Part 3 of 3-Part Article Series
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - TAPinto continues our series with Sal Passalacqua in celebration of 40 years at Dimaios. The series started with Sal's Sicilian roots and coming to America [Carini Roots to Dimaios] to his "Pizza Delivery" Years. We continue our series with Part 3: "Emeril and the Food Network Years."
Sal knew he didn't want to be "just another pizzeria or another Italian restaurant" -- so he decided to go back to culinary school. "I'd get up at 5:30 a.m. and drive to New York City. Class was from 6:50 a.m. and got out at 3 p.m. and I would come back and work until midnight," Sal said.
To graduate culinary school, Sal was required to complete 360 hours of internship experience. He accepted an unpaid internship working for Food Network's Sarah Moulten Cooking Live show. [Moulten got her start working with Julia Child.] This 24-hour-a-week, 15-week internship in 1997 launched Sal's Food Network career.
In these early start-up years at Food Network, the atmosphere was very loose and family like -- not corporate. Sal recalled that you were expected to "show up, do your stuff and do your best."
"I started cooking for the cooks in the kitchen -- making pizza -- tossing pizza in the air," said Sal. This got him noticed and was put on a show. He worked on the Food Network's “Cooking Live” show with Sarah Moulton. He also got exposure on "Dining Around" with Alan Richman and Nina Griscom. The show was set in a restaurant booth on a soundstage. They would review three restaurants from around the country per show.
When Sal worked on Donna Hanover's show, “Food News and Views,” he expanded his horizons and his exposure to New York's top chefs. "I am meeting so many chefs from every restaurant -- they would always teach you something. -- I learned a lot there and enjoyed and had fun." During that time, he worked with top chefs including Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. "Those hours were precious to me," he said.
Towards the end of his internship, Sal asked to work with Emeril, who, at the time, was running his award winning restaurants out of New Orleans. Emeril would fly to New York and tape several shows a day for five straight days. "We were taping three live one hour shows with an audience," said Sal.
Emeril was impressed with Sal's eggplant Sicilian sandwich and asked him to show him how he made it -- on-air. "Oh crap, I have to make Emeril a sandwich," Sal said, recalling how nervous he was. Emeril had told Sal that he didn't like eggplant, but he really liked Sal's sandwich, which was a good omen.
Each of Emeril’s Cooking Live shows had a theme and the next day’s theme was San Gennaro. Sal brought in dough from Dimaios to make calzones. "I showed Emeril what I did." They shot footage on Mulberry Street, while Sal made sausage and pepper calzones. Emeril called Sal out again. "We have a guy in the back and he made a bunch of these for everybody," Emeril told the live audience. Sal told TAPinto that Emeril was spontaneous, "Nobody knew this was going to happen. Emeril said, 'Come on Sal, get out here. Give it up for Sal everybody.'" Emeril gave a "shout-out" to Sal's restaurant.
"That week, he put me on camera three times -- we hit it off. Every other day I had to come up with something different. The hours were crazy," Sal said. "This was a big deal -- huge journey -- I can tell you stories for days......"
"He [Emeril] recharged me (AND GAVE ME) a new found passion. None of that was planned -- it just happened. I was going to go there and get my credits. The plan was to go back and get my culinary degree. Work a few years and get my CMC [Certified Master Chef] and be able to teach someday," said Sal. As a chef, Sal worried about his knees or hips giving out -- "then you’re stuck. Then they’re done without a Plan B," he said.
So, "this happened, it was great -- I'm just playing along -- never thinking it would last." On the last day of his internship -- he thanked Emeril for his generosity. And Emeril was surprised to hear that Sal wasn't coming back. He said, "Where are you going? -- You are not coming back? -- You don’t want to be on my show? Are you in or are you out?"
Sal replied, "I would like to be in. I would love to be in," so he continued to work with Emeril from 1998 - 2009 -- taping 1,500 shows that have aired over 15,000 times.
"I was so fortunate -- we would have people come as guests -- Rock and Roll stars like Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, and Willie Nelson. I would go to work and get paid for this," he said.
Emeril wanted to open a restaurant with Sal. However, Sal didn't want to sacrifice his family. "I knew what it was like to be stretched thin and not have time to spend with family. I didn’t care how much money I would have gotten, it would not make up for missing my kids. No regrets," he said.
"I got all those opportunities from that show that fulfilled the part of my life that I was missing before. Creativity and freedom," he said.
"After Food Network, we went to Discovery and produced Emeril Green, where I was the Executive Chef. It gave me an incredible opportunity above and beyond the opportunity I had before," he said.
In the two years of production, they traveled to find interesting places and topics. They went to Vermont and produced episodes on milking cows, making cheese, harvesting wheat and then catching crabs from the Chesapeake Bay. These shows "shaped what I do today and what I do for sustainability," Sal said.
Visit Sal's "Food Bites" column on TAPinto, where he shares his culinary adventures as he explores the world and experiences exotic cuisines which inspire him to create his own, worldly specials at Dimaios.
Dimaios is located at 468 Springfield Avenue in Berkeley Heights. Reservations call 908.464.8585. Dimaios menu combines the traditions of Sal's Sicilian heritage along with inspirations from his worldly culinary adventures with an emphasis on the highest quality ingredients, locally sourced, at the peak of freshness.