Ric Orlando: Born Hungry -By: Liam Sweeny

Written by on September 7, 2021

Food is beyond fuel. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need eighty percent of what’s in our supermarkets. It is our comfort, our passion, and our obsession, for good or bad. And the people who provide us this food, should we not simply cook at home, are largely unseen and unsung.

Ric Orlando is a chef and restauranteur. He and his wife Liz co-owned the highly prized and successful New World Home Cooking Company in Woodstock/Saugerties since the early nineties, and from 2009-2020, the New World Bistro Bar in Albany. The Chronograph Mag named him 2021 Best Hudson Valley Chef, and we second that.

We sat down with Ric to discuss the flavor of life.

RRX: The culinary arts share a lot with other art forms, but in one regard, there’s more of a trust needed. People can feel a little vulnerable when they’re expanding their palates. How do you work with more exotic fare, when people are in new territory and don’t know what to expect? Is there more pressure on exotic dishes?

RO: Well yeah, there is. I had a pretty successful career in getting people to eat things that they don’t normally think they would like. I know that delicious is delicious, and getting people to try new things takes a couple of particular skills. One of them is menu writing, and how you write your menu. A lot of contemporary menus don’t use a lot of words. They basically list all the ingredients in the dish, but that can be intimidating, so I, being a lyricist and a songwriter, and a poet, I’ve always used crafty witticisms and metaphors and analogies to give people an idea of what something like, say, a borage root tastes like. I think it’s important to use words that give people a little comfort and curiosity, and not just a list of ingredients. It’s interesting working with cooks. Once they become exposed to a certain ingredient, I used borage before, it could be sea urchin, and it could be whatever… they get accustomed to it, used to it – they see it every day. But the average American diner doesn’t have the same culinary vocabulary as a chef, so I always found it was my duty to give people a comfort zone by using descriptions to paint a picture of what they’re going to be tasting.

RRX: To be a chef is to wield a great creative power. But, since everybody has to eat, it can be a power most easily taken for granted. Perhaps not at your level, but how many people think of the person cooking their food at a chain restaurant somewhere? How can the average eater best appreciate their meals beyond just tipping, wherever they eat?

RO: There’s two really great ways to appreciate your meal. One is by thanking the kitchen specifically, maybe even sending a tip to the kitchen. You know, kitchen workers are not allowed to take part in the tipping process by law, but they have so much to do with the customer’s experience. To throw a five-dollar bill to the cooks goes a long way. And secondly is word of mouth. There are online reviews, people like to use their power to be negative, but to use your power to be positive, it makes everybody feel good. Don’t be fooled; all restaurants read their online reviews and share them with their team. So when we would get great online reviews, the kitchen would always hear about it, and it always made them feel like they had a sense of accomplishment. That being drastically wrong, we approached the kitchen with it also as an illustration of what we can do better. And then, of course, on the last level of online reviews, some are just idiotic, and we didn’t always bother sharing them with people, because why hurt morale over somebody who didn’t get the table they wanted, or there was a fly on their glass, and that has nothing to do with what the kitchen is producing, so we didn’t bother bringing the kitchen down with something like that.

RRX: One thing that you see in popular culture is the people that goes to a fancy restaurant and sit down to a plate that looks like a painting, and all the food can fit on their finger. Is there a reason that meals in “upper-star” restaurants have such portions? Is it artistic, or is it economic, or practical?

RO: I’ve always circled around with that, because I always like to give a substantial meal. I think there are a couple of facets to your question. One, is, if you’re in a higher-end restaurant and there are a lot of interesting dishes on the menu, many people eat multiple courses, you know, they don’t just eat a big meal, like a big fish fry, or something; they want to try three or four things. If you’re putting full-sized portions, it’s hard to foray into the menu on a deeper level. Also, money is a factor, because, there is; let’s compare a fast food restaurant that’s using frozen low-end pre-made products versus a kitchen that is all-in with craft and with ingredient selection. When you’re shopping for local ingredients or organic ingredients or unique ingredients, they’re all very expensive. You can’t afford to give sixteen ounces of Elk, for instance, to somebody for twelve ninety-five like a chain restaurant can sell a sixteen-ounce ‘B’ grade steak fot twelve ninety-five. So it has a lot to do with the quality of ingredients as well.

RRX: The spice rack in my house is messy and disorganized, but that’s who I am. I have my favorites, like an Instant Karma spice I picked up at a small local shop, and a jar of black Italian truffle salt (okay, not a spice) that I swear by. You have you own Flavor Maker Spices. Please tell me what I’m about to add to my spice rack.

