CHEF OF THE MONTH: Chef Massa’s real training at Emeril’s restaurants

Pam Griffin
Chef Al Massa relaxes for a minute on the back deck of Marina Café.

Executive Chef Al Massa, The Sun's Chef of the Month for November, has been in the culinary business 20 years this month.

“I actually have had the responsibility for leading a kitchen for about nine years,” Massa told The Sun. “I have been at the Marina Café for two months.”

Like many chefs, Massa began cooking in his family’s kitchen. His mother would try new dishes and experiment with recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appétit Magazine.

“My grandmother would make ravioli, gnocchi, and cavatelli from scratch, so one of the first things I remember was rolling out the pasta and rolling it over the fork to get the ridges on the dense pasta,” Massa said. “My grandfather used to kiddingly call this ‘sinkers.’ I would have been 9-10 at the time.”

After serving in the Air Force, Massa had to make a career decision.

“The question came down to what can I do versus what do I want to do,” he said. “Several trips to New Orleans and experiencing the food there brought the issue into focus. While leafing through a copy of Bon Appétit, I saw the advertisements on the back pages for the major cooking schools and it all finally clicked.”

Massa attended culinary school at Johnson and Wales, but said his actual training came during more than 10 years working for Emeril Lagasse.

“My real training was on the line at Emeril’s Nola and Delmonico, two very demanding restaurants. My fellow cooks were pretty cutthroat and competition for advancement was very keen.”

He enjoys most whatever foods he is making at the time. However, his favorite cuisines are Italian, because of his heritage, and Asian, because it is such a stylistic opposite of Italian.

“I just try and produce food that is balanced and well seasoned and as creative as possible.”

For those who will spend Thanksgiving at Marina Café, Massa has prepared a menu that includes traditional favorites as well as a few special touches, like Oysters Rockefeller.

Q: Is there a food you just don’t like?

A: Lately, I have been re-introducing myself to liver, done Italian Veneto style, cooked medium rare with vinegar and onions.

Q: What is the most necessary ingredient for recipes?

A: That’s an easy one — salt. There is nothing worse than bland tasteless food.

Q: What is the hardest part of cooking for a beginner?

A: Cooking fish always seems daunting for home cooks. They just don’t like to get that pan hot enough to not have the fish stick; it must be the sight of the oil starting to produce wisps of smoke that scares them off.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A:I would echo what Chef Emeril and what Chef Dave McCelvey, my chef at Emeril’s, told me again and again. “Season your food, taste your food.”

Marina Café Shrimp, Jalapeno

and Ginger Spring Rolls

4 (26-30) tail on shrimp, tails removed from two of the shrimp

2 oz. cream cheese

1/4 jalapeño, deseeded and julienned

1 oz. diced ginger

2 spring roll wrappers

2 oz. eggwash (one egg and 1 oz. water)

Place a spring roll wrapper on a work surface. Lay two shrimp on the wrapper, with the tail of one sticking out of the edge of the wrapper, and the other facing head on.

Lay the cream cheese parallel to the shrimp, place ginger on cream cheese, lay the jalapeño strip over the cream cheese, fold side of spring roll wrapper over shrimp and after moistening the sides with the egg wash, roll the spring roll up.

Fry for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with sweet chili dipping sauce and sriracha. Makes 2 spring rolls.