Kristin Sollenne greets two visitors to Bocca Di Bacco, a chíc Italian restaurant just a few blocks from Times Square. With the warmth of a longtime friend, the self-made chef and rising Food Network star shows WAG around the establishment.
That warmth and her elegant appearance — Little Black Dress, crimson lipstick, softly coiffed hair — accompany a businesslike attitude.
“People ask me: ‘You’re so nice, but how can you manage a restaurant?’ Oh, trust me, when you have to get down to work, it’s serious time. And that’s what you do. You have to have your work side, your friend side, your professional side and your lay-down-the-law side,” Sollenne says.
Bocca Di Bacco is one of three New York City Restaurant Group establishments that Sollenne oversees as the executive chef, managing the kitchens and designing the menu. She’s also the author of a cookbook, the founder of a couture apron line and a Food Network judge, having appeared on “Kitchen Casino” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” with plans to be a 2016 season-finale judge for “Worst Cooks in America.” She is a 2013 honoree of Zagat’s Top 30 Under 30 and has cooked for A-List celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and the cast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“If I really want something, I go after it and after it and after it,” Sollenne says. “I’m such a strong believer in never giving up. If you really feel that you’re meant to do something, then you have to keep trying until you achieve your goal.”
HER ROOTS, HER MUSE
Sollenne’s roots don’t lie in the Big Apple but just outside San Francisco. As part of a large Italian family that was “always in the kitchen,” Sollenne equates cooking with tradition and love.
“We spent pretty much every holiday or Sunday afternoon learning the secret family recipes,” she says. “I would say that when I was around 9 or 10, I developed a passion for it.”
But, it wasn’t until Sollenne’s father faced some health struggles that she became interested in the nutritional side of food.
“I took it upon myself to modify and change some of the traditional Italian foods that he was eating,” she says. “I would take into consideration sodium and portion sizes. Now he’s in the best shape of his life in his late 60s. That’s what really inspired me to move to New York and develop a career.”
Sollenne’s road to success started unlike many New York-based aspiring chefs. Without culinary school training, the then-22-year-old faced a lot of rejection.
“I didn’t have a job and I didn’t know anybody. I just had it set in my head that this is what I was going to do. I hit the pavement running.”
Her big break came when she landed a job working for The New York City Restaurant Group’s Arte Café on the Upper West Side. She immediately began developing menus, creating new dishes and presenting them to the owners. Her persistence earned her the opportunity to open Vucciria in the theater district, later rebranding it to Bocca Di Bacco on 45th and 9th Avenue in Manhattan, followed by a third location in Chelsea.
“One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me was, ‘Luck will never find you. You have to go find your own luck. You have to make your own luck.’ So I made it a point to always make myself noticed.”
Sollenne’s philosophy for Bocca Di Bacco is Keep it simple and seasonal. (She refers to this as “KISS.”) Though the fall and winter seasons are associated with comfort foods, Bocca Di Bacco offers lighter dishes to leave the customer feeling satisfied but not stuffed.
“It’s about those great dishes that you’re dying to try but you’re going to leave feeling happy,” Sollenne says. “They’re kind of on the lighter side, but you won’t necessarily know it.”
While visiting Bocca, WAG had the pleasure of trying two perfectly portioned signature dishes — the Tortelli Ricotta e Spinaci, a heavenly pairing of fresh ricotta cheese and spinach tortellini with asparagus, Parmesan cheese and a butter sage sauce; and the Coda di Rospo Alla Livornese, a delicious seared monkfish cooked impeccably and topped with tomato sauce and kalamata olives.
BIG PLANS IN STORE
Sollenne released her first cookbook in September — “Domestic Chíc: A Fashionably Fabulous Guide to Cooking & Entertaining” — along with her couture apron line, CELLINI.
Sollenne’s cookbook offers pre-planned menus for special occasions and holidays by the season, along with décor tips and table-setting suggestions. Her idea is to feature dishes that apply the same ingredients in different ways, resulting in a stress-free shopping, cooking and hosting experience.
“I was always told that sometimes you’re reading a recipe and it goes on for three pages, and you try to go to the grocery store looking for 50 different ingredients for two dishes,” she says. “Cooking should be joyful. When we think ‘cooking,’ we think holidays. I don’t want that to stress people out.”
Sollenne’s idea of updating the woman in the kitchen led to the creation of CELLINI. The line consists of eight designs of a luxury apron that feature a dress-like appearance.
“I grew up watching my mom, my aunts and even my friends dress in these unflattering pieces of cloth. It’s like, come on, we can be cute in the kitchen,” she says, laughing. “When we look good and feel good, we’re at our best.”
For the holidays, Kristin has released the Holiday Exclusive “Domestic Chíc”/ Cellini Box Set, which includes Kristin Sollenne’s cookbook and signature apron, Dolce, for $99. She plans to visit Bloomingdale’s White Plains in the coming weeks for a live cooking demo. For more, and to order, shop now at kristinsollenne.com. For Cellini, visit cellininewyork.com.