Ric Orlando shape-shifts into the uncertain future
By Steve Hopkins
If there’s one word to describe Ric Orlando, one of the greater Hudson Valley’s most visible and successful practitioners of the epicurean arts over the past 30 years, it’s “mercurial.” That’s mercurial in a good way, as in the element also known as quicksilver. The man is quick on his feet, lightning quick of mind and of wit, and an extremely quick and facile talker. The recording for this interview, which took place about a week ago on the rear deck of his home on the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in West Hurley, Ulster County, clocked in at an hour and 5 minutes, during which he spouted no less than 10,000 carefully considered, highly entertaining and illuminating words. He’s quick to make friends, quick to decide whether you’re worth making friends with, and quick to embrace an abrupt change of life when an opportunity, or a lack of it, presents itself. His dual professional trajectory as a musician and master chef reflects this ability to switch gears and seize the day: from the mean streets and punk venues of late ’70s New Haven to hip restaurants and cultural immersion in the East Village and Harvard Square, to regional stardom with two successful New World enterprises, Orlando has risen to greater heights with each transformation.
Consider Orlando’s swift and sure-footed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as he managed to amicably sever ties with Albany’s New World Bistro Bar this June after 11 years as executive chef. The break came only after he had conducted an intense examination of his personal and professional priorities in light of what he considers will be a massive shakeout for New York’s already struggling restaurant industry. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “I’m gonna say something that may shake up some of your readers: The restaurant industry in the Hudson Valley is a bit of a myth. There are great restaurants. There are great chefs. There are really smart people. But it’s a hard life, because my estimate is that many of them are barely making it financially. It’s too hard. There’s not enough population density enough of the time. And yet, if that population density were here, it wouldn’t be the Hudson Valley any more. There are a few people I know who are turning a profit, that have got a good formula, and lower overhead, but right now the overhead is shooting through the roof. New York City has infected the Hudson Valley. The real estate numbers now suddenly are not realistic with the market. It’s starting to happen in Albany, which is scaring me a lot.
“One of the things that made Albany much more tenable was that, because of all the college rentals, people who work in the restaurant business who make 25,000 to 50,000 dollars a year can afford to rent. We had a lot of my cooks — I’m not a cheap guy, they were making 15 to 18 bucks an hour — were rooming up with another person, roommates, and paying maybe 300 or 400 bucks a month each. They were getting apartments for 800 a month, 850, 900. Now suddenly, because of Covid, we’re getting people moving here and it’s creeping up into the thousands. Kingston is getting out of touch for people. And what happens is, you have a restaurant that, because of the seasonality, is making a minimal profit, and maybe you’re writing yourself a $500-a-week paycheck, just to be legit, and your payroll goes up because people can’t afford to live here and you are screwed. Or there’s no help. I mean, a friend who owns a local pizza parlor almost every week has got ‘Please I Need Help’ signs up. So it’s a very, very scary situation. There’s gonna be a big shakeout.
“And Covid, I think … I’m not going to say it’s beneficial … but in a weird way it’s going to create a shakeout that needed to be done anyway. I think we’re over-built. As an old friend from Italy said: ‘Too many a-seats, and not enough a-asses.’ There are too many restaurants to support the population. Maybe if you go from like Memorial Day, and June, and Fourth of July, and then it’s Labor Day, and then there’s two or three good weekends in late September and early October. So maybe 16 weekends a year we have the right amount of seats for the restaurant market where everybody’s packed. But the rest of the time, you might be packed on Saturday … listen, if you don’t do business on Saturday, shoot yourself. We would do 250 covers on Saturday at New World Home Cooking in the off-season, and then do 15 on Monday. It’s not a business model that works. One day a week is not what a business makes. So I wish everybody luck. I’m not being negative. I’m being realistic.”
Orlando heaves a heavy sigh, exhibiting something that looks like relief. “This is an interesting time, for sure. It’s the first time in 30 years that I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about what other people are doing. When you own a business — at New World Home Cooking, we had people working. In the summer, 40-plus employees, in the winter, 20-plus employees, and then at the New World Bistro Bar, close to 50 employees year-round. And when your name is on the business, and your brand is what’s being sold, it’s almost impossible not to wake up and check in, or wake up and think about what people may be doing. Being responsible for them. Getting a text at 8:15 a.m.: ‘Codfish didn’t show up on the order today, chef.’ And you deal with it. In a way, I kind of like that. I like that life, a fun, crazy life. But I’m cool, for now. I’m cool with letting it go.”
