March 17, 2011
Rick Tramonto is a busy man. Probably most well known as the founding chef and partner at renowned four-star Chicago restaurant Tru, he's been honored with several culinary awards, appeared on "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters," and penned a pile of cookbooks. But Tramonto will be the first to admit his journey hasn't been a cakewalk.
"I had a lot of tragedies to deal with as a kid. A lot," says Tramonto, whose new book, "Scars of a Chef" (SaltRiver, $24.99), hit stores this month. "It's something I want to talk about so I can help other people who've had hardships."
Hardships would be an understatement. Tramonto beat drug and alcohol addiction. He struggled with learning disabilities that were so cumbersome he didn't graduate from high school. His father was sent to prison for money laundering and embezzlement. And then there's the time his dad threw his mother through a glass coffee table.
"My parents had a very volatile marriage," he says. "I begged them to get divorced. BEGGED them. Almost daily."
While his parents never divorced, their behavior admittedly shaped the way he would handle his own divorce from first wife and renowned pastry chef Gale Gand.
"The lawyers tried to get us to be tough with each other, but we had one focus in mind—what's best for our son, Gio," he says. "So we went to lunch and after about an hour, the only thing we were arguing about was who's going to get the Peter Frampton album."
Today, they share custody of Gio, as well as the Frampton album.
"I want to be a better example for my three boys," says Tramonto, now remarried to Eileen. "My parents just went to work, and came home miserable. I never knew what they did all day, but I knew they weren't around and when they were at home, they were totally unhappy.
"I am really blessed that I do what I love," Tramonto adds. "It took me a while to figure out what I was good at, and it's important for kids to know that if they don't know what they want to do at 17, that's OK too. These things take time."
After 10 years at Tru, Tramonto left last summer to pursue new culinary adventures. These days he splits his time between Chicago and New Orleans, where he's working on his new project: Restaurant R'evolution, slated to open in the French Quarter in October. He credits today's technology with helping him stay closer to his family when he's on the road.
"I'm constantly texting and Facebooking. With my boys, they'd probably say I'm stalking them because I'm always trying to find out what they're interested in. They're 14, 16 and 20, so that changes every week."
Lately, they've been passionate about live music. Tramonto's only apprehension about his kids going down this road is being exposed to the drug scene that comes with the world of rock 'n' roll.
"I told my kids that if they wanted to go see a show, I had to go with them, and they were like, 'No way, Dad!' " Tramonto said. "But then I flew them to London to see Led Zeppelin and they were like, 'OK, fine. You can sit with us.' The experience is about the music, and not the lifestyle. Are they never ever going to do drugs? I don't know, but all I can do is lead by example and hope for the best."
Tramonto attributes his strong faith for keeping him sober, yet he knows that's not for everybody.
"It's really hard to be talking about God and being sober when you're in this industry," he admits. "So many chefs go down the path of using drugs and alcohol. It's sort of a rock-star lifestyle. But I know firsthand how destructive it can be.
"… The world is a dark place sometimes—bad stuff happens everywhere. My job is to be salt and light, especially in my industry. If one chef thinks twice about using after hearing my struggles, then it's worth it."
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