Henry Gorino: Buffalo's most influential restaurateur
Buffalo's restaurant scene is as diverse as it is vibrant; there's a world of difference between wine bars like Bacchus, fine-dining staples like Tempo, and high-end sushi restaurants like Seabar. But the chefs at these and other area restaurants share a common thread: they have all, at one time or another, worked for Henry Gorino as the executive chef at Oliver’s, and they can’t say enough good things about having done so.
Asked about Gorino in the middle of the stressful holiday season, Tempo chef Paul Jenkins’ voice softens immediately. “Oh, man, I love Henry,” he sighs. “I learned things from Henry that I use every day.” It’s a sentiment that six of Buffalo’s top chefs—Jenkins, Mark Hutchinson of Hutch’s, Mike Andrzejewski of Seabar and Cantina Loco, Bacchus’s Brian Mietus, Daniel Johenghen of Daniel’s, and Encore’s Chris Daigler—echo as they reflect on the lessons Gorino taught them.
Gorino, owner of the legendary Oliver’s as well as Siena, 800 Maple, and the new Rocco’s Pizza, has been in the restaurant business for nearly thirty years. During that time, Oliver’s has become one of Buffalo’s most consistently acclaimed restaurants. Jenkins, who began working at Oliver’s in 1993, says the place represented “fine dining at its best. Henry maintained Oliver’s’ relevancy in Buffalo. He had in-depth wine and food knowledge and the resources to access quality ingredients—before we had internet access. Henry was running the show before anybody knew what the show was. For someone to have the success he’s had for that period of time is an Olympian effort.”
The success of Gorino’s restaurants is evidence enough of his people skills and business savvy, but a look at his list of alumni (or perhaps, given the pace and intensity of a chef position at Oliver’s, veterans is a better word) makes it clear that Gorino has another very special skill set: the ability to spot, nurture, and cultivate incredible food talent. “Since Henry took over Oliver’s, he’s had people there that went on to make big marks in the restaurant industry,” notes Andrzejewski, who was head chef at Oliver’s for nine years. “He has the foresight to pick people out like that; I wish I had that talent. He really nurtures abilities and talents, plays to the strong points of people. That ultimately makes the great manager, not necessarily telling people what to do but getting them to focus on what they’re doing. He gets the best out of people.” Adds Bacchus’s Mietus: “Henry’s always pushing. We bumped heads a little bit when I was there, partly because I was a young, cocky chef, but Henry knew better.”
“I don’t know how he sees what he sees, but it’s an eye for talent. He sees drive in people, and if he wants someone, he’ll get him,” says Encore head chef Daigler. “Henry offered me the chef position when I was twenty-five. I had so much pressure on me. I was working seventy hours a week, but on my days off I was looking through cookbooks, anything I could get my hands on, striving to get better and better, and ultimately make Henry what he is and make his restaurant what it is. I always used to say I was ‘feeding Henry,’ because in one way or another, we were doing that.
“Being the chef at Oliver’s is definitely one of the hardest jobs I’ve had in my life,” Daigler continues. “I had never worked in such a professional kitchen before. It was very intense, it was very grueling, but it was also gratifying. The amount of catering alone was mind-boggling. But I had an extremely talented staff and Henry was responsible for that as well.”
Renowned for his modesty, Gorino waves off such praise. “I can’t say I trained them so much as I tried to relay as much knowledge as I had to them,” he says. “Chefs need someone to push them. Some of them are so stubborn! You have to become a motivator, a leader.” Gorino’s alums, who now own their own restaurants, cite his uncompromising attitude, values, knowledge, and work ethic as their inspiration. They sum it up in a few key principles.
Anyone who’s eaten at Oliver’s, Siena, 800 Maple, Rocco’s, or any of the restaurants owned by Oliver’s alumni has witnessed evidence of Gorino’s deep appreciation for and understanding of food. “He was always, always, always food first,” says Daigler. “Whether we were getting duck breast from D’artagnan or truffles or any sort of produce, he was adamant about getting the freshest ingredients we possibly could, and price never mattered. Every chef who’s worked under him had carte blanche to get whatever he wanted at any time, which is tremendous. I was constantly trying to impress Henry because his palate was far superior to a lot of our patrons’. I would feed Henry all the time. I would make it for him, bring it to his office, and we’d try it together. That was a fun process.”