He’s not exactly letting go. He’s adjusting, quickly, as he always has. “The Bistro was great. It was a fair amount of money, and it was to be paid weekly, which helped me a lot, because when I closed the other restaurant, I needed an income. And it was fun, because we had such a hungry and appreciative audience in Albany that I was able to do my thing. It was like, you know, you play music, and you know there are standards that people want to hear, and they come back for the standards, but they’re also interested in the new material you’re working on. That’s what it was like at the Bistro, so I really enjoyed myself there. It was a job, but it was also a passion. But again, I’m on the next chapter. I’m glad it’s behind me, and now I have room to get into that little to-do list folder, and start doing all the things I’ve wanted to do.”
He takes another deep breath. “Right now, I’m essentially a chef-at-large. I have a series of things that I’m doing, and time will direct where they all go. I’ve found that I need to do — again with the music metaphors — a live gig. I need to cook and be in front of people. I love that. I took two months off from it, and there’s something missing in my life that I’ve been doing for 30 years. Even at the Bistro, even if I did it only one or two nights a week, I got to be there in the heat of the action, to go out and meet the customers. So to satisfy that empty place, I’m doing pop-ups. I was doing them for a while before Covid stopped them, but we just resumed, at a place called the Lower Landing in Coxsackie. It’s down by the river; my friend Kim Bender and her family own this restaurant space that they don’t use as a restaurant. I started doing pop-ups there. I do it once a month, and they’re great. The place gets filled up; I pick a theme, and just cook the theme. I’ve done everything from Peruvian night to Argentinian night to Moroccan, Sicilian — I just grab one type of theme and we do one type of meal. We’re doing a Puerto Rican summer party, Friday, July 31st and Saturday August 1st. They’re socially distanced. The place usually holds, I think, 72. We seat about 34 inside and then we seat another 15 or so on the deck, for about 50. It works great; I mean it’s right on the river. You can see the river from that deck. It’s beautiful. And we follow all the rules. We have hand sanitizer at every table, we have masks in the kitchen, and we pulled off a beautiful event. We just did the first one last Friday. The first one we have done since Covid. There was a lot of anxiety getting it right.”
Presenting pop-ups is just the beginning of Orlando’s “little to-do list.”
“I’m in the middle of working on a couple of other situations to do appearance cooking. At Café Capriccio, whose owner Jim Rua and I are great friends. (Editor’s note: Café Capriccio is in Albany, on Grand Street.) As soon as he found out that I was free of my Bistro arrangement, he reached out to me. We are in the middle of merging our brains to come up with a way to have me do a couple of events there a month, and a couple of cooking classes there a month, because he has a private kitchen on the second floor. Also, Matt Baumgartner owns June Farms (West Sand Lake, Rennselaer County). He’s originally from Bombers Burrito Bar, and he built this little empire. And we’re actually just texting now. He wants me to do pop-ups on Wednesdays there in August. So I’ll be active this summer, out cooking. Face-to-face … well, six feet away but seeing the customers and cooking live food. Which is the gig part.
“And then there’s the studio part,” he continues, quickly and comprehensively, as I sit there marveling at the long, perfectly constructed sentences coming out of his brain and across his tongue into the atmosphere in an unbroken streak. “I’ve developed a line of dried seasoning, dried spices, that are on the Internet right now, on my website. On a much bigger scale, I’m in the middle of developing a product line of prepared sauces that I’ve put together. That’s all my spicy stuff, like Purple Haze and Dirty Blonde, and some savory stuff like a banana ketchup. I’m just finishing recipe testing now, and I’m interviewing designers for packaging. But I’m excited about that, because I want people to be able to eat my food without having to cook it for them.” Orlando laughs, and I laugh, too, remembering to bookmark that phrase for later emphasis. It seems to me that this concept might be the cornerstone of the legacy Orlando is attempting to build.
