At 23 years old, John Castellucci has already worked in the kitchens of high-profile restaurants in New York and San Francisco, run with the bulls in Spain and completed a stint in a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastián. Now, he helms the kitchen as Executive Sous Chef for Cooks & Soldiers, the newest concept by the Castellucci family. Here, we share John’s takes on Basque country.
You worked for five months at Arzak, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in San Sebastián. What did that experience teach you?
I wouldn’t say my experience at Arzak taught me a specific technique, but I was exposed to a mindset of chefs that were constantly thinking way beyond the box. Everything had a playful spin on it, and that’s some of what I tried to incorporate on the menu here.
Give some examples of menu items that were directly influenced by your time spent in San Sebastián.
- “Bitters and Berries”-fior di latte gelato, amaro, frozen berries. I got this from the bar La Gintonería Donostiarra, where they frequently serve dry ice-infused gin over tonics.
- “Pulpo”– Grilled Spanish octopus, charcoal potatoes, piquillo emulsion, rosemary. This one is playful and comes with a pipette for the piquillo emulsion.
- Caña y Frutas– Apple, brûléed queso de Cabra, mango, blackberry. Arzak is big on compressed items, and that’s where I got this idea. We used a needle to poke holes in apples, then sliced them thin and compressed them with beet juice to give them a tie dye appearance.
- “Fruity Pebbles”– cereal milk croquetas, toasted marshmallow, citrus berry reduction. Croquetas are popular in Basque cuisine, so we put our own playful twist on it by turning a kid’s cereal into dessert.
Talk about the classic pintxos at Cooks & Soldiers.
Pintxos are the simple representation of Basque cuisine. They’re typically just two ingredients on bread. But at the same time, every year there is a competition in San Sebastián where chefs try out their craziest takes on the dish-they’ll pile 20 ingredients onto the bread. We try to balance the traditional with a few twists.
- Pan Con Tomate-grilled bread, fresh tomato, raw garlic. This is on every Pintxos menu in Spain.
- Piperade– Basque pepper stew, slow cooked yolk, Bayonne ham, guindilla. This is a popular pepper stew, but we took it one step up by adding sous vide egg yolk.
Did you know any Spanish before you started?
I knew going to Arzak that everyone would speak Spanish but I figured people would understand English. However, out of the 12 others starting their internship when I did, and everyone knew fluent Spanish except me. I forced myself to pick up Spanish. For me I didn’t really speak much in the kitchen for the first month I was there. I focused on watching what the other chefs were doing, and I did a lot of pointing and hand motions. You begin to develop a common kitchen language and then those words come naturally. Eventually I caught on.
How did you feel having a language barrier?
It was humbling because this was the first time I felt incompetent in the kitchen, a place that I had spent so much time growing up. Even something as simple as “go to the walk in and get this…” was difficult for me to understand. I was so frustrated not being able to communicate. An ironic story: whenever I tried to speak in broken Spanish the chefs waved me off, but on the radio Katy Perry songs were playing in English and the cooks were singing to them-in English.
What’s an example of how San Sebastián differed from Atlanta’s culinary scene?
It’s just vastly different. To begin with, the city is walkable. In 15 minutes you could pass by 30 pintxo bars. And yes, this is the city with more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in the world, but at the same time, they still have traditional pintxo bars have two ingredient pintxos for just two Euros. They do both extremes very well.
In your rare moments out of the kitchen in Spain, what did you do?
All my free time was soaking up the cuisine; eating out at pintxo bars and visiting the local farmers markets. I didn’t plan on it, but I ended up meeting with friends in Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. It was 4 a.m. and I was in flip-flops and shorts instead of the traditional white shirt and red scarf.
You’ve been working in the industry since you were eight years old. Did you ever feel like you missed out on your youth?
I never went to a high school football game- they were always on Friday and that would be crazy to take that night off. So I feel nostalgic about missing those memories, but I’m satisfied with my path because it brought me here through other great experiences.
How does it feel to accomplish so much at such a young age?
Being the boss of people who are much older than you is tough. I always make sure that I can do every person’s job in the kitchen, hopefully better than they can, because that means I can step in and show you the right way to do things. I want my employees to respect me for my work ethic.