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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Stephen Attoe, Swifty’s Chef/Proprietor

Stephen Attoe was born in great Yarmouth on the English Coast.  After his father began working with British Rail, the family moved to London.  That’s when Stephen discovered American comic books.  It was the beginning of his love affair with the United States and a determination to come here. 

“I liked the culture.  I was a bright kid but didn’t always apply myself in school.  That’s when an intuitive career counselor took an interest in me.”  He wanted Stephen to try something more creative and suggested a three-year course at Westminster College for hotel chefs.  “At that time, I had never been in a restaurant, let alone cook in one.” 

Once at Westminster, he discovered he not only liked cooking, he excelled at it.  While in school and determined to learn as much as he could about cooking and catering, he held part time jobs in a variety of food establishments.  One in particular, The Connaught Room, with no affiliation to the hotel, was a vast catering hall.  “We would prepare dinner for five to 3000.”  Unknowingly, he was developing the cooking and managerial skills he would later apply to the popular Swifty’s Events and Catering. 

“During my second year, I was asked with a fellow student to enter a cooking competition.”  It had been tradition that only seniors could participate because they would be up against season professionals.  We were the first to have that honor since the school had been founded.  We received honorable mention entering a classic chicken galantine.”  Stephen was 17,
Upon graduating with honors, he was offered a toque at the legendary Connaught Hotel under the watchful eye of Master Chef Michele Bourdin.  He worked the night shift behind the line.  “Not only were the dishes more interesting and complicated, it left the days free to pick up more work in other establishments.” 

In 1976, he realized his dream and arrived in New York on Labor Day. Mortimer’s, a new and exciting presence on the Upper East Side, has been in business for six months and was a smash hit from the day it opened.  He joined the staff and was soon promoted to Executive Chef.  For more than two decades he would lead the kitchen through a whirlwind of celebrity galas, social parties, feeding royalty, Presidents, fashion designers, the Rolling Stones, basically New York’s and the world’s elite. 

Stephen took a two years year sabbatical in 1981, when he and his wife pat bought and ran a small inn in Vermont called “Four in Hand.”  It was successful, but when two years began to “feel like an eternity” they decided to get back to the excitement of New York.  Mortimer’s owner Glenn Bernbaum was thrilled and hired him back immediately. 

After Bernnbaum’s death in 1999, Stephen and Robert Caravaggi Mortimer’s host, formed Swifty’s, the popular upper East Side restaurant. In 2004, Stephen, Robert and Liz Smith created Fete de Swifty, which has raised almost 5,000,000 for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.  We told you that Stephen would be a Mover and Shaker:
Swifty's is Whom You Know's favorite restaurant:

In his free time, he and his wife Pat enjoy their house in Connecticut where gardening and reading are Stephen’s favorite hobbies.  His sports interests include running and kayaking.  He and Pat have run several marathons.  He also likes hunting game in season, which he prepares for his country friends. 

January 2009, Stephen prepared an all-game dinner for the James beard Foundation at the James Beard House.  The dinner was SRO.  Before the dessert was served, Stephen was invited to return. 

As for cookbooks, his favorite is “The Joy of Cooking” which aptly describes his approach to his art.  We are so pleased to present him as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Stephen Attoe for Whom You Know.
Peachy Deegan: We love comic books (Peachy started reading them at 4) what was (were) the first one (s) you read and do you still collect and read them?  
Stephen Attoe: Early editions of Marvel Comics-Spiderman, Fantastic Four (if I still had the collection I’d be a rich man).  No, I don’t collect any longer, but took up collecting modern 1st editions, must have original dust jackets and artwork, ie P.G Wodehouse, Grahame Greene, and Hemingway. 
    Please tell us some of your first memories about food.
    Ranging from my mother cooking a piece of roast beef (it looked as if it was created during the big bang) to my father making a stew from my pet rabbit (tasted good) and unforgettable gooseberry pies, terrines and galantines made by my aunts.  Chips served in newspaper, cockles and winkles (sea snails), jellied eels served on the village square on market days. 

