Chef and motorcycle enthusiast Johnny Iuzzini was raised in the Catskills in rural upstate New York, where he had his first kitchen job washing pots at a local country club. He eventually moved to New York City and became interested in pastry while working at the River Cafe in Brooklyn, where he was transfixed by the work of pastry chef Eric Gouteryron. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Iuzzini worked for the original Daniel on the Upper East Side alongside Chef Francois Payard. In 1998, Iuzzini traveled the world, from East Asia to Western Europe, experiencing many different cultures and cuisines. He considers this trip to be a formative experience in that it showed him the infinite potential of food and learning. In 2002, he was named Executive Pastry Chef at Restaurant Jean Georges, and while holding this post the restaurant earned three Michelin stars. During this time, Iuzzini was also named “Best New Pastry Chef” by New York Magazine and “2006 Pastry Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation. Since leaving Restaurant Jean Georges, Iuzzini has made many TV appearances, including serving as head judge of Bravo’s “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” His two cookbooks, Dessert Fourplay and Sugar Rush, have both received glowing reviews. He also runs a pastry and culinary arts consultancy called Sugar Fueled Inc. and is unveiling his own brand of chocolate this spring.

What made you want to be a pastry chef?
I grew up in the Catskills in upstate New York, and the only thing around was really country clubs, little stores, not much else. I wanted to buy new clothes and go out with my friends, but I come from a family where my dad was like if you want to spend money you have to go out and earn money. I got a job, and at that time period in New York you had to be 15 to get your working papers, and because I was born later in the year all of my friends started working before me. They got all of the cool jobs, being caddies, driving golf carts at the golf course, and the only one left was being a pot washer at the golf course. Every day I would go and wash pots and then wash dishes, and if the chef liked me he’d let me peel carrots. All of my friends, if it rained they got to go home, but I would stay late every night. It was good, it kept me out of trouble and taught me discipline, but I’ve never had a job outside of a kitchen my whole life. I started at 15 years old as a pot washer. That’s where it all began.

Do you have a mentor or a chef who particularly inspired you?
It’s so hard to choose just one. I’d have to say Daniel Boulud and Francois Payard played a huge impact in my life. I started working for them when I was 19 years old. The pastry chef Eric Gouteyron was my first pastry chef at 17 at the River Cafe. He’s the one that inspired me to switch from culinary to pastry, what he could do with chocolate and sugar, the list goes on. I believe that every chef you work for shapes you in one way or another. Thomas Haas is another amazing pastry chef. You learn from these people and develop your own voice in food. I learned something from each of these people and I took those pieces, the things you learn from their style or their journey or their methods of cooking, and it all folds into who you are as a chef.

What is the most important aspect of cooking to you?
It’s always about the evolution. It’s always about what’s next. I don’t think about what I’ve achieved in life, and this tortures me a little. I’m always worried about the future or how I get to the next step or complete the next goal. It’s important to understand the path and understand history, but I don’t want to rest on it. I want to move forward. The most important thing is to continue to learn and grow, to understand more of what’s going on when you’re cooking and different flavors are coming together, to understand different cultures and flavors from around the world.

What inspires you?
What inspires me is always learning. I want to experience things I haven’t experienced before, and then turn around and deliver something to a client or a customer that they haven’t experienced before. I get just as excited about learning as I do about cooking for someone. It’s always a progression and a circle for me. The more I learn, the more I can do for other people.

What has cuisine taught you about the world?
It’s shown me how small I am. We often live in a bubble, and we’re lucky we live in New York City because we have so many cultures, so many cuisines, but the best thing I could ever do for myself was when I was 22 I went around the world for nine months by myself with a backpack and just slept in youth hostels and worked wherever I could work, and I just experienced the world. You realize as Americans we take too much for granted, for one, and the world is so big as far as cuisine even across our own country, or in India, or even Mexico, you just realize how little you truly know. It puts everything in perspective and it’s very humbling. As much as you think you know or as popular as you think you are, you’re still so small in the world.

What do you think of the recent popularity of Japanese food culture?
I love it. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan a couple times, and I think the simplicity and precision of Japanese culture in food inspires me and I’ve learned a lot from it. I feel like so often we overcomplicate our dishes or use too many ingredients, and the hardest thing to do is a salad or a fruit plate, because it’s the most naked, the most undressed, but when you think about Japanese food, so often it’s focused on a single ingredient or a single preparation and there’s nothing to hide behind, there’s honesty and integrity, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m constantly trying to be that way, especially as I get older. When I was younger, I liked to complicate things, and now I’m trying to simplify. Japan is the first place I look for that inspiration. When I say simplify, I don’t mean simple food. I mean more focused, less complicated.

