The passions of Rick Tramonto
In a profession defined by debauchery, a born-again Christian chef manages to keep the faith.
Chefs for Christ is an organization that, in a different world, Rick Tramonto would have started by now. Not for social reasons—Tramonto has never been much of a joiner, and for parts of his life has been downright antisocial—but for outreach, support and charity work. The problem is, most chefs are hedonists—pleasure is their guiding principle—and their livelihood depends on other people being hedonists, too.Tramonto’s had his share of coke-snorting, binge-drinking days, so he knows this better than anyone. But while he’s changed, the chef game remains the same. So although Tramonto has the means and inclination to start Chefs for Christ, he hasn’t. Because if he did, the meetings would be too lonely.
Twelve years ago Tramonto was driving his truck southbound on I-94, making the commute between his home in Buffalo Grove and a meeting downtown. His head, he says, was full of darkness. He was the most famous chef in the city (or, after Charlie Trotter, maybe the second-most famous); the pandemonium over Trio, which he had operated with his wife, pastry chef Gale Gand, had reached unprecedented heights. But he and Gand were in the middle of a separation. Their infant son, Gio, soon would be shuttling between them. Tramonto was depressed and exhausted from a life filled with too much drinking, too much anger and too much cocaine.
He turned on the radio. For months he’d been making this drive accompanied by the same thoughts. Why are Gale and I splitting up? Why am I putting my son through this? How did it get to this point?
The voice on the radio was talking about a Bible passage—Luke 10:38, the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha—and “a revival of the Word.”
We need to have new life, the voice said.
Tramonto could feel the darkness in him welling.
We need to have a revival of sitting at the feet of Jesus.
He pulled his truck to the side of the road and turned up the volume.
We must make a decision that we’re going to go after the things that are going to bring lasting change inside of our lives.
The speaker identified himself as Pastor Gregory Dickow of Life Changers Church in Barrington. Tramonto canceled his meeting, turned his truck around and headed there. He walked straight into the church’s bookstore and bought a Bible, as well as Dickow’s tape series, “Sitting at the Feet of Jesus,” which turned out to be what he had heard on the air.
It was a Thursday. That day he drove back home and started listening to the tapes. He continued the next day, and the next, and on Sunday he returned to Life Changers for services. At the end of services there was an altar call, an invitation for anybody to renew their commitment to Jesus. Tramonto stood and came forward. He knelt on the stage and felt the pastor’s hand on his shoulder. A few minutes later, he was officially reborn.
By the time Tramonto took his first kitchen job—he was 15, and the job was at Wendy’s—he was already living what he refers to as a chef’s “rock & roll lifestyle.” He grew up in Rochester, New York’s working-class 10th Ward with a mother who worked as a cleaning lady and a father who was a bartender. But in 1977, his father went to jail on embezzlement charges, and his mother was forced to take a second job. Tramonto, an only child, was on his own. So he made a community out of the other disenfranchised kids in the neighborhood— “My house was the party house, because there was nobody home,” he remembers—and inevitably they got their hands on some pot. And then some more. By the time he was 12, Tramonto was smoking almost daily.
Pot led to drinking, and cigarettes, and swallowing whatever pills he could find in his mother’s medicine cabinet. It also led to a disinterest in school, which Tramonto wasn’t really doing well in anyway, so after his sophomore year he never went back. The job at Wendy’s, though, he kept, until he was 17 and went to work for a small steakhouse chain called Scotch ’N Sirloin.
It was the first time he was legally able to work in a place that served alcohol, and he made the move to earn more money. But it didn’t take long before he got serious about the food. Tramonto would come in early to learn how to butcher, then stay the whole night to work his shift. And then, he’d go out. “These guys drank an amazing amount of Scotch, and they all smoked dope and did a lot of coke,” he recounts. A couple years later he moved to Rochester’s best restaurant, in the Strathallan Hotel. The food was better, but the vices were the same: The chefs there were “into psychedelics,” Tramonto says, and “loved to trip and do blotter acid and mushrooms.” Tramonto had no qualms about doing it right along with them.