Meanwhile, he continues, unabated. “One of the things that work well for me is that I have a relationship with Hannaford supermarkets. I’m in their Chef’s Table. I’m one of six chefs that represent Hannaford in a lot of fundraising activities. We raise a lot of money for kids’ meals and senior meals, through writing recipes and doing recipes for their magazine and for their store. That’s a benefit, now that I know everybody at Hannaford, so when I have a product, I have my fingers crossed that they’ll pick up my product and make it an adventure that is worth doing. So it’s product development, pop-ups … oh, and I have a podcast, called ‘We’re Upstate New York.’ I’ve been a little remiss on it. I’ve been a little bit busy, but I’ll get back doing them. It’s so hard to keep up with the podcast. It goes OK. Each podcast gets four or five hundred listens over the course of a week or so … a decent impact … but hopefully we can kind of piggyback them all together. The whole goal is to take the product line, the podcast, and the YouTube channel and build something that can create income for the next five or six years, or seven years, or longer. I’ll be turning 61 in October. And that doesn’t mean I’ll never get a job in a kitchen again, because I miss it, and if the right opportunity presented itself, I would consider it.
“However, right now is not the time. With Covid happening, I don’t want to do it right now. That may be a year or so … I’ve already had many offers, people send me offers all the time for restaurants, for executive chef jobs, for consulting. And I will continue to consult with people, which is being in the studio as well. Other than that, I’m gardening, playing some music …” Another deep breath, then a sigh. “Someone asked me recently if I ever had any regrets in life, and the only regret I had is that I never got really good on piano. I started out when I was a kid, and I could play basic boogie, but once I started playing guitar, your hands turn the other way, and I’m a little clumsy on the keyboard. I can sit and suss stuff out, but I can’t jam. I’d love to be able to jam on a piano.”
Something tells me we’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg of the to-do list, and Orlando doesn’t disappoint. “The other thing that I’m doing, that I had started already, is food tours. And Covid has really screwed that up, in a huge way. We had done a tour … I brought 22 people for a week down in New Orleans. It’s not just food; it’s a food and culture tour. I have a lot of connections, a lot of friends. We go to a couple of the well-known places, but most of it is about stuff you’re not going to find as a tourist. That’s what I try to do, is introduce you to the good stuff. So then we did Sicily. I took 16 or 17 people to Sicily, in May of 2019. It was mind-blowing, and I made such amazing connections. Sicily is one of the coolest places in Europe. It’s like the Hudson Valley. It’s got old rural, and totally urban hip. And you can throw in a couple of Mafioso in between, but that’s whatever it is. The connections I made — you can find them on my website — I mean chefs and artists and street musicians and graffiti artists and farm-to-table people out in the hills.
“Anyway, I had a trip planned for this May, and it got cancelled. We rescheduled tentatively for October. Sicily is open-door right now. They had very little Covid anyway. As of yesterday, they don’t want us (Americans) there. So we’re waiting to see how that develops. The EU is pissed off at us … for not letting Europeans into America … don’t even get me there, because this is the biggest travesty in history, right? So if we don’t do October, we’re gonna shoot for the spring. There are amazing flight deals right now.
“By the way, I encourage everybody to go to Europe. And not just to the famous places. It’s nice to go see Rome for a couple of days, but it’s great to go see the smaller cities, and meet people. Like when we stayed in Palermo, my son rented an apartment right on the Capo Marchia, and I rented an Air B&B for, I think, 35 bucks a night, right around the corner, and we lived where the people lived, and we got to know people who worked in the street every day selling food. And you leave with such a different experience. I think Americans would be a lot better off if they could see something other than their own Wal-Mart. Get out of the neighborhood, you know? And don’t be afraid. Get out and see things.”