RO: There are six; the whole thing is being rebranded as Ric Orlando’s Best, which is kind of a West Indian thing, they say ‘Oh, Joe’s Best.’ Flavor Makers Spices are the dry rubs, so until you’ve tried my jerk, or my kesh, which is my Moroccan seasoning, or my dough, you know, you don’t know what you’re missing. They’re all really, really balanced and delicious, and all of my seasonings were created for my restaurants before I decided to launch them a retail, so I tell people that if they miss my food, buy my spices. One of the things I did as a chef was to make sure, especially with having two restaurants, fifty miles apart, was to make sure that every dish was consistent, because consistency is one of the most important things. One of the reasons to go back to a restaurant is to have what you had before, or have something of the same quality you had before. I standardized all of that. Every recipe in my kitchen, the menus were standardized. So those spices are all of my classic flavors.

RRX: I never thought much of cooking until I read “Kitchen Confidential.” Anthony Bourdain was someone that he made me think of how universal, and imperative, good cooking is to life. It’s beyond epicurean exploration. It’s a communication that is as old as we are. What type of cooking brings you closest to the root of that communication?

RO: You know, there are many types of cooking, right? There’s home cooking, there’s family cooking, there’s party cooking, and then there’s individual-specific plating. I think the food that brings me closest to that is when I’m cooking for small groups of people. Cooking for, like I do private dinners, eight or ten people. So I’ve got a little captive audience that allows me to do what I’d like to do. That really hits my sweet spot.

RRX: You have a song with Andy Chernoff of The Dictators, called “Born Hungry.” It’s grooving, very down home rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of fun. Very food-centered, of course? How did it happen? And is this the peak of the mountain for you and music, or you still looking to climb?

 RO: I started in my teens playing music and working in restaurants to support my playing music because obviously, you can’t make enough money playing music, especially independent underground music. And when I was maybe sixteen years-old, I heard The Dictators for the first time. It was so refreshing in an era of bands like Kansas and REO Speedwagon and Styx to hear guys wearing blue jeans and sneakers singing about getting drunk at McDonald’s and chasing girls and things that we did as teenagers, so I related to The Dictators. Fast forward twenty years and I had my restaurant in Saugerties and Handsome Dick Manitoba, who was the singer for The Dictators started coming into my restaurant on a kind of regular basis. I think he might have had a place in the Saugerties area. He was actually on the Jimmy Fallon show and mentioned my restaurant, because Jimmy Fallon is also from Saugerties.

Because of Handsome Dick, I met Andy Chernoff, who was the masterminds, the brains, the founder, songwriter, producer of The Dictators. And my realtor friend had sold him a house right outside of Woodstock, heading out towards Phoenicia. So I met Andy, great. He loved the restaurant, started coming in pretty regularly. About six months later, I decided I wanted to start a fun little throwaway band called ‘Ric the Chef.’ We did old, underground garage covers, and a handful of my originals. And Andy played bass; I played guitar, and two other members. And for about a year, we played around Albany a little bit… it was fun. We weren’t going anywhere, more just like guys getting together, playing music they grew up with, and we had fun. So Andy and I were good friends. He came over with my wife, and his wife, Carla, great friends, she’s a great photographer.

COVID hit, Andy called me, said, “You want to sing a song?” I said “What song?” He told me he was digging through his lost recordings, right, so he had recorded the rhythm tracks to ‘Born Hungry’ I think he said down in Memphis or Nashville, maybe seven or eight years ago. And he sent me the rhythm tracks, and the lyrics, “Give them a crack,” he said, “I think you’d be perfect for them. You’re the chef. It’s Born Hungry,” and he laughed. So I looked at it, started tweaking the lyrics a little bit, made it kind of fit better, my personality, banged out a rough demo, he loved it. A little later in COVID, we went into a studio where we were socially distanced and sang it. He got some great musicians to play harmonica, piano, guitar, and everything was done remotely. We recorded the song. Great. It’s one song, called Born Hungry. 

About three weeks ago, he said “Hey, what are you doing Friday? I’m going to make a video, and his friend Jeffry, French guy, great videographer, came up from New York, and I knocked out a bunch of fun, foodie places, Catskill Mountain Pizza, Top Taste Jamaican, Pippy Hot Dog Truck, Engs Chinese, just fun different places. We shot the video, and now, it’s doing great. It actually just got picked up by Outlaw Country on Sirius – Andy and I both laughed because we never thought we’d ever be on a country station. And it’s getting reviews, and it’s doing quite well. As far as my music career goes, right now, we did the one. We ended up naming the band the Huckleberries, I don’t know why, but we did. Sirius said we needed a name. Our plans are, as we go forward, to try to do one or two songs a year. Just for fun, and just for amusement, and also, as a way to repurpose music he and I had recorded over our careers. We’re going to keep a food theme for all the songs. Meanwhile, Andy is doing some new stuff with The Dictators, so for the next few months, he’s pretty tied up. So maybe the end of this year, beginning of the next.

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