“His respect for food and his love for the restaurant business are really apparent,” says Andrzejewski. “Henry really let me experiment and do what I wanted as I started to get more into Vietnamese and Asian food. He really encouraged us to try different things and go out to different cities and come back and use what we’d learned, use what we saw to make not only Oliver’s but Buffalo a better place—and a better place to eat. It was the best chef’s job in the city.”
Mark Hutchinson of Hutch’s, who was sous-chef at Oliver’s when Gorino opened it in 1983 and then returned to take the head chef position from 1989 to 1994, agrees. “Henry pushed me to be creative,” he says. “He really supported you and he let you do your thing, let you use his place as a canvas.”
It was Gorino’s interest in well-traveled, well-rounded chefs that led him to San Francisco’s Daniel Johenghen, whom he invited to try out in January 1985. “He had good knowledge of taking the best French dishes and making them appeal to an American audience, making them fit here in Buffalo,” says Gorino, who praises Johenghen’s passion. “Some people, without formal training, just know how to make food taste good. I can tell by how I feel when I’m coming to work. With some chefs, I just can’t wait to get to work. They know what I want without me telling them.”
Gorino’s most important lesson was “professional respect. Henry always thought before he did things, he made sure that when he made decisions or had to deal with people that he really thought things through,” says Andrzejewski, who maintains that his own leadership style was influenced by Gorino’s treatment of his colleagues. “I’m pretty high strung and hot-tempered sometimes, but I learned a lot from him about how to handle things better and how to be a better manager, chef, and person in general.”
Gorino was “the conscience of the fine-dining industry” Jenkins contends. “He taught me that in this business, if we don’t look out for each other, nobody’s going to do it for us. He taught me to take the high road.”
Put in the hours
“Henry always had the ability to push people to the next level,” says Jenkins. “Part of it was loyalty—he was working right there with you. Henry was always there before we were and most of the time, he was still there when we were ready to leave.”
Many of Gorino’s former chefs point out Gorino’s own training as a unique strength. “I met Henry when I first moved back to Buffalo in 2001 or 2002,” says Mietus. “First and foremost, Henry’s a great businessman, but I didn’t realize at the time that he was also a CIA [Culinary Institute of America] graduate. He comes off as a restaurateur, but he has that culinary side, too, so he’s really adept at being able to work with chefs and pick great chefs.” Recalls Daigler, “He had a chef’s coat and an apron in his office and, once in a while, he would come back and cook.”
That firsthand understanding of the high-pressure life of a chef, Gorino says, helps foster a strong owner/chef relationship. “I feel sorry for owners who have never cooked,” says Gorino. “They’re missing something, especially when it comes to leading. At the pace chefs work—especially in the summer when it’s 115 degrees—they need a friend.” Which is Gorino’s most important lesson.
Be a friend
Gorino’s deep care for each of his past chefs is evident as he talks, and it’s clear they reciprocate. “Even to this day I consider him my true friend and confidante,” says Hutchinson. “Whether good times or hard times, he was always there.” Andrzejewski adds, “Aside from all the restaurant stuff, Henry helped me with everything from finances to buying a house. He was a great friend; you could always go to him with anything. Some of my best memories were just having coffee in the office before we started, and just talking about what was going on, not just in the restaurant but in the world. It was a great way to start the day, in a place where you’re really happy.”
“Henry was definitely one of the best bosses I’ve ever had,” says Daigler. “He treated me amazingly; he was more than generous in every aspect of a chef/owner relationship. Every Friday, we’d sit down and talk about what we’re doing for the upcoming weeks, always clipping things out of Food & Wine, whatever magazines he would have at the house.”
“When something was wrong, Henry was first to help out, but more important, he came to me and asked what was wrong,” Jenkins chuckles. “I’m surprised he put up with all of us in our heyday. Experience is a plethora of mistakes, and I made every mistake in the book. Fortunately, it was around guys like Henry.”
Typically, Gorino shrugs it off. “I learned just as much from each of them as they learned from me,” he says earnestly. “They made me better.”
Julia Burke writes features and food coverage for Buffalo Spree.