That’s about as political as the on-the-record part of the interview gets, which is fine with both of us. Meanwhile, a big part of being 60 years old and going through a major change of life is taking stock of the journey that’s landed you where you are. Orlando obviously has a rip-snorting memoir to write, and spent some time providing me with a considerable number of spoiler alerts. Since this is the Hudson Valley Epicurean, and much of Orlando’s epic career arc is relevant to our inspiration-starved readership, we’re going to forge ahead and let most if not all of those cats out of the bag. As is de rigueur for a clueless, middle-of-the-road journalist, I jump-started his reverie with a groaningly obvious, self-serving question: “So how did it start for you? The food thing? Because I know you were a musician, too.” (Editor’s note: The last thing I ever wanted to do was work in a restaurant. When still a teenager, I had a couple of dishwasher positions and was fired from a busboy job at the Navarre restaurant in downtown Denver, for playing the owner’s precious piano after hours for tips. But that’s another story. This is Ric’s, and he’s building an unavoidable case for what I might have missed):
“It started in the early ’80s for me,” he began. “I was playing music and cooking, in parallel, my whole life. Basically, kitchens and bands. I feel like pieces fell into place for me that sent me on a path. When I was a kid in New Haven, I was making sandwiches, chicken parms, and whatever else you make, playing in an underground band, and doing pretty well. We were a very popular band, so I never had a night job. I’d say ‘Listen, I gotta be out of work by 3.’ I did a lot of lunch business, which was hectic. And then I got a job in a high-end French place called Sherman’s Tavern. It was basically a coke den, but it was very high-end, fancy place. And I started learning about food. Not just steak and cheese subs and meat loaf, but learning about French cuisine, as a dishwasher. Dishwashers were also prep cooks a lot back then. I would peel shrimp, cut mushrooms. I learned how to use a knife. The chef was French/Austrian. He was really tough. One of the older waitresses liked me. I was kind of cute. I didn’t fit the dishwasher mold. I was in a band, I had a little punky pompadour, about 50 pounds thinner.” He glances down self-deprecatingly at his body, which looks as if it would disappear with 50 pounds shaved off. “She convinced the owners to let me start training in the house. So I went out as a busboy. In the French restaurants, the busboys did a lot more than they do now. We sold and served desserts, and got tipped based on our dessert sales, so I had to learn about the desserts. As that was happening, the band was getting really, really popular, and I really cut back, to like three or four days a week.
“And then a new place was opening … and this was a turning point,” he continues, forgetting where he is as the memories flood back. “It was 1980 or ’81. It was a diner cart. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with New Haven, but there was a red light district. One little two- or three-block area right on Chapel Street. Chapel and Howe. And there was this place called Café des Artistes, which was a pretty decent sized storefront that had ice cream, sex toys, and paraphernalia. So it was like the perfect store — dildos, rolling papers and Häagen-Dazs — you couldn’t get out of there. And on the other corner, the block before, was Ron’s Place, which was the underground music club — this dive bar that my drummer and I took over and convinced them to let us start playing there, and it became so big that we got written up in Life magazine. It was an article called: ‘It Happened But Nobody Noticed,’ about small-city punk rock scenes.” (There’s a documentary about that by the same name, which you can find on YouTube HERE).
“We did a compilation after that. It wasn’t just punk rock. It was a lot of art rock, a lot of innovative, oddball … when people think of punk rock, it’s not just this noisy, angry music, but that whole scene from like ’77 to ’82 was wide open. It was the art scene. It was amazing; it was nihilism, it was not nihilism. It was retro, like Shangri-las, and it was Suicide playing just one keyboard with a drum machine and noise. It was very interesting, and it brought out the smart people, which was kind of cool, especially being around Yale.
“So I was there, and I was hanging out with a hipper crowd, and these two guys, there was Ross and Steve, whose last names have disappeared, who had moved to New Haven from San Francisco because one of their wives got a gig at Yale. And across from Café des Artistes was this stainless steel diner cart that was empty; abandoned, which they found. They had both worked for the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, which was back in the late ’70s way ahead of its time: a diner cart serving cool food. Not a white tablecloth kind of place; you could get a turkey club, but it was bread baked in-house, turkey roasted in-house, local goat cheese. And they pulled that off in New Haven.
“Steve was a guitar player. He was really into Robert Fripp, Eno, that whole scene. And he would come to Ron’s, and I got to meet him a couple of times, and he liked my guitar playing, and we would get high and listen to weird music at his house that I had never heard before in my life. And he said, ‘You know, you should come to work for us.’ And I went to work at the Elm City, which was the first time I worked in a modern, cool restaurant. And it was in the very early days of modern, cool restaurants. That changed my head a lot. It made me realize that I could actually be involved with food, not in a blue-collar way but in an intellectual, artsy way.”
