Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Mercy Hospital Assistant Food Service Director Chris Damiani started cooking at age 14 at the Castile Flea Market “dropping fried dough and burgers.”
He was so good at it, his boss gave him a nickle raise.
Damiani been an executive chef since 1996, when he landed a job at the Buffalo Yacht Club.
He’s also worked at the Hyatt Regency downtown – where many top WNY chefs got their start, he said – as well as Romanello’s, Orchard Park Country Club and Frog Hair restaurant.
He knows the harsh reality of work in a commercial kitchen.
“I’m not going to lie to you. For years, I wasn’t a healthy eater,” he told me for this week’s What are you eating? to be published Saturday in WNY Refresh. “You would starve all day working, and work long hours, and then hit McDonald’s for the drive-thru on the way home.
Damiani, 47, of Hamburg, is an Orchard Park native whose eating habits have changed since he and wife, Liza, started raising three sons, Sean, 17; Christopher, 12; and William, 9.
It also helped landing a daytime gig nearly two years ago at Mercy.
The Johnson and Wales College culinary school grad handles the menu at Mercy on behalf of Aramark Healthcare, a health care food service company.
He and Karen Calandra recently teamed up to do a cooking show for Mercy Hospital patients. They made spaghetti squash with tomatoes, basil and pine nuts. See a video and the recipe here.
Calandra is a registered nurse and holistic health coach whose husband, Salvatore M. Calandra, is a local cardiologist.
“Healthy cooking is a trend that’s happening because of the health care crisis,” she told me. “The only way to counteract that is start eating healthy because all the processed food is causing a lot of illness today.
“Sugar is huge. It’s like cocaine with addiction, and causes inflammation inside our bodies. All disease starts with inflammation – heart disease, diabetes – all of that.
“We’re at a time where our kids aren’t going to live to see our age. Our parents are in our 80s and 90s and my husband is treating people in their 20s and 30s with heart disease.”
This was the duo’s first cooking demonstration. They plan to do another one after the holidays.
When I asked Damiani to describe the tastiest food he makes that’s also good for you, he said, “I do wonders with fish. For me, I love halibut with a lemon caper sauce and a touch of butter. I just love it.
“I take a lot of the produce from the gardens that we have, too, and toss it with a pasta and garlic and a vinaigrette and fresh herbs. It’s cheap right now. I have it in my yard. I use tricolored rotini, vegetable pasta."
The Mercy kitchen staff – which makes an average of 1,600 meals a day for hospital workers, visitors and patients – does a lot of steaming.
“Every night there’s a steamed vegetable,” Damiani said. “We also cook a lot of simple potatoes. We don’t want to overwork the food too much. We serve the patients nutritional levels of food. We don’t put a giant plate in front of you. It’s a 4-ounce portion of protein at lunch, and 2 or 3 ounces at dinner."
He avoids cooking “peppers and the hot stuff,” even at home.
“There’s so much heat out their now with peppers and the hot sauces,” he said, “I think that certain foods are made so hot now that there’s nothing left but the heat.”
The food he still sometimes has a hard time resisting?
“I love a Big Mac,” he said, “and McDonald’s French fries are a killer.”