By Caitlin Raux
There are many lessons you might expect a pastry chef to teach students: have patience; read a recipe in its entirety; opt for the highest quality ingredients. For Chef Carmine, ICE’s newest Pastry & Baking Arts instructor, his most important lesson is simple: stop saying no to yourself. Because, according to Chef Carmine, a former military sergeant who trained as both a ranger and paratrooper, confidence is the most crucial ingredient for success. Once students pass that barrier, Chef Carmine believes that the rest — from French pastries to truffles to fondant cakes — comes naturally. Chef Carmine’s own careers, both military and culinary, are marked by instances of overcoming self-doubt to achieve success — with plenty of hard work and perseverance in between.
Born in the Bronx to a Sicilian mother and Puerto Rican father, Carmine was exposed to two distinct cultures and cuisines throughout his childhood. In Puerto Rico, or “the island” as Carmine calls it, where he moved at the age of 10, food was mostly prepared by his grandmother and aunts, who made family-style, traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. “It was a big household. Everyone would show up throughout the day and take a little bit of this and that,” he recalled. For Carmine, who enlisted in the army soon after graduating from high school, cooking was yet to become a passion. Even so, his military experience laid the foundation for the culinary career path ahead. At boot camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky (in the middle of a harsh, snowy February, no less), he developed the physical stamina, the discipline and the demeanor that would later serve him in the pastry kitchen.
It wasn’t until after boot camp, when Carmine moved back to the Bronx to care for his aging Sicilian grandmother, that Carmine took an interest in preparing food himself and learned the importance of high-quality products. At a time when “urban agriculture” was barely known, Grandma Santa Caruso had a flourishing garden in the backyard of her Bronx home, filled with tomatoes, figs, grapes, zucchini, fresh herbs and more. “She grew up on a farm in Sicily,” Carmine explained. “If she could have had animals in the backyard, she would have.” It was also at this time that Carmine got his first restaurant gig, working as a counter person at a Greek diner on 238th Street. Eager to work and undaunted by long hours, Carmine also took the graveyard shift at a nearby bakery. If a cook or baker missed work, he pulled the old put-me-in-coach and with time, worked his way up through the ranks. Drawn to the rigor and artistic aspect of pastry, Carmine found his stride in that small bakery in the Bronx. “In my teenage years, I had taken painting classes. My father was an artist and I enjoyed it a lot, too.” Over the next several years, Carmine advanced on two career paths, splitting his time between military training and bakery gigs. Then, when he was on the cusp of focusing his efforts on the pastry kitchen, 9/11 happened. Carmine immediately called his commanding officer to volunteer. Two weeks later, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
After serving for seven months overseas, Carmine was finally ready to pursue his baking passion full-time: enter culinary school. “Once I got into culinary school, things completely changed,” says Carmine, who enrolled at the Art Institutes in Manhattan. “Even though I had worked in bakeries for years, I had no clue about the refined side of the industry.” Exposed to a new world of flavors and technique, Carmine excelled under the instruction of his chef-instructors and honed his craft as a pastry chef. While in school, he landed an externship in Amy’s Bread, the renowned NYC bread bakery. Upon graduation, Carmine went back to Puerto Rico to train alongside local bakers and master the breads and pastries of the island. After a year and once armed with a new repertoire of pastry skills, Carmine returned to New York and gathered experience in a range of pastry kitchens — from the Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant Tabla to head chef at Ellabess, where he helped design and launch the kitchen.
When Carmine joined the pastry kitchen of The Chocolate Room, a popular Brooklyn dessert café known for their handmade chocolate treats, he was instrumental in both truffle production and teaching. Carmine mentored both junior pastry chefs and students sent to apprentice vis-à-vis City as Students, a program connecting struggling students with local businesses to gain non-traditional educational experience. Carmine found himself connecting with and motivating the young apprentices. In short, Carmine realized his passion for teaching. Said Carmine, “It gave me a huge level of satisfaction showing people how to do something and watching them succeed.” His leadership training in the military played no small part in his ability to teach effectively, and he continued to work with students throughout his tenor at The Chocolate Room. It comes as no surprise that when an opportunity arose in the Pastry & Baking Arts program at ICE, Carmine jumped on the chance to combine two of his passions: pastry arts and teaching.
Less than a year into his run as a chef-instructor at ICE, Chef Carmine has already found success in the classroom. Students are captivated by his strong presence and down-to-earth style. Asked about his favorite part of the teaching day, Chef Carmine says that it’s getting students to achieve things they never thought possible. In his words: “We are all capable of so much more than we tend to tell ourselves that we are. In the end, a lot of our limitations come from us. We put the wall up. When I joined the military, I was underweight, I was weak, I was afraid of heights. I ended my career as a paratrooper and a ranger. Once you learn how to knock down those walls, it’s life changing. If you can get these students to have the confidence, the rest of the stuff comes naturally, right? I think so.”
Want to study the pastry arts with Chef Carmine and our other expert chef-instructors? Learn more about ICE’s career training programs.