He also has pictures of the time he hog-tied one of his cooks, crowning him with a Krispy Kreme deli hat. Sous-chefs who mouthed off got locked in the freezer. Others got rolled in rubber floor mats, which Iuzzini and crew then jumped on, elbows first, like WWF champions. His favorite form of torture is actually a French tradition. On a chef’s last day, it is customary to ambush him and douse him with the grossest thing you can find. “For one guy,” says Iuzzini, “we threw him in a garbage can in the walk-in and covered him with egg whites, beet soup, and horrible-smelling fish juice.”
Sometimes, he would convene a “fight club” in the Daniel basement. Iuzzini, sous-chef Neil Gallagher (now the executive chef at Oceana), and Thompson, known collectively as the Pyramid of Darkness, would round up the biggest dishwasher they could find. The four of them would then go into a room, and two would come out the winners, most often with torn uniforms and blood dripping down their fronts. Given his wiry frame, it seems doubtful that Iuzzini would survive. “He has two brothers,” says Thompson. “He’s scrappy.”
Even Boulud was a target. “Whenever Daniel would stand in between us, we’d crush him,” says Iuzzini. One night, hours after a particularly violent encounter, Iuzzini’s cell phone rang while he was decompressing at the movies. It was Boulud, claiming to be at the emergency room. “You punctured my lung, you fuck!” he yelled, and hung up. Iuzzini quickly called the restaurant in a panic. Boulud answered, victorious.
Growing up in Walden, New York, in Orange County, Iuzzini spent most of his time racing three-wheelers with his younger brother or planning keg parties in the woods and drinking Rumplemintz. The closest he got to a kitchen was watching his mom, a veterinary technician, make her famous Black Forest cake. His dad, a plumbing and heating contractor, once worked in the family’s former restaurant, called the Club, but Iuzzini was too little to remember.
At 15, Iuzzini took a part-time job at a Catskills country club washing dishes. He was quickly promoted to prep work. At Valley Central High School, he signed up for a culinary-trade program for school credit. After graduation, he put his basic cooking skills to work as a garde-manger at the River Café in Brooklyn, but found himself much more interested in the pastry kitchen, where Eric Gouteyron held court. When a service job opened up, Gouteyron hired him. (Unlike in the savory side of the kitchen, service jobs in pastry are the lowest on the totem pole.)
On his 18th birthday, Iuzzini started at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. It was while spreading tuilles during his externship at Luxe under pastry chef Lincoln Carson that he got an audience with Payard. Carson had just worked with Payard, and Iuzzini begged him for an introduction.
Instead of an interview, Payard put him to work for a day making petits fours and ice cream. “He was standing behind me the whole time to see my speed, if I worked clean,” says Iuzzini, who recalls the day with a shiver. “At the end, he said, ‘Okay, you start working for me now.’ I said, ‘Chef, I’m still in school.’ He goes, ‘Why you waste my time? Okay, you come work for me every weekend until you finish!’ ”
Payard’s unsettling style of motivating by fear drove many a pastry chef to change careers, but Iuzzini took it as a challenge. “I’d say, ‘What’s he going to get me on today?’ ” says Iuzzini. “I promised myself he would never get me on the same thing twice.” It was Iuzzini’s father, who held down three jobs, who taught him his work ethic, but it was Payard who taught him how to handle the hierarchy of the kitchen—Iuzzini doesn’t hesitate to fiercely call out his staff when they don’t perform, but at the same time, he’s willing to do everything and anything himself, no matter how lowly the task.
The combination of fastidious sugar artiste and wild nightlife impresario seems improbable, but there were ways in which one fed the other. At the clubs, Iuzzini learned how to handle and charm every kind of personality, an important skill for running a kitchen staffed by a constant stream of sugar-addled students and stressed-out chefs. “Today, to become well known,” says Torres, “you have to have a certain look and you have to have a certain personality.”
Eventually, however, the Clark Kent– Superman routine caught up with Iuzzini. After never having taken a sick day, he got pneumonia and missed an entire week. Payard rode over on his scooter in the rain to bring him soup. “I was almost in tears,” says Iuzzini. “I was ashamed.”
Burned out, he thought about quitting the business. He was making more money and gaining more prominence with his night job. Instead, he decided to escape the city. When he told Boulud his plans, Boulud lent him $10,000 for a world tour, on the condition that he’d come back to help him open Café Boulud and the new Daniel. Iuzzini immediately left for Hong Kong. He lounged on the beaches in Australia and visited his grandfather’s village in Italy. After months without going near a pilot light, he decided to try stage-ing (i.e., apprenticing for free) at the best pastry kitchens in France—with Pierre Hermé at Ladurée in Paris and the famed Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, where he fell in love with pastry again.
When Iuzzini returned to Daniel, his relationship with Boulud continued not unlike a dysfunctional father and son’s. Boulud favored him, letting him get away with his green or blue or Billy Idol–yellow spikes, but at the same time, he was slow to promote him. Iuzzini was running the new Daniel pastry kitchen without the title. Managing the kitchen came naturally, even when tough times hit the restaurant business after September 11 and he had to fire people, including his fiancée. Boulud made him “Employee of the Month” for his work and eventually gave him the official title, but four months later he brought in a co–pastry chef from France, Eric Bertoïa, to share it with him. Iuzzini knew he had to leave.
He was considering a move to the West Coast. Thomas Keller in California wanted to talk. Then last May, Vongerichten called with an opening but wouldn’t say for what. Iuzzini wasn’t interested in Vong or Mercer Kitchen or JoJo and refused to come in unless it was for a four-star post. It was. “When I hire somebody,” says Vongerichten, “I go by feeling.” After meeting with Iuzzini for only an hour, he notes, “that was it for me. I knew he had the basics down after seven years with Daniel. I think he just needed somebody to give him the freedom of expressing himself, finding his own turf. I think he had a different relationship with Daniel.”
Iuzzini and Boulud still have a unique attachment. At a pre–James Beard event, when Iuzzini spotted Boulud chatting with Wolfgang Puck, he, along with Thompson and Gallagher, grabbed him, lifted him, and slammed him against the wall. “Throw these guys out!” cried Boulud, laughing hysterically as they kicked him in the back of the knees. The next night, Iuzzini offered friends a magic trick: “I can make my thumb disappear,” he said before shoving it into the rear of Boulud’s tuxedo pants.
When he didn’t win—first-timers seldom do—Vongerichten consoled him. “It took me five years. Don’t worry,” he said. “Now you’re on the list.”
In a sense, however, Iuzzini has already triumphed. “You’ve got to hear this message,” says Iuzzini, dialing into his voice mail like a Ritalin-amped kid. It’s the message Boulud left him the night before the Beard nominations were announced. “Joneeee!” Boulud says, in his super-thick French-English. “It is your Big Daddeeee! You are still young, eh? But it would be great to win it the first time. I vote for you. Then you pay me $1,000, okay?”
It is a message Iuzzini has replayed a thousand times since he got it. “God, I have to figure out how to save this,” he says, then pauses. “Let’s listen to it again.”