It was at the Strathallan that he met Gand, who was ten years his senior and working the pastry station to put herself through Rochester Institute of Technology. The more serious they became about each other, the more serious they became about cooking. So they moved to New York, where their careers gained a momentum that never stopped. Tramonto worked at Tavern on the Green and with Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill. A few years later, after a stint in Chicago (when Tramonto worked for Trotter, among others) he and Gand spent four years at Stapleford Park in England, earning it a recommendation from the Michelin Guide. When the pair returned to Chicago to be closer to Gand’s family, they worked at a few places—Tramonto at various LEYE restaurants, Gand at Trotter’s—but it wasn’t until they paired up with Henry Adaniya to open the now-legendary Trio that they fully flourished. Their food—dishes like savory ice cream amuse bouches—was progressive, and always plated with an artist’s sensibility. It earned unanimous, overflowing praise. In 1999, when they opened TRU, the accolades kept coming.
Along the way, there were suburban restaurants (Brasserie T, a restaurant Tramonto and Gand opened in Northfield in 1995, led to their split with Adaniya); book deals (his seventh, Rick Tramonto Steak and Friends, comes out in April 2010); and endless awards (he’s won almost every culinary honor there is). But neither the coke nor his successes could quiet the insecurities left over from Tramonto’s past. In many ways he still saw himself as a burger-flipping high-school dropout. Tramonto is dyslexic, and claims he isn’t good at math and can’t grasp new food techniques as fast as other chefs. “For me to read Alinea’s book or Ferran [Adrià’s] book, it’s hard. It’s a lot of work for me.… It just takes me longer [to understand],” he says. “I’m not smart enough.”
Never mind that when TRU opened, his food was considered as progressive as Grant Achatz’s is now at Alinea. Assurances of that kind from his customers, from Tribune critic Phil Vettel—that was all nice. But it turns out he really needed to hear it from God.
Since the day he heard Dickow on the radio, Tramonto has visited Life Changers at least two times a week: on Wednesday night for Bible study, and on Sunday morning for services. On a recent Sunday, he took his usual spot in the front row. It was a little after 8am, and the choir-—about a dozen men and women, most holding wireless microphones—had already started its performance. It was an upbeat number, and as the members sang and clapped, television cameras on mechanized cranes swooped in front of them. Video of the service was being streamed to the Internet; it could also be seen on large flat-screens flanking the stage.
Dickow’s lesson that day was about the “covenant of increase.” If you give to God, Dickow said, God will give to you. “The check is in the mail,” he said. Tramonto had a lined notebook in his lap, and he scribbled down the pastor’s key points. Sometimes he’d write notes in the margins of his Bible, but with so many notes and highlighted passages in the book already, there wasn’t much room. When he wasn’t writing, Tramonto was listening: He’d shut his eyes in prayer, or lift his arms and stand with his palms facing out, as if receiving a warm breeze from Pastor Dickow’s direction. Every five minutes or so he’d wipe his eyes dry with the back of his hand.
“Has anybody here led a dark life?” the pastor asked at one point.
Tramonto was the first to raise his hand.
He often talks about the temptations a chef faces. Sometimes Christian culinary students ask him how he maintains his values in an industry where there’s so much drinking, smoking, fucking and yelling. Tramonto tells them it takes effort, time and strength to stave off those temptations. “That’s why they call [being a Christian] a walk,” he says. “A righteous man falls seven times but always gets up.” But the truth is drugs and drinking were relatively easy for Tramonto to give up: One New Year’s Eve in the late ’80s, he and his kitchenmates dropped some acid, and the trip lasted three days. Tramonto panicked, thinking he’d never come out of it. “I thought it was the end of my life,” he says. After that, he never touched drugs again.
Giving up the anger, though—that was more difficult.
