Anthony C. Bombaci, executive chef at Nana, was quiet at the beginning of our conversation, perhaps even a little guarded. That's not entirely uncommon when a chef speaks to the press, but once the conversation moved to the many years he spent living and cooking in Spain and how he eventually landed at Nana, Bombaci was as inviting as the food he prepares.
Bombaci's bio is impressive. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating in 1986, he began working as sous chef at Restaurant Chez Philippe of The Peabody Memphis. He then returned to New York, where he became demi-chef de partie, garde manager, and entremetier at La Adrienne in Hotel Maxim's de Paris. Next he went on to work with chef Jean Banchet at Restaurant le Francaise, after which he became chef de cuisine at the Lasalle Grill.
Three years later, Bombaci began working under chef Gary Danko as sous chef of the Dining Room in The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. In 1995, he left The Ritz-Carlton and moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he became the chef de cuisine of the Enoteca Bombaci in Hotel Arts. Following his stint in Spain, he moved to Dallas in January 2005 and became the executive chef at Nana, which was recently named one of the Top 50 American Restaurants by Gourmet Magazine. The restaurant also received a four-diamond rating from AAA, three stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, and earned the Wine Spectator "award of excellence." Bombaci has also been named one of Esquire's Top Four Chefs to Watch.
When you ask Bombaci about his cooking experience, he talks about Spain and cooking at the Ritz Carlton-owned restaurant that bore his name. That's clearly where his heart lies when it comes to cuisine. "It's a great place for a cook," he says
He lived in Barcelona for nine years, and you sense it in every bite of his cooking. I certainly did as I enjoyed his Chilean langostine ceviche with red onions, cilantro and jalepeños; Mesculan lettuce salad with goat cheese-tarragon ranch dressing and Bosc pears; pan-roasted potato gnocchi with golden chanterelles, boudin noir, and bitter orange; and rack of Colorado lamb, seared drunken goat cheese and sweet potato.
After nine years in Spain, Bombaci says he was simply ready to be back in the States. That's when he landed at Nana, an upscale restaurant in the Hilton Anatole, of which Bombaci says, "I don't think we're a really expensive restaurant, but we're perceived that way." It is certainly an exquisite restaurant, with sweeping views of the city, dramatic lighting and an impeccably trained staff. The menu is clearly informed by Bombaci's experience, not only in Spain but also in the kitchens of renowned French chefs as well.
His experience is vast and varied, which is perhaps why Bombaci says there's nothing in particular he won't eat or eat or cook. (Although he has a strange sometimes allergy to carrots.) When it comes to food, his motto is, "If it tastes good, I do it. If not, I don't." Bombaci says the key to great cooking is "to know what you're doing enough to not have to think about it." It's a trait not found in all chefs and certainly not in all the people who find themselves involved in kitchen-related "reality" TV, which Bombaci describes as "kind of a carnival."
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Although he doesn't see many food-related "reality" shows since he doesn't have cable, he does have some opinions on them. "It's good as far as it professionalizes us as cooks," he says. "But it's misleading as far as what it's like. And being on those shows or winning doesn't mean you're qualified to own a restaurant. That's the school of hard knocks no matter how you go." He pauses for a moment before he adds, without a hint of irony, "Besides, the dishwasher is the most important person on the staff in a restaurant and so is the person who vacuums and dusts."
It's clear that Bombaci believes what he says, considering himself one part of the team that creates great food at Nana. Despite what might be shown on television, Bombaci says, the kitchen, at least at Nana, is really like a "big dysfunctional family. We spend more time with each other than with our own families. Everyone has a nickname within the first week of working here. It's pretty busy, with everyone moving and playing their part." Bombaci's part is executive chef, which means serving as the expediter, although when it gets busy you'll find him cooking too.
Although he enjoys working with the variety of dishes that come out of the Nana kitchen, it's pastries, he says, that are his real love. "I'm not as great with chocolate, but I like to make ice cream from scratch." And he likes to use that ice cream in unusual ways, like blue cheese ice cream on a salad. "Savory transmuted into sweet," he explains. "Like using squash and ginger sorbet in an appetizer or entrée." You can see this sensibility in his desserts like his Warm Valrhona Manjari Chocolate "Coulant" with Peanut Butter Gelato and Madras Curry Cream or his Jivara Ganache with Sesame Salt and Bread Tuile, both a mixture of sweet and savory, both a welcome surprise.
Bombaci seems ridiculously content for now. But he gets a devilish grin when I ask him where he'd like to be five or 10 years from now. "I'd like to win the lottery," he says. He dreams of buying a house on the Mediterranean coast "with a pool table, four-foot thick walls, and a garden of bud," he says with a laugh. Then he smiles calmly and says, "What I really want is time to spend with my twin boys and to read."