A Night in the Kitchen with Antonio Mora, Fine Arts
It is two hours before dinner service starts at Morandi, a supremely fashionable trattoria in Greenwich Village, and executive chef Tony Liu and sous chef Antonio Mora have just decided how to prepare tonight’s special, pheasant.
Mora takes apart a dozen or so birds with unhurried efficiency. He sets aside the legs to be used for ravioli later in the week. The wings and necks he browns in a pan, later adding duck stock, to make a jus. He cooks the livers with shallots and garlic, then chops and mixes them with diced Asian pear—“for texture,” he explains—into a rough-hewn sort of pâté. He wraps the pheasant breasts, still on the bone, in boar bacon and roasts them in the oven.
“Getting wild with recipes isn’t really what we do here,” Mora says. “You know how you’ll go to a restaurant and a dish will have all these things going on with it? Like barbecued salmon with 20 different spices? You wouldn’t know if something was wrong with the fish. The ingredients we use are so high quality, you don’t want to mess with them.”
Mora grew up in Manhattan. He and his mother, who worked late, ate out often, and he fantasized about opening a restaurant of his own. From 1992 to 1994 he majored in Fine Arts at FIT—“I’d paint or make sculpture for six, eight hours straight”—while grilling burgers at a Village bar. Then a family friend got him an apprenticeship at the critically lauded Ryland Inn in New Jersey. He’s worked in kitchens ever since. Early last year, Liu—with whom Mora cooked for two years at culinary superstar Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, in Manhattan—poached Mora from Avenue, a Jersey bistro where Mora was executive chef.
At the start of dinner service, Mora plates a sample of the special for the staff to try. A thick slice of radicchio, braised in red wine, goes in the center. The liver-and-pear mixture, spooned onto a slice of baguette that’s been fried in olive oil and rubbed with garlic, he props against one side. He cuts the breast on the bias and fans it out in a semicircle on the other. The final touch is a drizzling of jus. His coworkers are impressed. Mora frowns. “The jus needs more vegetable flavor.”
“Cooking’s similar to art in that a lot of it is craft,” he says. “You start with an idea in your head of how something is going to smell and taste and look. You never get it exactly, but you keep trying.”
As the night progresses, Mora shifts to management. Standing at the kitchen’s plating station, in front of the ranges, he rattles off orders as they come in, coordinates the line cooks’ efforts so a table’s food is all ready at the same time, and scrutinizes plates before they go out. Occasionally, a hostess or server comes in to announce “V.I.P.s”; tonight’s include a soap-opera star (“He needs his food fast,” the hostess says) and Gene Hackman.
The mood in the kitchen stays low-key—homey, even. Mora is as solicitous as a grandmother, asking with increasing frequency whether you’d like something to eat, and each time it sounds less like a question. He sets food before you, unasked for: a small, tender rabbit chop; slippery ribbons of pappardelle with a jam-thick boar ragú; pici—an eggless pasta—with tart and creamy lemon and parmesan; cacio e pepe, or pasta with pecorino and freshly grated black pepper; red-wine risotto; spaghetti with sundried tomatoes; a softball-sized lump of mozzarella stuffed with curds and cream, called burrata; broccoli rabe; delicate miniature cannoli.
“Come back,” Mora says at the end of the evening. “Come back and have a real dinner.”