Bert Gambini and I first met a few years ago when he agreed to be the celebrity host for a charity dinner I chaired. At the event we spoke briefly, but were too busy to spend much time getting to know one another. Fast forward a year and I was looking for someone with solid food knowledge and serious hosting skills for the first season of Nickel City Chef. Gambini–my first pic– obliged, and the Nickel City staff and our many guests over the last thirteen events have experienced his ability to turn a phrase, his consummate professionalism and, well, his penchant for really (I mean, really) bad jokes. Not only is Mr. Gambini the velvet-voiced all-knowing jazz demigod we know and love from the airwaves of 88.7 FM WBFO, turns out he is also a serious foodie. And, if one were to believe the rumors, he’s also a pretty good cook.
Still, even after working together on so many shows, Gambini and I had surprisingly spent little time together, though I’ve always been terribly fond of him. He couldn’t be a better host and his passion for food has led him to nibble on claw-bearing chicken feet mid-show (amongst other arguably edible items) on more than one occasion. A short while ago when Nickel City Chef JJ Richert invited us to stop by his restaurant, Torches, for dinner, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to get to know Bert, and to ask him some prying questions about his foodie-ness. What I didn’t realize was that we were in for a feast of epic proportions (and enough wine to knock out a sumo wrestler).
In between the chatter inspired by our multi-course chef’s tasting, Gambini spilled his guts. It seems Bert has eaten a fair amount of raw pork. And he credits Mike Andrzejewski for providing one of his most memorable culinary moments. Below is the extensive menu we enjoyed, and a some of the things I learned about Bert after my endless spray questions.
Amuse of Handcut Potato Chips with Truffle Dip
Miniature Caprese Salad
Grilled Octopus with Israeli Cous Cous and Parsley Mojo
Pan-seared Scallop with Pomegranate Reduction and Green Apple
Pistachio-crusted Red Wine Braised Short Ribs
Fresh Lentil Salad with House-smoked Ham
Ruby Red Grapefruit Buerre Blanc, Handmade Gnocchi, Lobster, Housemade Yogurt
Grilled Escolar with Swiss Chard and Cannelini Beans
Puerto Rican Skirt Steak with Roasted Peppadew Coulis, Queso Fresco with Mung Beans and Fresh Chickpeas, Stuffed Sweet Potato
Bananas Foster Cheesecake with Fresh Berries
Over the amuse and first few courses I learned that Bert grew up around food. His passion for fresh ingredients was instilled upon him while working in his family’s butcher shop, known as Phil’s Meat Market. There he spent much of his time preparing (and tasting) raw sausage (hence the reference to eating raw pork, a common practice amongst sausage makers to test for proper seasoning). While working at Phil’s he learned the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen, “The place was immaculate,” he recalls. “The first location was Busti and Carolina, a corner that really no longer exists. That part of the west side was steamrolled by the Niagara Street exit from the 190. This is why, 4th Street, Trenton, Busti and 7th Street all seem to end at Virginia and pick up again at Carolina. In the early 60s, we moved to Niagara Street, near Hudson, next to, what was, Jenny’s Restaurant.”
A few important culinary moments include a realization that came in his early teens when he noted that his peers ate differently at home then he did. Many of the items he enjoyed were considered exotic by some of his friends, items like fresh calamari.
Despite growing up in a meat market, today Bert chooses to prepare a lot of seafood and vegetarian items at home for himself and his children. He cites a cookbook entitled The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking as being the most influential cookbook in his life. “It’s not a profusely illustrated book, but anyone who spends anytime with it realizes the many regional aspects of Italian cuisine. I love it.”
He also loves hosting Nickel City Chef, and the opportunity it has given him to meet many of Buffalo’s chefs and to taste a great variety of things. He and regularly-appearing NCC judge, comedian Kristen Becker, are known for sharing bites around giggles and groans during the very serious chefs’ presentations, and for teasing one another terribly, both things the audience loves..
Another NCC alum Bert knew before the series began is co-host Chef Mike Andrzejewksi of SeaBar. “I came to sushi late,” confesses Bert, as he dives into the dessert I was far to full to even nibble at. “I don’t know if it’s that I just didn’t have the opportunity, or what it was, but the station hosted an event where Tsunami (Chef Andrzejewski’s former restaurant) did the food. Just a few bites [of sushi] and it was like ‘what has been wrong with my life that I have been deprived of this wonderful thing’!”
An insatiable appetite for good food, and what seems to be a content attitude toward life in general, set Bert apart from the pack. His desire to promote the positive things he stumbles across (like good jazz, good food and Buffalo), and to never say a bad word about anyone, are the marks of a truly fine human being.
Our meal at Torches that night was over-the-top, and the service fantastic. Richert and his wife, Cindy, and brother, Kevin, are always the most gracious and hospitable of hosts. Chef’s tasting menus really are my favorite way to dine, and for folks who aren’t picky eaters they can be a whirlwind experience of tastes, textures and preparations. Fortunately, Torches is one of the few restaurants where a chef’s tasting option is just a phone call away.