Spiaggia Chef and Partner Tony Mantuano dishes on encouraging his executive chef to join the show, and what it was like to watch him win.
Since Spiaggia was founded 30 years ago in Chicago, many chefs have walked through its doors as newcomers to the industry and left to rise to the same level—or even eclipse—the masters who taught them. Tony Mantuano, who is a chef and partner at the restaurant, has been there to greet most of them. Sarah Grueneberg, who Mantuano says came to Spiagga from Texas with no experience cooking Italian food whatsoever, now runs the estimable Monteverde restaurant. She was also the runner-up on season 9 of Top Chef (she lost to Paul Qui). Now, another chef, Joe Flamm, has emerged from Spiaggia triumphant—this time as the first place winner on Top Chef season 15. Mantuano mentored him, too —and in fact, it was this very relationship that pushed Flamm to join the show in the first place.
“I talked to Joe, and he said, ‘I don’t really know if I want to do that’. I said, ‘First of all, I’m just asking you to do the interview.’ He said, “I really don’t want to do it.” I told him, ‘Just try it,’ and now I tease him about that,” Mantuano recalls.
Of course, Flamm eventually conceded and decided to compete. He left the kitchen at Spiaggia for about two months, during which time Mantuano—who has competed on Top Chef Masters—couldn’t breathe a word of Flamm’s whereabouts.
“I couldn’t tell the cooks, ‘he’s not texting, because they take your phone away,’” Mantuano says. “We had to make up a story that he was helping open a restaurant in Florida. Even his grandmother didn’t know. And when I finally met his grandmother, she said to me ‘I was ready to kill you! How could you send him away from his family!’”
While Flamm was gone, it was up to the sous chefs to pick up the slack. Mantuano is especially thankful to executive sous chef Brian Motyka, pastry chef Joey Swab, and sous chef Eryan Cisneros for “taking the lead” in Flamm’s absence. Mantuano’s presence as a mentor (he doesn’t do much cooking at Spiagga these days) helped prepare the team to (temporarily) lose a member, and has helped chefs like Flamm and Grueneberg leave the restaurant with the tools they need to succeed on their own terms.
“It’s about making the team understand the work ethic,” Mantuano says of what he tries to impart to his cooks. “You have to work hard on your own time to prepare yourself for the kitchen and hone in on your craft. You need to also find time to keep learning and never stay stagnant, always evolve.”
At Spiaggia, Mantuano has tried to maintain a “culture of mentoring,” where he actively takes new chefs under his wing so that they truly feel like a member of a chaotic, but still well-functioning, family. In Flamm’s case, that looked like flying him off to Italy so that he could learn more about the Italian cuisine he would be cooking.
“When Joe came to us, he had worked at the Girl and the Goat, and so when Joe came he was very green. We took him to Italy a few times… He just really got in touch with his Italian side,” says Mantuano. “Now there’s one pasta dish he makes personally every day before service. He rolls it out and does the filling. That makes me so proud.”
In the course of talking about the chefs, Mantuano has mentored throughout his career, ‘proud’ is a word he repeats a lot.
How does he feel when former Spiaggia cooks open their own restaurants? “One word: proud.”
When he found out that Flamm had won Top Chef? “I was very proud of Joe. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
The whole team, in fact, was in high spirits when Flamm made his return to Spiaggia. To show his appreciation for his executive chef, Mantuano decided to throw a party for the show’s finale, displaying to the entire city just how much pride it brings them to have Flamm among their company, win or lose.
“We have 40-foot tall windows in the restaurant, and we wanted to close the restaurant and show the finale on a screen,” he remembers. “We closed the restaurant and Joe’s family alone is like, 100 people because he has so many aunts and uncles, and then Miller High Life took over the bar, and I never thought I would see Miller High Life products [at the restaurant] but it’s Joe’s beer.”
The world now knows how that evening turned out, and we can probably guess the exact emotion not just Mantuano, but Flamm’s colleagues, family, and even the entire city of Chicago, felt when the winner was announced.