Then came transformation #2. “So in ’82, I moved to Boston, knocked around and started a band called Skin. We were really, really popular there, we did a couple of records; we came ‘this close’ to getting a deal. And after a few months I ended up meeting some people through The Rat, the punk club. One of the waitresses, Tracy, her roommate worked at a place called The Harvest, which was one of the groundbreaking restaurants in America at the time. And I got a job there. Started in the front of the house, lunch waiter. Ended up in the kitchen after the chef — famous chef, Bob Kincaid, who just passed away — left to open up 21 Federal on Nantucket, which was another ahead-of-its-time place, and the sous chef, Jake Jacobus, said to me, ‘You have experience. Could you please come in the kitchen? Because I’ve been decimated.’ I moved into the kitchen, and the rest is … that’s what I did.
“And it was a daily menu, lots of local food. The big thing in the ’80s was also exotic food, where there was a company called Flying Foods, that used to bring in fancy produce from Peru and Israel, that you couldn’t get in the U.S. You have to remember something, and I know you hipsters will not know this. In the mid-’80s, you couldn’t get a hydroponic tomato, or arugula. Arugula didn’t exist … especially in the off-season. If you remember, the produce department in the late ’70s, early ’80s, it was iceberg lettuce, cellophane tomatoes, onions, potatoes. It was very little, right? Most of what you ate was frozen vegetables. It was exciting to have Flying Foods, because we were literally able to have Peruvian raspberries in January. You couldn’t get them at the supermarket at that time. So with a combination of local and wild local fish — anyway, The Harvest changed my head. It made me excited about going to work every single day. I did other things between there, but that was pretty much the turning point for me, going to Cambridge and working at The Harvest.
“And being in Harvard Square! For a 22-year-old guy who had just gone from blue-collar New Haven to the Yale artsy underground world, Harvard Square was like a mind blower. I had friends that were Communist, that were gay, that were … I mean I was involved with the whole underground world of counterculture, and still cooking and playing in a band. It was a big, life-changing event. It was a good place to be. There was still Revolution Books that was run by old Communists, there was Hubba Hubba, which was a Lesbian leather store, there were Indian restaurants and Thai restaurants, and Szechuan food, Greek, all right in my neighborhood. Central Square was all storefront, mom-and-pop restaurants, and it blew me away. And again, it was all part of the inspiration of why I cook the way I do. Between the East Village and Central Square, I basically lived on three-dollar mom-and-pop ethnic meals. Felafels, whatever, and later it was, can I elevate this food? Can I take these flavors and put them on a fancy plate? And that was part of where my whole background in cooking came from.
“And they let us do it at The Harvest, to a degree. We had two menus. A café menu for the bar and patio, and then we had the fine dining room menu. The dining room had regulars like Julia Child, Isaac Asimov, Robert Parker, and the Celtics. It wasn’t stuffy. It was Merimekko, it was California; it was very modern, for its day. So in the dining room we were able to incorporate some of those flavors, but in a much more sophisticated Nouvelle way, but in the café, I was doing tagines and other fun stuff, nothing too hot spicy, but the spices were good. We were testing out making things like samosas, and doing that in a fine dining restaurant that was way ahead of its time. And it blew my mind. And I’m still doing the same thing.”
Onward, to transformations #3 and 4. “I met Liz while I was living in Boston. We left Boston in ’88 with my daughter as a baby and Liz pregnant again, so my first two are 20 months apart. We were living in Queens, where my wife is from, at 134th Street and Booth Memorial Avenue right near the World’s Fair Unisphere, like right up the hill from there. Liz was working days at Beth Israel Hospital in administration, and I was working nights at Sugar Reef restaurant in the East Village and later at Allen’s, at the 23rd Street Bar & Grill. The reason why we later ended up upstate, in this area, is that my wife Liz is number six of nine kids. Her older sister, Marie, and her husband Mike, both worked in state government. Back in the ’80s, even before I met Liz, they had bought a little bungalow farmhouse in New Baltimore. When Liz and I were living in Boston, and we would come visit Mike and Marie as our hideaway. And then they opened the Palmer House restaurant in Rensselaerville. I went and saw it and gave them some advice, as I was the only one in the whole group who had ever even worked in a restaurant.”
