The wheels are in motion here and we’re ready to go!” stated Dante Cecchini, California Academy of Science’s new Executive Chef. The reputable young gun chef (who also happens to be a serious amateur motorcycle racer), has spent the past seven months formulating a dynamic new culinary program for C.S.A.’s Terrace Restaurant with his team. “I am very familiar with this space. I used to always come here as a boy.” Dante shared enthusiastically.
A proud San Francisco native, Dante started his career in culinary at S.F. treasures Citizen Cake, Marlowe, Park Tavern, and the Cavalier. Chef Cecchini earned national recognition as one of Zagat’s “30 Under 30 Chefs in America” and has also created inspired menus for the Bay Area’s coveted, Fiorella and Violet’s.
Having carved his “one to watch” reputation at popular boutique venues, Dante, now the “ripe old age” of 32, was admittedly apprehensive about making the leap into a big corporate venue scenario. Dante explains, “The reason I could make this jump is because Constellation Culinary (the culinary group behind, C.A.S.) holds great food as number one. We give the Academy of Sciences the promise that we’ll always uphold the quality of the menu. We’re not buying anything prepackaged. We really want to offer an exceptional dining experience in this dynamic, cool cafeteria-like space.”
Now in the saddle of his first corporate chef position, Dante commented, “I’m growing and learning a lot about being a manager and dealing with personalities. I’ve gone from a staff of about 12 at my previous restaurants to a staff of about 40. It’s important to me to keep everyone inspired and happy to be here. I want them to know they’re not just here to serve up the macaroni and cheese etc.. I want to really show them how to do everything from start to finish.”
Having learned to cook initially from his Italian father and grandfather, Dante’s own chef-creative journey has been an authentically flavorful circle trip. Dante, elaborates, “When you’re starting out as a chef you’re thinking, ‘What can I add to this dish to make it better?’ As I’ve gotten older, and more experienced, when something doesn’t taste right you have to basically un-train, trim back and ask, ‘What doesn’t this dish need? This dish is overwhelmed.’”
This practice of simplifying goes hand in hand with authentic Italian cuisine. Dante adds, “Really traditional Italian cuisine is very, simple. For instance… perfectly blanched fava beans, shaved pecorino, fresh lemon, olive oil, and black pepper. It’s four components. If you screw up one of those four components, there’s nowhere to hide. This is where really simple-humble food becomes difficult to execute”
Dante shares,” I remember cooking with my dad when I was like 16 or 17. He’s telling me how to make risotto for like the thousandth time and with his usual heavy emphasis on the basic techniques. Good food doesn’t need to be over-complicated and it doesn’t need to be expensive.”
A real family guy, Chef Cecchini credits much of his work ethic and familial appreciation to the “traditional Italian household” he grew up in. “We always had dinner at the same time every day. As kids, my brother Nicolas and I were expected to set the table and help out with dishes. They put us to work. Then eventually, I started to help make the pasta. One of my really vivid memories is making pasta with my grandfather. I remember just having so much fun watching him. However, his face just stayed totally serious and focused on what he was doing. I thought that was really interesting.”
Now in charge of his own professional “family” at C.A.S., Dante relayed that he and his team have put a great deal of thought and inspiration (including extensive R&D) into the new culinary program at California Academy of Science, “The Terrace Restaurant.”
While cocooned by COVID closures, Dante and team have also strategized to ensure they enroll the right number of staff. Dante explains, “We’re starting really small. The dining room is small. The staff is very small. We have done this on purpose in hopes that when our doors open, we just get ‘slapped around,’ but able to handle it for opening, and then we can justify bringing in more people. Instead hiring too many people and risking having to let anyone go. We really do not want to do that.”
With an unprecedentedly “unique” holiday season at our heels, Dante expressed appreciation for the elegant and festive family dinners his father loves to host each year. “My Dad has all the stemware and nice china. He takes so much pride in setting up a really beautiful table and a nice party. Everybody at the table gets name tags-place setting in front of their seat. Dad takes so much effort and care to make everything more special. Everyone is expected to come looking their best. This also helps to make everything more fun. Being able to count on these special occasions in my family is something I truly cherish.”
Once Chef Dante gets his new culinary program at The Terrace Restaurant (and eventually the Academy Cafe as well) “off to the races,” he greatly looks forward to having slightly more time on his hands, one of the benefits of the corporate chef track. Ironically, Instead of spending more time “relaxing,” Cecchini looks to spend a good deal his “extra time” going as fast as he and his Ducati IG LE 959 possibly can. Which is, as Cecchini related, is “just like a rocket.”