Three years ago, I took the Metra to Wheeling to interview Tramonto, Gand and sommelier Belinda Chang, because even though the restaurant compound they were building was in the suburbs, it was still Chicago’s big restaurant story of the fall. (Of the four restaurants they opened that year, only two—Tramonto Steak & Seafood and RT Lounge—remain). While we waited for Chang to join us, I sat at a table with Tramonto and Gand. Gand and I started chatting about coffee—she had just taken a trip to Latin America and found some good beans. Tramonto sat silently, looking annoyed, and after a few minutes he interrupted us.
“Are we going to get this thing going or what?” he snapped.
It was exactly the Rick Tramonto I’d been expecting: gruff, impatient—kind of a dick. Jeffrey Ward, who worked as Tramonto’s director of communications for about ten years, would cringe when Tramonto acted this way in front of reporters. But it was much worse in the kitchen. When Ward started working with Tramonto, right before TRU opened, “[Rick] could be a scary guy,” Ward says. “[He] was a little bit of a wild card. You never knew what you were going to get.”
“I was a lunatic,” Tramonto says. “[I was an] angry child…angry, angry…and just berating.” Screaming was his usual method for disciplining his chefs, but he’d occasionally break a plate—or worse. Once, when he was working at Bella Luna, Tramonto and his chefs were in the weeds during a particularly busy lunch. Tramonto was furious—he had told the host to stop overbooking lunches the week before—so he charged through the dining room, marched to the host stand and ripped a phone out of the wall.
“Now you won’t be able to overbook the room anymore,” he told the host.
Post–Life Changers, Tramonto began to mellow (“He found some kind of calmness to him that wasn’t there earlier,” Ward says), and so did the kitchen at TRU. Tim Graham—the soft-spoken executive chef who recently left TRU after seven years—made the kitchen into a pristine and quiet place, and Tramonto now sees the young chefs who work there as mentoring opportunities. “It’s almost a brotherly relationship,” Gand says about Tramonto’s interactions with his chefs. (She also notes that Tramonto has evolved from a completely absent to a “very involved” parent.)
On a recent visit to TRU, where Tramonto spends about one day every week or two, he stopped each young chef in the kitchen and gently asked how he or she was doing. He rolled up his sleeves and compared one chef’s tats to his own (Tramonto’s arms are almost completely covered with them). It was hard to tell if this camaraderie was a show for a journalist—the chefs didn’t seem to know Tramonto very well. But they didn’t seem frightened, either. In fact, if there was any common reaction, it was one of awe: Tramonto had descended on the kitchen, and he was here to give his blessings.
A couple of days after watching him in the kitchen, I met with Tramonto at a table in the dining room of TRU. He essentially runs a mobile office, and the table was covered with paper: his schedule, his Bible, details about restaurants he’s pitching in Napa and Pebble Beach. He took a sheet of paper and slid it across the table to me.
“These scriptures came to me the last couple weeks that we’ve been talking,” he said. On the sheet were two psalms. One was headlined, “Think Before You Speak,” the other “Be a Light in a Dark World.”
Tramonto can talk about God for hours, and he started to get going: “It took me a long time to read the Scriptures and to understand that to be more like Jesus is to build people up and be kind.” It wasn’t therapy that had healed his wounds, he told me, but God: “I was able to forgive myself because God forgave me.” I watched him as he spoke and noticed—not for the first time—something palpably different about him than when I had seen him three years ago. He looked younger, and though he was thinner now, he also seemed softer. Yet there was still a restlessness under his quietness, a threat that the calm could be broken at any time.
I switched off my tape recorder and started packing my bag when Tramonto reached across the table and touched my arm. He wanted a favor. His eyes were red and wet, and he was dabbing at them with his wrists. He wanted me to promise that if anyone I talked to for this story said they had been hurt by him, or had any bad memories of him at all, I would let him know. He would reach out to them. He would show them that he was different now. He has done some damage in his life—he knows that. But given the opportunity, he’s pretty sure he can make it right.
Click here to read a sample recipe from Rick Tramonto's new book Steak with Friends.