Food Stylist, Chef, Culinary Producer and TV Personality
If you’ve ever watched a cooking show and wondered what goes on behind the scenes, you’re about to find out! Anthony Contrino is our December Teafluencer, but his day job is working as a culinary producer, food stylist and chef. You may also have seen him as the host of the cooking show “Saucy” on The Today Show! As a special treat for all of us, he has even created a dish incorporating one of his favorite Harney teas – you can download the recipe at the end of this interview.
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational/professional background, where you live, family, etc.
Anthony: I was born in Brooklyn but have been living in Staten Island since the 4th grade. After many years working in retail management, I finally took the leap to go to culinary school, and I’ve been in the food industry ever since.
Harney: You’re Italian, yes? Where did your family originate from in Italy?
Anthony: Mostly Italian and some German. I’m most influenced by my paternal grandma, Connie, who is from a small mountain town in Sicily.
Harney: Your website says that your passion for food started when you first learned to chew! When did that passion turn from just the enjoyment of eating food to cooking?
Anthony: Both my parents worked, so I was often the first one home with my little brother. To help out, I would often volunteer to make dinner and I really enjoyed it, even from that young age.
Harney: Where did you get your professional training?
Anthony: I attended (the now non-existent) French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. I studied Classic Pastry Arts.
Harney: What was the first job you had as a chef? Where did you go after that?
Anthony: My first job was for a mail-order bakery called Sweet Sally’s Bakeshop. I was Sally’s sole employee, and together we would make, package and ship out really delicious kosher treats. After that, I worked in a couple of restaurants, but I didn’t love the culture or the hours. From there I came across a posting that a prominent pastry chef was looking for interns for his upcoming cookbook, so I jumped on that. It was an amazing experience and was my opening into the world of food media. Less than a couple of months later, I was working on other cookbooks and my first Food Network show. I’ve been food styling and culinary producing ever since.
Harney: How did you end up being the host of The Today Show’s “Saucy?”
Anthony: My desk was next to the show’s (now Senior) Food Editor, Emi, and we immediately became friends. At the time, she was pitching shows for the show’s social media platforms, and before I knew it, I was in a meeting with the producing team, and shortly after we started shooting some episodes.
Harney: How different is cooking on TV different from cooking at home? What do you enjoy most about cooking on TV?
Anthony: Aside from having a team help prepare some of the swaps and talking to a camera, it’s really not much different. I love being able to share my family recipes and all the things I’ve learned working alongside some of the best chefs in the industry along the way.
Harney: You’re also a food stylist for The Today Show, and you’ve done food styling for several shows. Tell us what being a food stylist entails.
Anthony: Our job is to make the food look good – so appetizing that you want to make it yourself. A strong foundation in cooking is always a must. You need to know how to cook food to make it look good. From there it’s working with the photographer, prop stylist and art director to make the vision come to life. It’s very collaborative, and it’s a lot of fun.
Harney: We’ve all seen cooking segments on TV shows where all the food is prepped in advance in those nice little bowls – if only someone would do that for all of us at home! – and then the finished product comes beautifully out of the oven in minutes. You’re one of the people that makes that happen. Can you quickly walk us through what it takes to make that tv magic? And what are “swaps?”
Anthony: The bulk of my work these days is culinary production. My job as a culinary producer is to make sure the recipe is easy to follow from the viewer’s perspective. We write shopping lists, prep lists and, most importantly, the food script or demo steps. The food team takes the demo steps and uses them to set up the kitchen. Sometimes it’s filling in all the glass nesting bowls, sometimes it's filling canisters with dry ingredients so the talent can scoop out items like flour and sugar on camera. Everything is planned and well-choreographed, including swaps.
Swaps are partially or fully completed parts of a recipe. For instance, if we’re making a cake, the talent will make the batter and place it into the oven, then we’ll come in and swap the unbaked batter with fully baked cakes. We do this for steps that take more than 10 minutes or so, depending on the shoot.
Harney: We know you love to travel – where’s your favorite place to go? And do you have restaurants that are absolutely not to be missed when you travel? Please tell us what they are so we can enjoy them too!
Anthony: This is impossible to answer! I love to travel everywhere and anywhere! Domestically, I find myself in Vegas a lot. I think it has one of (if not) the best food scenes in the country. My two current favorite restaurants there are both off the strip – Esther’s Kitchen and D E Thai Kitchen in the Art’s District.
When it comes to international travel, Italy will always be my first choice. I try to make at least a pitstop to one of the cities in Emilia-Romagna (Bologna, Parma, Modena, etc.) because the food is just out of this world, but I always make it a point to fly in or out of Rome so I can hit up my favorite places there, too. I could write a book about my favorite places in Rome, but if you just have time to hit one place, make sure it’s Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and the neighboring Il Forno!
Harney: We have no idea where you found the time, but you’ve also just co-written a cookbook! Tell us about that and where we can find it.
Anthony: Early into the pandemic, I had a feeling it was going to last longer than most anticipated. My friend Katie and I knew we had to do something to stay creative, so we assembled a group of our peers and formed The Quarantine Collective. We created a calendar, and every day our members would share recipes. As things were slowly getting back to normal, we knew we wanted to go out with a bang, so we co-authored a cookbook with all proceeds going to the James Beard Organization’s Open for Good campaign. Unfortunately, the book is no longer available, but it has crossed my mind to resurrect it in some form.
Harney: What are some of your signature, go-to dishes?
Anthony: Anything quick. After cooking all day on set, the last thing I want to do is come home and cook an elaborate meal. Some of my go-to dishes are Butternut Squash Ravioli in Brown Butter Sauce, Pulcinella’s Almost-Instant Tomato Sauce and Chicken Cutlets.
Harney: It’s holiday season – any favorite holiday dishes you love to make?
Anthony: All the desserts! My cousin Tracy and I bake Christmas cookies every day for both the Eve and the Day. I also am addicted to Pumpkin Bread and make that for pretty much every holiday.
Harney: We spied a tea party page on your website. Do you ever cook or bake with tea?
Anthony: I do! Tea is such a versatile ingredient, coming in all different varieties and flavors, so it’s really fun to experiment in the kitchen with. Don’t be afraid to use it in brines, cocktails and even custards!
Harney: We hope you’re a tea fan. If so, what kind of teas do you enjoy? Any tea rituals or “I must have tea now” moments in your day?
Anthony: Growing up, I used to get sinus infections almost twice a year, and tea was one of the few things that made me feel better. That’s still the case today. Also, I’m a huge fall and winter guy – the colder, the better. Nothing makes me happier than being on the couch, under the covers, with a warm drink. Sometimes it’s hot chocolate, but when I want something lighter, my go-to is a hot cinnamon spice tea-infused apple cider.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea or anything on your list you’ve been wanting to try?
In addition to sharing fascinating tidbits about his work, Anthony has also created a Vanilla Black Tea Panna Cotta recipe for us using one of his favorite Harney teas! We’re excited to share this amazing dish with you – download the recipe card and start cooking! Learn more about Anthony on his website and Instagram. Thanks to Anthony for taking the time to create a special recipe for us and telling us about his work. All photography was provided by Anthony.