Some chefs find themselves in the restaurant business by accident or ending up there while they were planning on a different career. But Juniper at the Vanderbilt’s executive chef Chris D’Ambrosio says the culinary arts found him at an early age.
“I grew up in an Italian household, with a big family around the table that always seemed to be eating,” recalls D’Ambrosio, whose memories include growing tomatoes and eggplant in a garden in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn from the age of 5. He also recalls early inspiration working at an old Italian deli, serving classic dry cured pork cuts such as prosciutto and capicola.
He explains that he didn’t pursue culinary arts until high school, when he had an opportunity to participate in a vocational program with study options to become an electrician, a plumber, or a chef. “Cooking suited me best. It kind of found me,” he says, adding that his instructors were mostly culinary school graduates.
D’Ambrosio would go on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie before landing a formative job at New York City venue Bouley, where he would spend nearly a decade working under the tutelage of acclaimed chef David Bouley.
“I firmly believe that to become the best, you have to work with the best,” says D’Ambrosio, adding that while at Bouley he was constantly “growing and evolving” as a chef.
“We used the finest ingredients and sourced both locally and globally. It never got boring.”
D’Ambrosio explains that his goal was to be able to “cook without a recipe,” relying solely on his palate for guidance and inspiration. “Everything at Bouley was feel and taste,” he says, adding that his philosophy was to not follow a recipe.
Still in his 30s, D’Ambrosio has packed a lot of culinary punch into his years, having discovered new cuisines in Japan, Italy and France during internships with chefs to expand his creative horizons.
While at Bouley, he did several Anthony Bourdain-style trips abroad over a few years to learn cultures and cuisines.
“The idea all along was to bring the experiences back to Bouley,” recalls D’Ambrosio. Following Bouley’s closure in 2017, he spent a couple of years at the Bedford Post Inn in Westchester, a gourmet restaurant and inn co-owned by actor Richard Gere.
“At Bedford, I sourced produce, such as radishes and tomatoes, directly from local farmers. Many of the recipes were seasonal.” He recalls getting produce from Union Square Market in Manhattan.
“That style of cooking is spontaneous, where Mother Nature determines the menu.”
After a brief stint at Manhattan’s Le Bilboquet, D’Ambrosio says he was laid off due to Covid before taking over at the new Juniper restaurant at the Vanderbilt hotel and residences in Westbury.
Juniper, which opened in late May, is the latest venue from restaurateur James Mallios and the Civetta Hospitality Group. Civetta also operates Amali in Manhattan, Calissa in the Hamptons and Bar Marseille in the Rockaways.
At Juniper, D’Ambrosio says he wants to help build a “destination that’s different.”
He says he plans to continue sourcing from local farms, including everything from fresh herbs and fruits such as strawberries to vegetables including peas and cucumbers.
“Sustainability governs everything we do at Civetta, including the meat, fish and produce we purchase, the wines we pour, and our labor practices,” says Civetta partner Kylie Monagan. “We choose to focus on long-term business goals because we believe they benefit our local community and the larger ecosystem, supporting family farms, fisheries, and winemakers and providing job stability for our team.”
D’Ambrosio aims to integrate sustainability into “food he likes to eat,” and that, he says, is how he writes his menus.
For example, one of his favorite dishes is the birria-style short ribs, influenced by Mexican birria herbs and stewed for hours, “like a deconstructed taco.”
He adds that he’s procuring seafood directly from Montauk fishermen, such as blue crude marinated in tomato and cilantro.
Monagan adds that the menu offers classic comforts including Cascun Farm Market fried chicken, six-cheese mac, and wild mushroom flatbread. Other specialties include hay-roasted oysters, Long Island Crescent Duck breast with Juniper honey, and Caraflex cabbage steak for vegans.
A well-stocked bar features gin-inspired cocktails and classic wines including Sancerre, Chablis, and Napa chardonnay.
D’Ambrosio, who has been cooking for more than 15 years, says his future will revolve around food, but he’s not sure he wants to own a restaurant since knows how much work and money go into successful ventures.
He says, “You have to find a balance in life between making money and enjoying what you’re doing. That’s the secret.”
Juniper at the Vanderbilt hotel and residences is located at 990 Corporate Dr. in Westbury. It can be reached at 516-820-1200 or juniperlongisland.com.
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