trying to become a master,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get there. Because I know I got a lot to learn.”