    What was your first culinary pursuit as a child? Do you still make this? 
    A soft yolk fried egg served on white bread fried in bacon fat eaten while impersonating Graham Kerr, a tv cook from the 60s.  Yes I still enjoy this delicacy.  

    Although the cuisine in the UK has really emerged, historically the UK wasn’t known for its cuisine.  What do you  think has made it successful in more recent years?
    Certainly the education of young chefs at good culinary schools around the UK has helped.  There was an influx in the early 70s.  In addition food has become an interest and hobby to so many (media).  This increases awareness in local availability of a vast amount of products.  In addition, people don’t realize rationing after WWII lasted into the late 50s-with shortages in basics into the 60s.  People wanted to eat, save the creativity. 
    What do you enjoy creating the most as a chef and why?   
    I enjoy cooking hearty meat (slow cooked), meats, game birds and stews-foods that bring people to enjoy the comforts of hearth and home.  Recently have become involved with vegan diets of old friends for health reasons. 
      Where do you get your culinary inspiration?  Travel, reading, friends-a good home cooked meal-New York streets-the spices from the kebabs at the halal cart.

      What are among the biggest mistakes most people make in the kitchen and how can they be corrected?
      In my opinion the biggest problem that home cooks have is getting the food to the table hot.  The idea is to make things as simple as possible for your experience level.

      What are some of the most interesting orders people have given the kitchen over the years?  Was there anything so outlandish that it couldn’t be done? 
      The King of Spain requested his favorite dish of Papas Con Huevos.  It turned out awful in the beginning, sooooo….. I was sent to Madrid to his favorite restaurant to learn how to do it. 
        Will you write a cookbook?  Hopefully one day, we have an outline, but nobody wants just a cookbook anymore.

        What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
        There have been a few people to fit that bill.  A careers teacher in high school guided me towards a culinary education. I did quite well in school, but the kitchen instilled a sense of order and discipline at a key time in my life.  Glenn Bernbaum, the owner of Mortimer’s, taught me about the likes and dislikes of the rich (it’s not that complicated).  And of course my wife Pat makes sure I keep both feet on the ground.  
        What are you proudest of and why?  Proudest of little Swifty’s-it was started as an obvious next step after Mortimer’s-but after eleven years, I feel it can last even longer than the 20 years of Mortimer’s. [Peachy thinks so too.]

        What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity do do?
        To open a second branch of our café  
        What honors and awards have you received in your profession?   
        Early in culinary school I was placed favorably in competition work pitted against older students and professionals.  I have had the honor to cook at the James Beard House, most recently an all game dinner New Year’s Eve.
        What is you favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
        Far and away Central Park. 

        What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
        Favorite shops more like Crawford-Doyle rare books on Madison, Left Bank Books in the Village, Hadley Antiques on Lexington and 73rd (English bamboo furniture) and the windows at Ralph Lauren on 72nd Street.

        What is your favorite drink?
        Hendricks gin and tonic with lots of lime.

        What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
        Kelley and Ping.  Great atmosphere, with an open kitchen and a noodle store in the front, high ceilings.  A Soho neighborhood joint. 
          What is your favorite Manhattan book?     
          Manhattan in Maps-from the Dutch Colonials to last week 
            If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?  The path in Central Park that leads from the gate at 76th and 5th under the bridge to Cedar Hill.  Past all the shade gardens and oak leaf hydrangea.

            What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
            The marathon.
            What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?  Beginning in Soho in late afternoon walking home to the Upper East Side through the many neighborhoods.

            What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
            My first visit to the Metropolitan Opera-it was Tosca-it left me wanting more, the sheer theatrical extravaganza 
            What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
            How safe the streets are now-remember the 70s?  The new Times Square-it’s a façade of its former dilapidated self. 

            Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
            My favorite column is the blog archive, it enables me to catch up on the scores of interesting stories I may have missed 

            What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
            That I have a “bucket list” that includes traveling to Australia and New Zealand, learning Spanish, and playing acoustic guitar. 

            How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 
            By phone at the restaurant

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