Over the past year, Chef Toni Charmello has made her mark as the fearless leader in the kitchen of Drifthouse by David Burke. Before working at the Sea Bright restaurant, Charmello cooked in Princeton and in New York City, where she gained her knowledge of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
As a female chef in a male-dominated industry, Charmello knows the importance of gaining respect in the kitchen—and, that on occasion, it can be difficult to achieve.
“There was one issue with an entry-level cook who said, ‘I don’t know if I can accept a female chef,’” Charmello says. “It’s like, ‘Well, then, you’re not going to be successful here if you can’t accept that.’”
From the start, Charmello jumped in and made changes with an extremely accepting and ready-to-learn staff. This month she celebrates her one-year anniversary at Drifthouse.
How did you get started in restaurants?
Charmello: In my mid-30s I was working in healthcare. I wasn’t happy with my career path and I had the opportunity to kind of start over. I went to culinary school in New York City. I always had an interest in cooking growing up, and it was the thing I always did on my days off.
Where did you work before Drifthouse?
I worked with the Terra Momo group. I started at Eno Terra [in Princeton] and worked my way through the entire kitchen. It was a great place to gain experience because every station was also responsible for the prep. I was able to do butchering, prepping cold and hot appetizers, et cetera, and gained a lot of hands-on experience. After three years, I ended up at David Burke Kitchen in New York, where I first got acquainted with David Burke and his restaurant group. After around two years, I went back to Princeton to be the executive chef and general manager at Teresa’s.
How did you land the executive chef role at Drifthouse?
I kept in touch with David Burke from time to time and reached out around the holidays and things like that. Last year, on New Year’s, I texted him, and his reply was, “Call me tomorrow, I have something to talk to you about.” I met with him; the owners at Drifthouse wanted to take the restaurant in a more Italian, Mediterranean, seafood direction, which was very parallel with what I was doing at that time.
What changes did you make?
Every menu of David Burke’s has his specialty dishes, but I focused more on pastas and seafood to make the space more of a high-end Italian restaurant. We use flavors from not only Italy but Spanish things and the Mediterranean, which is definitely what I have the most experience with. Using these flavors gives us a lot more flexibility with dishes.
What’s new at Drifthouse?
The regular menu does have variety, but we keep it relatively small. We run a $39, three-course pre-fixe, so it gives guests an opportunity to try a bunch of different things on a daily basis. It started only on Thursdays, but now we run it every night and there is always something different on the menu. It’s exciting for my kitchen staff as well, because they have the opportunity to make and learn new things.
What has your experience been as a female chef in a male-dominated industry?
When you come into a kitchen, there is always the challenge of gaining the respect of the people who have been in that kitchen already, whether you’re a man or a woman. Sometimes there are little things that pop up now and then. There was a time where I was passed up for a promotion somewhere because the manager thought the cooks wouldn’t listen to me.
At Drifthouse, I came in with a lot of ideas for things we could improve, and it was really a good experience from the start. I wish that was always the case, but every once in a while you do run into some jerks in the industry that can be hostile in the kitchen just because I’m a female.
What’s your mindset going into the kitchen as executive chef?
When I cook, I always make sure it is something that I like. I try to consider what the diner is experiencing when they get the food in front of them. When I go into work every day, I try to have a sense of humor and remind myself that not everything is going to go perfectly, and that’s okay. Shifting gears and dealing with curveballs is something that happens more often than not.