I got the pleasure of interviewing the Head Chef of a restaurant that I love, Darren Underway. The chef, along with his restaurant partner opened Alla Vita on September 13th, 2021, as an innovative way to reinvent family Italian classics. So much more goes into owning and running a restaurant than just the chef and the food. During my interview, I got to learn about Darren, why he became a chef, the background of Alla Vita and the ins and outs of the restaurant industry.   

Ally Hutchison

Darren's Start

When looking at any restaurant, you may think about the story behind it all. This was one of the things that I thought about when deciding to interview Darren. Darren grew up in the west suburbs of Illinois surrounded by food and its culture. His mother was a server and worked at a multitude of restaurants, including Spanish and Italian cuisine for over 20 years. His grandmother was from Calabria, an island off of Sicily, and loved cooking classic, simple Italian dishes, especially artichokes and chicken cutlets. He was constantly surrounded by the industry and was drawn to it at an early age. Underway says that his childhood influenced him to cook with love, and the passion that the food he makes deserves. Along with a family association with the food world, he was never terribly interested in pursuing anything else. He has always been drawn to jobs that involve him constantly moving and not sitting in a cubicle. Underway stated “There was a lot of not liking anything else that led me to loving cooking”. This really spoke to me because I have also never loved anything as much as cooking and that led me to think of some career options that involve cooking and food.

Ally Hutchison

When thinking about why Underway wanted to be a chef, he had a million reasons that influenced him to pursue his passion. He saw cooking as a blue-collar job and thought that it may be the only thing that he would be good at. He never really liked school, especially math, and hated sitting still in small classrooms. He also grew up watching the greatest chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Rick Bayless, and Anthony Bourdain. He used to stay up watching the early versions of Iron Chef and could not help but imagine a life like that. When looking into the interworking's of a kitchen, Underway loved how the aspect of teamwork was so prevalent. He loved how busy it got and how a restaurant could not work without many people, which is something I will touch on later. Underway has been cooking with his family forever and has just loved the cool vibe of being a chef. So when it came to choosing a career, there was truly only one option.  

His Inspiration (And Many Others Too!)

When asked about an inspiration, Underway only had one answer: Anthony Bourdain. Like many others, Underway looked up to Bourdain because he was a spokesperson for the culinary industry. Bourdain showed the world that when cooking, there were no boundaries. He watched all of Bourdain's shows and read all of his books. Underway believes that Bourdain romanticized cooking while also making it obtainable for others. Bourdain was realistic with his stories and showed what cooking was truly like in the 80’s and 90’s, and Underway deeply appreciated him for this. Underway compares Bourdain to being the Steve Jobs of the food industry and was so intrigued by everything he did. In fact, Underway got a tattoo of him when he was 18 because that is how much he influenced him to become the great chef he is today. 

Choosing The Menu

When creating a restaurant, one of the big choices you must make is your menu. To Alla Vita, they wanted familiar items that everyone knew and loved, and make them even better. For example, everyone does Chicken Parm, but what makes Alla Vita’s Chicken Parm delicious is that they brine their chicken in salt and sugar for 24 hours. They also buy the best of the best chicken that is not raised with any hormones. Finally, they fry the chicken in a shallow pan with clarified butter, rather than a deep fryer with canola oil. Another important aspect of chicken parm is the cheese. Alla Vita sources their cheese from a family creamery on the East Coast. The cheese is so special, and you can taste the uniqueness and sharpness in every bite. It has a special creamy and buttery aspect that I have never tasted before. They look to see the effort that has been put into every aspect of their food in each bite and it says a lot about what they are doing here at Alla Vita. Their food to be made as great as it can be, without complicating it. Underway compares the family style food to Olive Garden, an Italian chain restaurant that everyone knows. He said that even though it is not the best Italian food, they had a cold following. Olive Garden was the first restaurant to do family style and every time that you sat in one of their booths, it was a great meal where you felt at home. Underway wanted the same ambiance with his restaurant, only with food you do not stop talking about. That's exactly what he did.

Ally Hutchison

I am so grateful that I got this opportunity to interview Chef Darren Underway and gain some insight into his journey to becoming a very well-known chef. This interview taught me that through the journey to success, there may be some ups and downs, but in the end, you will prevail.