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The Fresh Prince

by Nicole Pensiero
In-demand chef, TV personality and Gloucester County resident Michael Giletto is putting Jersey Fresh cooking on the map.

He’s styled finger food for Sandra Lee and assisted Cat Cora on Iron Chef America—and now, he’s looking to become a celebrity chef in his own right, shopping a 13-episode series, Look Who’s Cooking, to cable networks for a fall debut. But Michael Giletto says his unrelenting passion for cooking can be traced back to humble South Jersey roots: childhood memories of a farm in Burlington County, where his grandfather worked during the summer months.

There, Giletto, a South Philadelphia kid, spent the warm-weather months with his family, growing their own vegetables, tending to the farm and savoring meals prepared with the bounty they harvested.

“The set-up there was nothing fancy—we slept on bunk beds, military style, right on the property—but that’s the place where I truly got the passion for cooking … especially cooking with fresh-from-the-farm ingredients,” Giletto recalls.

It’s that commitment to farm-fresh cuisine—with a sophisticated twist—that has propelled the 42-year-old Mickleton, Gloucester County, resident to culinary acclaim and a celebrated career at kitchens across the region.

But Giletto has never been content to merely occupy a silent, back-of-the-house role in the culinary world. Instead, he’s gravitated toward the spotlight. In addition to appearing on Iron Chef, he has been a contestant on the Food Network competition series Chopped and a panelist on The Next Food Network Star. On The Tyra Banks Show, he won the title of “Top Pop Chef,” landing a short-term gig as Patti LaBelle’s personal chef. That, says Giletto, was “a thrill and an honor.”

In fact, Giletto has become something of a go-to for the Food Network and similar programmers, starting when he was first discovered by Cora when working as lead food stylist for Philly’s The Book and the Cook festival in 2005. The Next Food Network Star, Guy Fieri’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, Robert Irvine’s Restaurant: Impossible—if Giletto isn’t a contestant, he’s a panelist, judge, adviser or sous chef.

Now, Giletto is hoping to try on a new role: host. Filming for Look Who’s Cooking began in mid-July at Long Branch’s Ocean Place Resort & Spa, where Giletto was recently named executive chef. “I’m very excited about it,” Giletto says of the upcoming series. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me personally, and a great way for people to learn some simple ways to make tasty, hearty meals.”

Each half-hour show will have Giletto working in the kitchen with an area celebrity. The celebs (whose names have not yet been revealed) will be judged on their culinary prowess, with the top three competing in a cook-off for the season finale.

“We’re filming the episodes at the resort early Sunday mornings, before the sun comes up, with the beach as the backdrop,” Giletto says, adding that some of the recipes he plans to share include grilled shrimp, braised Lancaster chicken and filet mignon. With a little luck, he jokes, this “Jersey Shore” TV show will give viewers a new, more upscale perspective on the Garden State.

It’s been quite a journey since Giletto began honing his craft as a teenager, at the legendary Ralph’s Italian Restaurant on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia. There, he muscled his way up from a busboy to a cook. “I was always very eager to learn about the business and very passionate about cooking,” Giletto recalls. “At Ralph’s, I learned from the guys who’d been doing it for years and years, hand in hand, side by side.” Giletto also helped out at his cousins’ restaurant in Rancocas as a teenager, “peeling garlic and washing dishes.”

After graduating from high school, Giletto decided to go full-throttle into the restaurant business, entering Philadelphia’s JNA Institute of Culinary Arts, where he now occasionally teaches classes with titles like Beef Fabrication 101, Cost Control, Bar and Beverage, and Kitchen Layout and Design. The 18-month JNA program gave Giletto enough confidence to approach the executive chef at a Holiday Inn near his home and ask for his first “real” job.

“I just went there because it was near our house and pretty much said to this guy, ‘Hey, you need to hire me; I can benefit you and I need a job,’” Giletto says. He was told to come back the next day for a test. If he passed, he’d have a job as sous chef.

Told to trim dozens rounds of beef, Giletto got to work quickly, and, in his eagerness, ended up with a large knife in his thumb. But when he refused to go to the hospital to be stitched up, the chef took note of his moxie.

“I said, ‘I could keep going,’ and got back to work. I think the executive chef, Stuart Lindsay, was impressed that I hung there to finish the job,” Giletto says. “In terms of working my way up to becoming a chef, that was the start of it.”

He stayed at the Holiday Inn for little over two years, eventually replacing Lindsay as executive chef. “I never looked back,” he says. “It was a great training ground.” From there, Giletto worked for various hotel chains and country clubs in the tri-state region, being named “Chef of the Year” by the American Culinary Foundation in 2002.

Giletto has no doubts that he can further his reputation for excellence at Ocean Place, where he’ll be managing five restaurants, plus banquet facilities for 1,900 people.

But Ocean Place is not the only venue where Giletto can be found heating things up, both literally and metaphorically. He also lends his talents to Gourmet Butterfly Media, a New York-based food production company. Founded by chef/food stylist and former Swedish supermodel Kersti Bowser, Gourmet Butterfly has more than a thousand cooking shows and cookbooks to its credit.

“I met Kersti in 1998 when I was taking part in a rice cooking competition for Japanese TV, called Go Han,” Giletto recalls. “She was the producer, and I got to work side by side with her. We just really hit it off.” While Giletto didn’t win the competition, he won Bowser’s respect and friendship. Before long, she hired him as her company’s executive chef. In that role, Giletto travels throughout the United States and abroad, procuring, preparing and staging food for various TV, magazine and cookbook shoots.

Despite his glamorous career, Giletto considers it a great compliment when diners say his cooking reminds him of the meals they grew up with.

“Happiness begins with the stomach, and everyone enjoys a good meal,” Giletto says. “Memories are very powerful, so if someone tells me that what I’ve done is as good as something, say, their mom made, that’s as good as it gets for me. The ultimate praise.”

Although the multitasking chef is busily cooking, creating new recipes and filming his TV show, he expects to get around to writing a “farm-fresh gourmet cuisine” cookbook within the next year. “It’s the next step for me,” Giletto says. “I’ve gotten to do so many exciting things in my career so far. It’s just a question of slowing down a little so I can get around to it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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