World class gourmet lands at Culinary Institute

Beacon native Phil Crispo travels the world honing his culinary skills, seeking master chef status

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008

Perhaps a key ingredient in Phil Crispo’s accomplished life is a heaping dose of reality. It was just about 40 years ago that the assistant professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park remembers being a passenger in one of those big, gas-guzzling station wagons.

The family was on holiday down at the Jersey Shore. Their car was hit by a drunken driver. Crispo’s father, sister and grandmother were killed. The then-6-year-old spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken jaw, broken leg and other injuries.

“A crazy addition to the story is that I was so worried at the time that I would not be home for Christmas,” he recalls.

After all, he was only a young child, graciously without a full capacity for comprehending the horror of what happened. Miraculously, he was released before Christmas. Some of his friends came over to his Glenham home in Dutchess County and wanted him to go ice skating. “Due to my fragile state, my mother was not buying it and said, ‘No,’ ” he says.

But he planned to skate anyway – although his mother thought he was just going to a friend’s house. “Here is the worst part. As I attempted to cross the road to the frozen pond just a stone’s throw from my friend’s house, I was hit by a car,” says Crispo, for whom lightning truly can strike twice. “Back to the hospital I went. I was released that day, this time with a cast and a broken ankle – but home for Christmas.”

Perhaps it’s an innate sense of survival, blended with a huge measure of humor, that has catapulted Crispo through the decades. He rose above this most horrific of tragedies – and went on to live the adage of making the most of every moment. His mother remarried a Scotsman who worked at IBM – and the family returned to the United Kingdom when he was 8.

“I grew up in a small village, Gauldry, in Fife,” he says, with a melodic Scottish accent that you wouldn’t expect of a man born in Beacon.

He was an avid sportsman – into rugby, soccer and judo – and even flirted with a professional athletic future. “Now I play golf and limp home,” he laughs.

His parents owned a clothing business, which meant by the time he was a young teen, Crispo was on his own a lot. “‘We’ll be home later; make yourself something to eat,’” was a familiar directive – which he took seriously.

“In a land of macho farmers, I became a closet chef,” he says.

The distinctive spices of India ignited Crispo’s culinary curiosity. “My neighbors often had Indian take-out,” he says. “I’d steal the leftovers.”

One night, the 12-year-old tried to duplicate the flavors in a rice dish. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I sautéed and stirred that rice for 45 minutes, tasting it constantly and convincing myself all the while that it was getting better. I ate most of it and then decided to look up some recipes … which all said I was to have boiled the rice first.”

Undaunted – and unscarred by a meal of raw rice – Crispo regularly started checking out recipes, even cooking for the family when guests came over. “It was quite a lot of fun,” he recalls.

So much fun that despite his passion for sports and a love of drawing and painting, when ordered to get a job by his parents after deciding against a higher education, cooking was his choice.

“It just came naturally,” he says of his first job in St. Andrews (known as the home of golf) at St. Salvatore’s Hall, a prestigious residence for well-to-do students. “I passed the golf course every day, though. This was very cool – although I never played the course.”

He even breezed through the required secondary culinary education at Dundee Technical College. “In those days, you had to attend a college at the same time you were in training. Four years of ‘day-release classes’ was the basic requirement to be considered a chef de partie.”

With the basics under his belt after graduating in 1981, he looked to the world. “I believe strongly in travel. Your fundamental education is important, but then it’s important to go into the world,” he says, having learned from a number of restaurants throughout Great Britain and training in classic cuisine.

His pre-marriage travels also brought him back to the States. He was hired in 1984 to work as a chef de partie, running a specific area of the kitchen at Harry Cipriani’s famous Northern Italian restaurant in Manhattan, a favorite of celebrities, one week before it opened.

CIA connection is made
During his several-year stint at Cipriani’s, it was convenient to do competition training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park. (Competition training is a gathering of a pre-selected team of chefs at the CIA for practice and qualified critiques to better prepare them for competing against teams from other countries.) A friendship formed with Chef Lou Jones, whom he considers his mentor.

Periodically Jones would contact Crispo – even after he returned to Scotland – and ask, “When are you going to take the test to be an instructor at the Culinary?”

But Crispo had no thoughts then of teaching. Back in Scotland in his late 20s and working as a chef in a hotel, he found himself attracted to a waitress who was finishing her nursing degree. He and Lorraine married and have two daughters, Amy-Beth, now 18, and Alicia, 14. “I eventually bought a male dog, Benson, to balance things out,” Crispo laughs.

He also opened his own two-part restaurant, Cripso’s and Crispo’s Too, in 2002, in the small town of Dunkeld in Perthshire, known as the Gateway to the Highlands. With its eclectic menu that utilized nothing but local products, one side was fine dining while the other offered simpler fare and a to-go option.

