by Lou Mancinelli
From leaving the insurance industry to attending The Restaurant School (TRS) in University City, to an award-winning food column in San Jose, back to the east coast where he was nominated for a James Beard Journalism award in 1997 for a New York Times (NYT) piece that later became a book, food writer, editor and Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino has turned his sense of taste into a career.
He is currently sharing tips during a six-class workshop that started in late April at Musehouse Literary Center, founded last year and located at 7924 Germantown Ave.
After graduating with a history degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, Gugino worked for five years in the insurance industry, but Sam and his brother talked about leaving their jobs behind (his brother was working in advertising) and following their stomachs into the work world. “I come from a great family of eaters,” said Gugino. “It’s no coincidence people entered our house through the kitchen.”
Sam made the jump (his brother didn’t) and after graduating from The Restaurant School of Philadelphia (TRS) in 1976, bought a building at 2015 Fairmount Ave. in the now-burgeoning Art Museum neighborhood where he planned to open his first restaurant, Avanti. But he failed to find financing because investors doubted the street would prosper the way it does today, 36 years later.
Sometime after Gugino graduated, the owner of TRS, Jay Guben, was approached by Vincent Fumo, the disgraced former South Philadelphia Democratic State Senator who in 2009 was found guilty of 137 counts of corruption, about opening a restaurant. Fumo wanted to know if Guben knew any skilled guys who could run a place.
So Gugino went to work at Vincenzo’s, a restaurant featuring Northern Italian regional food at 10th and Tasker Streets in South Philly, as the chef and manager. He also helped to open Avanti, a Mediterranean restaurant at 22nd and Ranstead in Center City. Both were critical successes, but Avanti was not a financial success due to undercapitalization, something that sinks scores of restaurants almost as soon as they pull out of the proverbial harbor.
After Avanti he worked at different hotels but was fired because he was unwilling to dedicate his life to the hotel, something the position required. “I started to think, what do I really want to do with my life?” said Gugino.
He started to work in the food department at Chestnut Hill Hospital and in the mornings woke up early to write. He read lots of other food writers’ work to see how they did it and published a few pieces in the Daily News.
In 1986, at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends, he met the food editor of the Daily News, who said he’d seen and liked Gugino’s work. “I’ll let you know if something comes up,” the editor told him when Gugino expressed his interest in working for the paper. That fall he was hired.
In 1988 when rumors sprouted that the Daily News was going under, or at least making cutbacks, Gugino figured he’d be on the cutting board and with his wife, Mary Lee Keane, made a decision that the couple, who are city-folks, would move to California. They lived in San Francisco and Oakland Hills while Gugino worked for the San Jose Mercury News. In 1993, his columns were named ‘Best in the Nation’ by the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ).
But the couple missed the east coast and in the spring of 1994 moved to New York City until the turn of the century. In Manhattan Gugino realized his most productive period. He launched his “In the Kitchen with Sam” food column for “Wine Spectator” magazine, where he is now contributing editor. The following year he began a weekly wine column for the Star Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J, a runner up in the AFJ Best Column category in 1999. After leaving the Star Ledger, he wrote a wine column for “Specialty Food Magazine” for nine years. He has also written for Cigar Aficionado, Women’s Day and Cooking Light magazines.
It was his NYT story “Beat the Clock: Inspired Meals in 10 Minutes,” that was nominated for a James Beard Award and later became “Cooking to Beat the Clock” (Chronicle, 1998). It was named one of the 10 best cookbooks by Amazon.com. Gugino has since published three books, including “Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock” (Chronicle, 2000), named a finalist for the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award.
“You’re an expert in blue cheese for six months, and then you forget all about it,” said Gugino about learning and writing about food and wine.
“To me the most important thing is get your facts right. Tell the reader about facts in a way that is interesting so they want to read it … Don’t be too cute with humor … You don’t want people to read a column and say, ‘Why did he do that?’”
As a man who has made a living depending on his ability to write well about the things that taste good to him, Gugino finds a lot of television cooking shows ridiculous.
“I think that stuff is all show business,” said Gugino about shows like Top Chef. He likened themto reality television. “[It] has little to do with working and engaging food … It’s like the Dukes of Hazzard in front of a stove.”
As for restaurants in the Northwest he remains unimpressed. He prefers a BYOB that takes reservations and recommends Bistro 7 and Matyson in Center City and Modo Mio in Fishtown. “I’m just looking for good food and to not have to shout at the person across the table from me to make myself heard,” he said.
Gugino, who for the past 10 years has tutored kids in math at his church, Unitarian Society of Germantown, described cooking as more of a craft than an art. “You can’t just stand there and cook like Emeril,” he said. “You have to learn how to chop an onion.”