Chef Spotlight: Todd Villani

Todd Villani
Chef Todd Villani

Fresh food. Exotic flavors. International experience. And true respect for what it means to dine local. All in Bergen County’s own Carlstadt, where Chef Todd Villani heads up the kitchen at Terre à Terre

JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CHEF TODD VILLANI: Summer in the garden at my grandmother’s house. We were eating fresh veggies from her garden – cucumbers, tomatoes – and I remember thinking if food could be any better than that.

When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
I don’t ever remember an “a-ha” moment. I just remember food being such an important part of our family life as far back as I can remember. And I never really thought about cooking as a career or a separate part of who I was – it was more like an integral part of my life, of my makeup as a person.

Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
My professional career had a lot of starts and stops, but I really got my opportunity after moving to Greece, where I started working with a classically-trained chef at one of the premier five-star luxury resorts in the northern part of the country. I was really inexperienced back then and when I think back about the experience of foraging for wild greens for the evening’s dinner or choosing the fish right off the boat, I realize how much that experience shaped my culinary style and my unrelenting hunt for fresh food.

What is your cooking style?
My cooking style is the result of my life’s journey and what I’ve been exposed to. I prepare cuisine using French technique with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences combined with Scandinavian flavors and preparation, which I can attribute to my experience working at a subsidiary interest of acclaimed “Top Chef” Marcus Samuelsson. Over the years I’ve figured out what I like and what flavors can go together into a single plate – regardless of the country of origin. In that regard I’m a risk taker. Beyond taste, the ingredients need to look good visually on the plate.

What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
There is no one thing. Cooking has opened many doors. I’ve traveled and had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented and passionate people in the industry. I’ve met people who have inspired me. I’ve grown closer to my family. I’ve helped other people grow and stretch in their own creativity. And I’ve used my profession as a platform for other people to experience new flavors and tastes.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had, what did you eat and where was it?
The most memorable meal I’ve had was at Vedema Resort on Santorini. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the meal itself that’s stuck with me. It was the experience. The vibe of the place. The restaurant is in a 400-year-old winery surrounded by black volcanic stones. I do remember I had rack of lamb but I was so caught up in the music, lighting, and the atmosphere that I was carried away. Carlstadt isn’t Santorini, but I knew if I ever opened a restaurant I would want the experience to be just as important as the food.

It’s your last day on earth. What will your final meal be?
Either lamb smothered in awesome mushrooms like truffles, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – it would just depend on my mood.

Smokey Lump Crab Cake - Terre a Terre
Smokey lump crab cake (photo by Danny Chin/Eat With Dan)

What is the best advice you have to share with young folks interested in becoming chefs?
Consider carefully. You will work long hours with little pay – and often little recognition. But you’re going to love it, and in the end, it really won’t matter.

If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
A potato. Clean slate. It can be made into anything.

What is the one “staple” food you always have in your cupboard at home?
Olive oil.

What is your beverage of choice?
At the moment, green tea ginger ale.

What is your favorite comfort food?

What New Jersey restaurant do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
My mood determines what type of cuisine I’ll enjoy. For fine dining, Chakra is my choice. For Italian, Regina Margherita (Queen Margherita) in Nutley. But there are dozens of others.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
Thomas Keller, Michael Jordan, and my yet-to-be-born children because I would want my children to be as inspired by them as I’ve been.

Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning about?
I’m probably like every other chef on the planet because I’m secretly—not so secretly—working on a cookbook.

Click here for other Jersey Bites coverage of Terre à Terre.

Terre à Terre
312 Hackensack Street


Veronique Deblois is a food and wine blogger based in Morris County, NJ. As the author of the popular blog, Food & Wine Chickie Insider, Veronique shares recipes, wine and restaurant reviews. Follow Veronique on Twitter or like her Facebook page.