Reappearing Act: Michael Citarella's Journey to the Kitchen at the Monarch Room
Several years into a career that included stops through storied kitchens like Daniel, Tabla, and Lespinasse, and then a role commanding the back of the house at Freeman's, Michael Citarella disappeared, exiting the industry altogether, it seemed, back in 2009.
The Monarch Room
He was no longer in the spotlight, perhaps, but he wasn't exactly letting his kitchen knives languish, either -- he'd picked up a gig working as a family's private chef, a position that kept him happy for a few years. Officially, he says, "I have been waiting for the right opportunity to communicate my love of American seasonal cuisine through a menu that is entirely my own. After Freemans, I took a year off to focus on what I love most about cooking and to work on developing my own path in the culinary space."
And as suddenly as he'd vanished, Citarella reappeared, this time in charge of the kitchen at The Monarch Room (408 West 15th Street, 646-790-7070), a restaurant near Chelsea Market, which opened last year. There, he's putting out a New American menu that's more ingredient-driven than anything else.
Citarella's exposure to food began when he was young; he remembers watching his grandmother and parents cooking for holidays. While his older brothers found other hobbies, he wound up hanging around the kitchen, tasting dishes in progress and helping prep. He began trying to re-create things he'd eaten in restaurants, and, he says, his palate developed as a result.
Citarella spent years as a musician, and even then, he spent his spare time cooking. So one day, when he saw a TV commercial for culinary school, he decided to switch careers -- and he went in full force. Postgraduation, Citarella landed a job at Daniel. "I didn't realize how lucky I was," he says. "It was intense. The food was amazing, the technique was so solid. It was a really great foundation to go from school into that." Once he'd built his base, he began pursuing an understanding of specific ingredients, making his way through gigs at a southwestern restaurant, where he learned about chilies; Lespinasse, where he began building a base around spices; and Tabla, where he deepened his spice knowledge. Citarella spent a year and a half cooking in Ireland, where he was inspired by ingredients he could find in Europe.
All of those experiences ultimately informed the ingredient-driven philosophy Citarella applies at the Monarch Room.
In this interview, the chef talks about returning to the fold, lessons learned in prolific kitchens, and why there will always be a place for fine dining in the industry.