Fast-talking, 31-year-old Michael Corvino may not be the obvious choice as the American's new executive chef - his first time in that role. But it's clear that Corvino, who has a tattoo of a sweet onion on the inside of his right elbow in honor of his hometown, understands the challenges ahead for the restaurant.
"People come for an occasion," he says. "It was the same battle at the [Rosewood] Mansion [on Turtle Creek]. We want them to come more often. I want to pack this place."
Born in Walla Walla, Washington, Corvino has worked in kitchens since his sophomore year in high school. His culinary education began at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, where he spent three and a half years learning how to source local produce, butcher, and design food pairings for the region's exploding wine scene.
In 2003, he moved to Chicago and took a job on the line at the Peninsula Hotel. The average room rate was $1,100, so expectations in the dining room were high. "The natural-born line cook" kicked out 300 plates at a time and learned to bake bread in the hotel's French café. Corvino also ran the hotel's banquet business and oversaw the butchering operation from a room kept at a cool 52 degrees.
"I think I can sense the most finesse in cold food," Corvino says. "It's either amazing or ... "
After a 15-month stint at the Ritz-Carlton's flagship hotel in Naples, Florida, Corvino was hired by the Sage Restaurant Group to open a pair of restaurants - Urban Farmer and Departure - in the Nines luxury hotel in Portland, Oregon. Corvino witnessed how hotel guests were becoming enamored of celebrity chefs rather than a restaurant's dining heritage. So, in 2011, he took a position as the executive sous chef at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Under chef Bruno Davaillon, Corvino developed an appreciation for balancing flavors and melding Asian, French and regional American cuisine into one dish.
"We're going to bring in some liquid nitrogen," Corvino says, "but that won't be what defines me. I just want people to see my style."
On a recent weekday morning, Corvino spoke to The Pitch in the American's pastel lounge about his plans for the restaurant.
The Pitch: What's next for the American?
Corvino: I want to push food. I want people to really get excited about what we're doing. [Interim executive chef] Josh [Eans] has been doing great food, and now we're really going to freaking go. Three courses for $59 is a steal.
What dishes have you got planned for the menu?
We changed the foie. It's the same prep. Josh has been cold-smoking it, and coming from Texas, we're always doing that kind of stuff. I love torchon. We're adding a Meyer-lemon marmalade with cracked black pepper. There will be ground cherries, almost like a sweet tomatillo, and puffed wild rice like Rice Krispies.
There's also a black-bass dish. I love black bass. It's black olives puréed with lardo from La Quercia and kale in a couple different forms. There's potato gnocchi and preserved lemon, and the fish is served with a crispy skin.
By next week, the menu will be completely turned over. I came to this place to really develop my style of food. We've got a James Beard dinner in November, and that will be a blast. There's also a wine dinner with Merry Edwards.
What are you experimenting with?
It's a scallop dish with farro verde from Anson Mills. It has such an earthy, nutty aroma, and it almost smells smoked, even though there's no smoke. I cook that risotto-style with squid ink. It's black and super-rich and savory. You talk about umami right there. Then there's fresh summer garbanzo beans with a yogurt component and ground chorizo. It's rich and fresh and light, and there's a balance of flavors.
What's one food you love?
Lobster. Caviar. But not in a snobby way. I eat that with a spoon. We had a guy at the Peninsula who would regularly come in on Sundays and order Beluga, when Beluga was still available. He and his wife would each get an ounce. She would just eat it out of the jar, and he would dump his onto his eggs Benedict and go to town.
What's one food you hate?
I don't know if I have one. Food is in your head. I thought I didn't like feta. It was a salty, briny, worthless cheese. But feta has its place. It's with fresh fruit like olive and grapefruit. You put something salty and briny with something fresh.
Besides your own place, where do you like to go out to eat?
I've got a long list. I'm going to start crossing them off. Oklahoma Joe's is at the top of my list. Obviously, there's Bluestem and Michael Smith's spot.
A chef is only as good as...his team.