In New York, the couple’s second child was born. This is the point in Orlando’s story that another dominant side of his personality becomes apparent: dedicated and fiercely protective family man. “He was born in October,” he says. “Then in late spring, early summer, it was probably like June, it was getting rough. The commuting — I would have to leave for work two hours before I needed to get to work. Sometimes I’d get there in 10 minutes; sometimes it would take three hours. It was a nightmare getting in and out of the city. And that was when Bush — one of the many Republican recessions was happening — Bush’s recession was underway. And there was wilding in the city. Remember wilding? We had a couple of scary situations — one where my wife, when she was on her lunch hour, was in a store that got wilded. Nobody got hurt, but the kids went in and knocked everything over. And then one day, we woke up to sirens and helicopters. Right across the street, kitty-corner from our apartment, there was a big apartment building, and there was a huge Colombian drug raid going on there. We took the kids and threw them in the car, and came up to Mike and Marie’s in Coxsackie. We thought, we gotta get out of here; this is crazy. We don’t know what we’re gonna do. And Marie said, ‘Why don’t you move upstate?’ I was an East Village guy, right? Many earrings, totally underground — even though I was a restaurant manager. And she said, ‘Well, what about Albany?’ Now, I grew up in New Haven, which is a small city, and I have an affinity for small cities. I’d been to Albany once or twice, to see shows or play at QE2 back in the day, when I lived in Boston. We didn’t know anything about it; we went up to Albany. It was a Sunday afternoon — I remember this — it was in July. We looked at the paper. And back then, the city emptied out in the summer, when the legislature was over. Literally, there were ‘for rent’ signs on every apartment. And we found this brownstone, 1869 duplex, two-bedroom for I think $390 a month, on Dove Street, right next to William Kennedy’s old place. We couldn’t believe it. New York City wasn’t that crazy, but I knew that we were paying in the sevens for our apartment in Queens. So we signed a lease that day, and moved up. And that’s it. We were Upstate. And we haven’t gone back.”
The Hudson Valley adventure had begun. It was 1989. “Moving to Albany was good. It gave me the chance to explore my music and my food — mainly my food — in a way that was much lower pressure, but at the same time it was kind of cool. At the time, Albany was not a restaurant town like it is now. Now it’s much more of a restaurant town. So fine dining was the thing, you know? I had worked in the Village. I was exposed to funky theme restaurants, ethnic food. I knew where to get all the ingredients. And so I started doing this stuff at Justin’s, where I got my second job up there. If you were in the East Village, you knew where you could get jerk chicken and Thai curry and Moroccan stews. But in Albany, it didn’t exist. So I was like a novelty act. It was great. I had an old, crazy ’73 Volvo wagon that overheated every 20 miles, and I’d fill up six or seven bottles of water and go down to the City. I also had some mail-order connections for stuff from the Southwest that I would bring up. Chilies and stuff like that. I was doing what was my passion, really. My passion was food that talked to me.” (Editor’s note: I too lived in Albany during that bygone era, just prior to moving to New York City and the East Village for the duration of the 1990s, landing in the funk band Milo Z. I had played in Albany in various jazz and R&B bands at Justin’s, which was one of my favorite hangs in town. The food, by the way, was delicious and, as Orlando will attest, “way ahead of its time.”)
Transformations #5 and 6: “We had our little kids at that time; our kids were like 4 and 2,” says Orlando. “The brownstone was the perfect spot, except that I wanted my kids to be able to go out and play. I used to take them to Washington Park all the time, but it occurred to us that we didn’t leave New York City to end up having a little postage-stamp deck for a yard, so then we rented a house in Glenmont for a year, and then later moved to Coxsackie.”
And, with Liz in 1993, he opened the legendary New World Home Cooking in Woodstock, moving it in 1998 to “Saugerstock” (the Woodstock-y northwestern section of Saugerties), Ulster County, where he developed and made famous his signature recipes for mouth-watering delicacies like Purple Haze shrimp, blackened string beans (a personal favorite), jerk chicken and “Thai-Italian Love Panang Bolognese.” (Editor’s note: When I relocated from NYC to Dutchess and Ulster counties back in the late 1990s to re-invent myself from has-been rock star into a cub investigative reporter for a series of struggling rural newspapers, a sojourn to New World Home Cooking was considered a pilgrimage, and something that was legendarily difficult to pull off in terms of scoring a weekend reservation. It was marginally easier to score a plate of Ric’s string beans by braving the traffic jams and waiting lines of the annual Garlic Festival, also in Saugerties).
