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Rick Tramonto: The Hard Road to the Kitchen

By The 700 Club


Rick Tramonto is a world-class chef who has earned critical and popular acclaim.  He has been praised via The WSJ, USA Today, and The NY Times and to magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Wine Spectator and Conde Nast Traveler.   Rick has also appeared on Oprah, Today, Iron Chef America, as a judge on Top Chef, and most recently as a contestant on Top Chef Masters

Throughout his career Rick has worked with renowned chefs, like Chef Gerard Panguad, Chef Pierre Gagnaire, Chef Anton Mosimann, Chef Michel Guerard and Chef Raymond Blanc.  He has also worked at premiere restaurants such as Tavern on the Green, Aurora, Charlie Trotters, Avanzare and Scoozi! in the U.S. and several others in Europe. 

As Rick’s culinary career grew, he became co-owner and executive chef of several of his own restaurants.  He also authored several award-winning cookbooks. His first book, American Brasserie, from October 1997 was a finalist for the Julia Child Cook Book Awards.  His second book, Butter Sugar Flour Eggs, was nominated for the 2000 James Beard Award for the Best Cookbook in the Baking and Desserts category.  His next cookbooks feature cuisine from Rick’s restaurants and some of his other favorites. 

With all these accomplishments in the cooking industry, many people don’t know the struggles, obstacles, and faith behind Rick’s success.  One struggle in particular was that he did not earn his high school diploma until his late 20s.  Dyslexia was also a challenge for him, which he didn’t discover until later in his life.


Rick was brought up in a tight-knit Italian, Catholic family in Rochester, NY.  He was the only child, but visited between his paternal and maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins frequently.  Food and cooking were a big part of this family life, so he learned to appreciate good food and family.  However, his home life wasn’t always happy and his parents would fight frequently. 

Rick was left home alone a lot due to his parents both earning money to support the family.  He started smoking and drinking at 12.  At 14, Rick started taking marijuana, was interested in music, and started getting into trouble. There was pain and a void that Rick was trying to fill, but he couldn’t fill it.  As he got older he took harder drugs, like cocaine.

When he was 16, his life changed.  One day, his dad asked him to take a ride with him.  He told Rick he was leaving the country because he had embezzled money.  Rick would now have to be the man of the house and take care of his mother. This shocked Rick and he tried to comprehend what all this meant.  The next morning, Rick’s father left as he usually would for work.  He was really on his way to the airport to board a plane for Mexico.  Rick understood the plan, but it was still hard to accept.  That evening, Rick and his friends were hanging out at a friend’s house across the street.  His friends and he saw that there were police cars around Rick’s house across the street.

The police had a federal warrant for his father’s arrest.  When Rick went to his house, police were searching all over the place for whatever they could find.  Rick’s mother was distraught and didn’t know what was going on.  Then Rick told her what his father had told him the day before.  She was shocked and angry. 

Two weeks later, Rick’s father was apprehended and sentenced to jail.  Rick’s mother was depressed.   The only way she found hope and comfort was  watching popular televangelists.  Rick didn’t understand this.  During this time he was angry and acted out.  He got in trouble and didn’t do well in school.  He was kicked out of his high school and went to vocational school.  There he learned trade crafts like cooking and woodworking, but got into trouble and left that school. 

Rick had no high school diploma or other training.  He started to work at Wendy’s to help the family but also because he didn't have many options not being a high school graduate..  Later he would find out he had a learning disability, dyslexia.  At Wendy’s, he learned the foundations of his future trade and he met Eileen (who would later become his second wife).


He left Wendy’s after two years and became a grill/sauté cook at The Scotch & Sirloin.  A co-worker invited him to Bible study.  He started attending regularly.  Eventually, he accepted Jesus as his Savior and quit smoking.  Rick was “sold out for Jesus.”  In the meantime, he found another job for a line cook the Strathallen Hotel, his first real culinary experience. Under the tutelage of Chef Greg Broman, Rick learned the techniques of classic French cuisine in the hotel's first class kitchen.  Rick also met future business partner and wife, Gale Gand.

After a few years Rick moved to New York with Gale and another friend in 1984.   He worked at several well-known establishments, like legendary Tavern on the Green and Gotham Bar & Grill, where he was part of the brigade awarded three stars by The New York Times.  He also worked under top chef Gerard Panguad at Aurora.   During this time, his faith took a backseat to his career.


In 1987, Rick was invited by Richard Melman to work at his popular Lettuce Entertain You restaurants Avanzare and Scoozi!. He then went on to open and work at several other Lettuce Entertain You establishments.  After moving to Charlie Trotter's in 1989 and working there for a year, he received a call from Bob Payton, who operated 14 American-style restaurants in London (My Kinda Town, Ltd.) and 17 other venues across Europe. 

Bob asked Rick to transform the kitchen and cuisine at his award-winning country-house hotel, Stapleford Park, in Leicestershire, outside London.  He accepted the opportunity to live and work in England, France and Spain.  Rick continued to work with some of the world’s greatest chefs and restaurants.  He returned to Chicago in 1993 after his three-year experience abroad.  He, Gale, and other partners opened several restaurants.  Rick and Gale married in 1998.  While the restaurants were doing well and Rick was enjoying success, his personal life wasn’t.  His marriage to Gale fell apart and his mother died.


During this time, Rick was in his car and he heard a sermon by Pastor Gregory Dickow of Life Changers International Church on the radio.  The sermon was from Luke 10 about Mary and Martha.  One part of the sermon especially resonated with him.  It is where the Lord tells Martha she is upset and worried about the details and that Mary discovered the only thing worth being concerned about which wouldn’t be taken from her. 

Pastor Dickow closed his message with an invitation to turn to Jesus.  With tears streaming down his face, Rick accepted the invitation.  He started attending Life Changers regularly and growing in his faith.  He went through a three-year process of renewing his mind, healing from his past, and his divorce.  He reunited with Eileen and remarried.  They grew in the Lord.  Rick was learning his identity in the Lord. 

In 2008, Rick felt like he was starting over again.  Professionally and financially there were some unexpected changes and he felt like God was sending him back to square one.  Finally one night, Eileen encouraged him to rest and let God be God.   Rick realized that God had a vision and goal for his life, but God wanted Rick to follow Him, not his career.  This was another important place in his walk with God.  Rick had no idea where God was taking him, but realized he was God’s child before anything else.  Like the Apostle Peter, he was ready to “step out of the boat” with God. 

Now, Rick is finding his next adventure is taking him to New Orleans.  He and Chef John Folse have partnered and their first joint venture will be Restaurant R’evolution.  It is set to open in 2011 in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  There are several other restaurants and projects underway which are leading to other opportunities to reach out to a whole new mission field – those in New Orleans and in the culinary field.

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