Like many area youths, Alessandro Juliano Cannuscio grew up around the restaurant business.
His extended family owns and operates the JoJo's restaurants in the area, with the Galloway Township location, JoJo's Pizza & Restaurant, belonging to his parents. They provided him with "a solid foundation in good Italian food." Then he went to the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing to perfect his techniques in the kitchen.
Also like many area residents building a career in the hospitality industry fed by the Atlantic City casinos, Cannuscio re-ceived some financial aid while in culinary school. He can't remember exactly how much or precisely who gave it to him, but what he does know well are the benefits of that help.
His culinary degree got him hired as a line supervisor at Seaview Marriott in Galloway Township and later as a sous chef at Forneletto at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Golden Nugget Atlantic City. Last year he opened Lugo Cucina e Vino at Revel.
His parents couldn't be prouder. And yet Cannuscio's story is more representative than unique in the area. And the chef de cuisine says a lot of his success is due to the annual Restaurant Gala, which this year marks its 30th anniversary as a fundraiser for scholarships for ACA students.
Naturally, Cannuscio was happy to return the favor in his own way. On a recent afternoon he shared tips for making a rich and savory cavatelli dish with current ACA students and area foodies who gathered at his alma mater to sample some of the bounty that will be served at this year's event at Bally's Atlantic City.
"I think this is a great representation of Lugo, because it shows true Italian cooking - like cooking with homemade sausage made from pork shoulder, belly and prosciutto," he said. "It's kind of a different dish because a lot of cavatelli is made with rice and ours (at Lugo) is made with semolina. It's firmer pasta that doesn't have that smooth chew rice has, so it's better with a hearty sauce like porcini ragu."
Cannuscio demonstrated how to rehydrate dry porcini mushrooms using water and white wine and how to shape cavatelli by hand, because "a cutting board creates more friction." And Dean Kelly McKlay beamed as her former student reinforced the lessons seen every day at the school.
Chef Robert Hettmannsperger is a 1991 graduate of the school, the story of his career similar. He started in the restaurant business at 16, working his way up from line cook to gourmet chef thanks to a degree he earned from ACA while working in a butcher shop, where he "learned to break down meat."
After a stint in the Voorhees/Cherry Hill area, he returned home to the shore, finding a home at Trump Marina and then Golden Nugget, when that casino took over the property in 2011. Hettmannsperger has participated in the gala for 17 years.
This year he is at the forefront of coordinating its seven restaurants' participation in the event. It's his job to make sure newcomers to the area such as Chef Norman Reola, of Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse, understand what the gala is all about and what to expect. And as director of culinary operations at the casino, he has the honor of presenting a dish created by this year's gala honoree, Golden Nugget's Vice President of Food and Beverage Kevin Scull, who graduated from ACA in 1985.
"It's comfort food, it doesn't need a lot of pizzazz," Hettmannsperger says of the braised short rib of beef over jalapeno grits chosen to showcase the Southern style of the Houston-based Landry's Inc., which owns Golden Nugget. "Anyone could make this dish. It's an easy dish to cook, but it takes a little while to cook. You just have to put a little love in to make this dish."
Hettmannsperger talked about choosing the right cut of meat, "Short ribs shrink considerably when you cook them, and you don't lose the flavor with boneless, but it does affect the price, so I wouldn't buy (the bone for use at home). Let the butcher do the work." And leveled with the audience on fresh versus canned jalapenos (the latter more consistent flavor and level of heat.)
He also shared practical tips with Reola, including the high quality of chefs ACA turns out, such as Cannuscio, who was Hettmannsperger's sous chef before opening Lugo. Reola isn't from South Jersey, but rather moved here to run Vic and Anthony's, a Landry's restaurant. He caught the attention of a few aspiring young chefs when he said he will be looking for interns while at the gala, where Cannuscio remembers volunteering before he graduated in 2008.
When he's hiring, Hettmannsperger says an ACA degree "definitely gives them an edge" over other candidates because he knows they have "fresh minds, and they're eager to learn. You get students ready to come into their career." And, says Hettmannsperger, "What you learn at the Academy, you never forget. Your basic mother sauces - marinara, brown sauce, valoute, hollandaise - it's still the same."
Contact Felicia Compian:
Held 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bally's Atlantic City. Cost is $225 per person. For tickets, call 609-463-4672 or visit atlantic.edu/gala