Unfortunately, after Ric and Liz closed the restaurant in Saugerties, I was never able to get up to the New World Bistro Bar on Delaware Avenue in Albany, which opened in March 2009. Orlando’s deal with the restaurant’s owners, nearby Spectrum 8 Theatres founders Annette Nanes and Scott Meyer, was sweet. “I was the chef consultant. I had licensed them the name, I oversaw the kitchen and a lot of the training of the staff, and the mindset. I tried to create a New World Home Cooking in an urban setting. We had an 11-year run there. It was extremely successful.” And now, he’s a free agent. “Yeah. Covid being what it was, and putting a lot of financial pressure on the restaurant, it was just best that we made a deal that allowed me to walk away. And that’s good. Everybody’s happy.”
Ric Orlando is a media-savvy 21st Century entrepreneur. He’s expanded his notoriety past the local and regional markets by scoring well-received appearances on nationally known cooking shows. He’s a two-time Chopped champion. He soundly defeated the resident super-villain chef of cable TV, Bobby Flay. He maintains a YouTube channel brimming with entertaining, mouth-watering video content. During the Covid pandemic, he’s been keeping the epicurean flame alive on Facebook Live once a week in partnership with WDST Radio Woodstock. He’s doing podcasts. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter (where he lets his progressive political flag fly the highest). Pinterest. Pop-ups. Appearances. He’s developing and selling lines of spices and sauces. Writing E-books. And through it all, he’s still playing music. “I play a little bit every day. … I just did a recording a couple of weeks ago … It just got mixed … with Andy Shernoff from The Dictators, who is kind of a legend. He’s got a publishing thing, so he sells and writes tunes. He’s making a living. He just wrote a song called ‘Born Hungry,’ and he asked me if I wanted to sing it. And I sang it and contributed a small amount to the lyrics. I went up to his house a couple of Sundays ago and recorded it, and the final mix is getting done and he’s gonna market it.”
Not the least of his accomplishments, as I already mentioned, is that he’s a dedicated husband and father. At the peak of his New World success he was fielding offers to return in triumph to New York City and open a restaurant there. He declined — another quick, surefooted decision rooted in sound judgment and reality. “Back in the late ’90s, early 2000s and leading up to 9/11, I had a few different offers to take New World Home Cooking to New York City,” says Orlando. “And at that time, my children were 12, 10 and 6. And I talked to my wife, and I said, ‘I’m not gonna do it.’ He chose to stay the course, because his wife had a career happening as a public defender, and the family’s roots were firmly planted upstate. “I knew that if I ended up working in New York City, I’d be there most of the time, and it would have been the end of my marriage and the end of my kids. No matter how much devotion you have to your family, when you’re away for weeks at a time and you’re involved in a new project …” He trails off, imagining the unimaginable. “So I’m glad I didn’t do it.”
Still, like all of us, Orlando is poised and ready for the next opportunity, once this pandemic scourges its way into history. OK, maybe he’s a bit more poised and ready than most of us. He’s already mulling over ideas of what the future might bring. “If I were to open anything else in this market, it would be very small, dependent upon my own labor and maybe one or two other helpers. People say ‘a food truck.’ I’m toying with it, but the food truck issue around here is that it’s a challenge because it’s such a short season. One of my former chefs has a food truck down in the Carolinas, and he works almost year-round, and he makes money. He had one up here, he was in Middleburg out in the Cobleskill area, and he said, man, once November came, with a food truck, you’re a dead issue. There’s nowhere to go. Too cold. So, maybe a small thing. Eric Mann from The Bear and I have bounced around ideas for coming up with a really hip version of a drive-thru. But right now it’s all just talk, and we’re just talking about what to do.”
Just talking. But you can be sure, when the iron is hot, Chef Ric Orlando will be among the first to grab it and turn it into culinary gold. And we’ll be waiting in long lines at the door, salivating as usual.