In his spare time – not that any executive chef has much of that – Chef Richie Farina hits the gym daily to “de-stress”, trains in the mixed martial arts on the weekends and tries to golf as much as he can. The Florida native visits his family several times a year, but says Chicago is now his permanent home.
Chef Farina gained national recognition as one of the most creative talents in the restaurant world as a featured contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and one of four lead characters on the Discovery Network’s Future Food. Currently the Chef de Cuisine for Moto Restaurant, Farina is one of the city’s top modern culinary artists in residence.
If you had to explain to someone who knew nothing of molecular gastronomy, how would you describe it?
I believe the main purpose is taking familiar ingredients and changing the texture and composition. It could be by dehydrating it or switching up the texture of the way something is. All you’re doing is changing the normal state we’re used to seeing it in.
How do you think people perceive this trend?
Sometimes tasting menus are confused as being molecular only. When it first started you’d just do a bite of something, but the technique is so difficult to reproduce, you really need to know upfront if you need 30 servings versus just 1 or 2.
For a while, it was a big trend. The days of just having this kind of food on the menu are kind of over. The restaurants that did it well are still here – us, Alinea, Next… We push the envelope the way we present food, that’s what makes the Chicago food scene different from New York or L.A.
All the fine dining restaurants have some kind of molecular gastronomy on the menu; it’s a very cool tool. Now, it’s more about taking these ideas into regular dishes; there are very few things that are just strictly molecular. I work more on presentation using the molecular style to enhance.
At your sister restaurant, iNG, they use the Miracle Berry to replace sugar. Are you working on anything like that at Moto – maybe coming up with something to replace fat calories or sodium?
Not yet; I couldn’t let go of my salt either, I depend on it.
MBerry is a good tool for diabetics and chemo patients looking to replace sugar. At iNG, they do ‘flavor tripping’; you can have half of your course as savory and then the other half of the same exact food as sweet.
If you could invent something new, what would you want to innovate?
I would focus on the way we cook stuff. Most people use gas, but I’d want to create a more accessible, user friendly and affordable induction unit for the home to save natural resources.
It’s ‘crazy’ because I’m always on call. I could get a call from the owner at 8 in the morning to produce something completely new or different by 2 that afternoon. I never know what’s going to happen.
The level of our food takes a lot of attention; sometimes kitchens operating at this level are run in a military style. It’s important to me to keep the mood very light. We play YouTube videos, music – everybody gets to play their song – it’s the little things. Sometimes I show up in costume (I have this whole Nerf thing going) – sometimes we play games in the alley. I manage off my personality – it’s tough enough – I want to try to create a fun atmosphere.
From an operations standpoint, what are the biggest challenges in running a restaurant like Moto?
Being consistent and new; the next step is presentation. We want people to have an experience from the time they walk in the door until they leave. We are always trying to find something different. Nothing on the menu right now is served on a traditional white plate, we treat the plate as an ingredient itself. Seasonal menus are another challenge. We have 15 courses we change every three months.
What about cost?
Our highest cost is labor – because of the techniques and time it takes to do these things. We need a big staff.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
In ten years? I’ll be 40. Hopefully I’ll own a restaurant – your job as a chef, is to train somebody to take your place. I want to settle down, get married, have kids… all that stuff. It’s so easy to get lost in your work. The last thing I want to do is be working 60-80 hours a week, and I haven’t done my job to have someone take over my spot.
If you could open your own restaurant tomorrow, what kind of place would it be?
Tomorrow? It would be what I’m doing now – I love being able to be as creative as I can be. It’s great to hear good things from repeat customers – how they see progress being made under my direction.
We’ve always had great direction, and great cooks – but I think people realize now that the food is [not only] cool but also really, really good. When you sit down you may not recognize what you’re eating, but you know it’s going to be good.
Ultimately, I’d want to have a pizza place, it’s where I started. I enjoy fine dining, but just to have a small place – almost like a hobby – so when I’m sold out, I’m sold out.