What do you think is the main difference between Western style and Japanese style knives?
As an American, growing up how I did and being a pastry chef, I don’t think I’m a true master of any style of knife. I’ve learned what I’ve learned and I do my best. I’ve bought all kinds of knives throughout my career and tried to learn to sharpen them the best I can. I always want to be the one pastry guy with sharp, beautiful knives, but like with anything there’s a lot of your history in a type of knife you use. Who taught you to use your knife? Who brought you to buy your first knife? And the places you work along the way and the people you work with influence you. My first time buying in Korin was with one of my great mentors Alex Lee. He brought me down there and I don’t know how many hours we spent in the store talking about all of the different kinds of knives, but he was with me when I bought my first Western and Japanese style knives and taught me the differences between them.

For the Japanese style knife, especially if we’re talking about carving things, it’s a lot more care. You have to be a lot more attentive. Western knives are more like Americans, they’re a little bit lazier. I respect both and it comes down to a preference. It’s your tool and your livelihood. Even as a pastry chef, my knives are as important as everything else in my kitchen, except maybe my gram scale. It’s an extension of your personality. Whenever I hired a chef and they didn’t have a great knife, I’d take them to Korin to learn about that aspect of cooking.

What is your advice for chefs who are thinking about buying their first Japanese knife?
Our knives and our tools are our livelihood. They deserve the utmost respect. They’re just as important as our ingredients, and we need them every day so we can do the best job we possibly can. I remember saving up money for special knives and tools, because you can’t do your best work without the best tools available. A great knife doesn’t make a great chef, but every great chef has a great knife. As you mature, you develop an appreciation for the tools you use and the people who make them. I have a relationship with the person who grows my strawberries, who makes my cheese. Why wouldn’t I want the same kind of relationship with the person who makes my tools? I want to know where my knives are coming from, who’s making them, why they’re making them.

I have a whole slew of knives, no complete collection of everything, but every time I go to Korin I see something interesting. I have two sets of knives, one for travel and one for home. My first Misono is still to this day one of my favorite knies. The [UX 10] is also one of my favorites. I like going to Korin and feeling a knife in my hand, feeling the weight of it. I don’t buy by brand in anything in my life. I look for the connection I feel with my tools. There are lots of wonderful knife makers, but there’s so much personal preference and style involved. It can’t be the best, just the best for you.

What is the goal for your profession?
I spent most of my life from 15 to 38 in a kitchen or pastry shop, and I’ve always loved what I do and so many things about it, but I felt constricted, like I was always going to be answering to somebody else as a pastry chef, I would only be able to serve people who came to me. Well, I’ve always had an affinity for and love of chocolate, so I left the restaurants with the goal of building my own chocolate factory, bean to bar and beyond. I’m not going to stop at the chocolate bar, because I’m a pastry chef, so I’m going to take the chocolate that I make and the cocoa powder that I make and do so many other things with it. This is my dream now, and to see where it organically brings me around the world. For me it’s all about chocolate right now. I’m doing it by myself, I don’t have investors, and it’s a struggle, but my whole career has been a struggle, and I want the satisfaction of knowing I’m succeeding by myself, that I’m pushing myself.

What is your advice for aspiring chefs?

The first thing I tell all cooks is that when you come out of culinary school you have the foundation to become a chef, and the road you take to get there is up to you. So many people want to be celebrity chefs or TV chefs, and the first thing you have to do is put your head down, close your mouth, open your ears, open your eyes, and learn and be a sponge. Learn from a chef, and the next chef, and the next chef. If you don’t work for different people and see different things and travel, you can never develop your own voice and repertoire, you just mimic whoever you work with. Travel is so important because it shows you how little you know, which inspires you to push yourself and learn more. Daniel Boulud told me at a young age, and I always say this to my young chefs, he said, “Johnny, you’re going to be a great chef one day. Just remember where you came from, be humble, and always teach those around you.” I’ve locked that into my mind and opened up my kitchen and my experience.

I have a strong social media following, and people from around the world are always asking me questions, and I take the time to answer every single person who sends me a message on social media. Just because you like to make dinner on the weekend doesn’t mean you want to be a chef professionally. Before you go to culinary school, go work in a restaurant and see what it’s like to work on weekends, at night, through holidays. There’s pros and cons for sure, but it’s definitely not an easy lifestyle.

What is your philosophy on hospitality?
Hospitality is ever-changing, and the world we live in now the front of the house is as important as the back of the house. From the time you’re greeted to when you have your dessert, everything matters. I’m excited about the more casual yet more efficient world we live in. I recently went to dinner at Eleven Madison Park, and obviously it’s a three-star dinner, four in the New York Times, but it was the most approachable in a unique and creative way. Everybody is breaking the mold as far as what an experience entails. Everybody wants to have an experience, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a tuxedo and a white tablecloth. A pairing now could be beer or sake or whiskey or wine. I think by being creative, honest, and interactive, the experience becomes exciting. Nobody wants to go sit for four hours anymore and have course after course after course; people like the way things are being shaken up. Hospitality is just about paying attention to the customer and making sure they know you understand that they’re spending their money with you and you’re doing everything you can to make sure their experience is wonderful.

2017 Korin Knife Catalog