“However, after running the restaurant for two years, the pressures on the family were immense due to the hours required,” he says.

After selling the business, he eventually landed a prestigious job in 2004 as an executive chef with the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, catering to the likes of Prince Charles and Sir Fred Goodwin, CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland. “This was a very upscale operation – no baked ziti,” he says. “Sometimes we’d cook for as few as four people. It was very exclusive, very upmarket and very expensive.”

Because long hours and pressure are part of the profession, whether you own your own restaurant or work for someone else, Crispo says you can’t be anything less than passionate about cooking. But even passion needs to be recharged.

In his younger years, the now-45-year-old played rugby regularly. Today, it’s golf and fly-fishing to de-stress. “I could fish in a puddle,” he says.

But he prefers the solitude and natural beauty of remote waters, fishing for trout, bass or salmon. He’ll head north toward Canada when he has the time.

Crispo recently accepted an invitation of the Belize Tourist Board to instruct a five-day course for chefs in this Central American country, where he was blessed by the fishing gods. While much of the time was spent lecturing and with hands-on demonstrations, there was still time to fish the mecca of salt-water fly fishing.

Crispo recently accepted an invitation of the Tourist Board to instruct a five-day course for chefs in Belize. While much of the time was spent lecturing and with hands-on demonstrations, there was still time to fish the mecca of salt-water fly fishing.

“I thought I died and had gone to heaven,” he says of the July break when the CIA closes that afforded him this opportunity. “Catching fish in the beautiful blue waters, the breeze, the sun …. There are miles and miles of golden sandy beaches in Scotland, but no one’s ever in them. It’s freezing.”

So how did this world traveler end up at the CIA anyway? Four years ago, while working at the Botanical Garden, Crispo finally arranged for a long weekend to take the two-day instructor test at the CIA.

“It was only because of Lou’s constant nagging,” he says of the instructor with whom he bonded years earlier. “I really had no intention of becoming an instructor myself. If you are even asked to this stage of the hiring process, each prospective candidate must come on campus and cook a four-course meal for a panel of eight chefs, in the style of a mystery basket, in four hours – you don’t know what they’re going to ask you to cook.”

Having passed the exam and now an instructor, Crispo says he’s humbled by his students’ growth – from those awkward early days of first learning how to use a knife to the passion he’s helped kindle.

Crispo, too, has worked his way up from teaching fundamental skills three-and-a-half years ago to today being the second-shift instructor in the Escoffier restaurant, where he is committed to perform his best based on what his specific assignment is, acting as a guide for his students. Students polish their training by working at the four CIA restaurants.

While many would perceive Crispo as having achieved success, he’s still challenging himself, still tweaking the finished product to perfect the flavors. “My intention in coming over was to further cement myself in the CIA; I’ve come to the CIA to grow,” he says. “I’ve been intrigued by what it takes to achieve the master chef designation.”

He’s already demonstrated his competency in the prerequisites. Two other master chefs have given the OK that he is competent. Rumor has it that about a year from now, he’ll be tested. “The pressure is immense, and there’s no room for mistakes,” he says. “Becoming a certified master chef will make me a stronger chef, mentor and educator. It will cement my place at the Institute, where I wish to remain as long as I possibly can.”

He’s also suggested that he be sent to Iraq to cook for the troops along with a select kitchen crew of U.S. Marines that he’s taught in the past. He’d plan a menu around the four branches of the service – Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – using culinary concepts from the four regions of the United States.

“I haven’t heard back yet,” he says. “Ingredients could be an issue, but I’m very competent in the concept of ‘something from nothing.’ Items readily available for use are surprisingly well-rounded according to some of the Marines I am mentoring.”

Ever the educator, he envisions television as a potential means to satisfy future cravings. “I’m really shy, but when I put on a chef coat and have a knife in my hand … bring it on,” he says of his show that would be fun, realistic, practical and entertaining – featuring real people to help.

“Guys, yes, it is a cool thing now when holding the chainsaw and lumberjack shirt to talk about the Food Network,” he says.

It’s that creativity he tries to impart to his students. “You won’t impress me with lobster,” he says. “Here’s a potato and a carrot. Do something with them. Respect the ingredients; don’t take them for granted. Even parsley is more than a non-functional garnish.”

And simple ingredients take on another layer when infused with influences from other lands. “I think Indian cuisine will be the next to leave a mark on American cuisine. I still love those flavors. I’m hoping to go there one day,” he says. “And my last meal has got to be Lamb Vindaloo with Garlic Naan bread. I want to go out spicy.”

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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