A million meals and more than two decades later, Jonathan Benno can still recall sitting at a picnic table, by the side of a busy road in Bangkok at 2 a.m. with a small group of renowned chefs, all from Michelin-starred restaurants like The French Laundry and Protégé. But the former Lincoln Ristorante executive chef, now the culinary director for Apicii, remembers one chef in particular: Richard Capizzi.
“It’s a 23-year friendship,” Benno said. “He was one of my closest friends. I’m little choked up. Richard was the most talented pastry chef I worked with.”
Capizzi passed away last September after battling brain cancer. He was 45. Capizzi leaves behind a wife, Phyllis and two children. He will be honored this Sunday at Lincoln Ristorante with a six-course tribute dinner prepared by his former colleagues and friends, including Thomas Keller, Shea Gallante, Jonathan Benno, Artem Orlovskyy, and Chad Palagi. Desserts will be made by pastry chefs Sebastien Rouxel, Stefanie Morgado, Kara Blitz, Katie Backlund, and Scott Cioe.
“Pastry Chef Richard ‘Richie’ Capizzi was a leader who embodied true happiness,” Keller said. “He was considerate, respectful, interested in the success of others, spoke from honest positivity, and was always approachable and enthusiastic no matter how busy. He was a tremendous talent and a remarkable person who graced our teams at Per Se and Bouchon Bakery. He was effusive and inspired those around him.”
All proceeds from the tribute dinner will go towards the Capizzi family.
A scholarship in Capizzi’s name will be launched at The Culinary Institute of America, where Capizzi graduated first in his class in 2000. He was awarded Pastry Chef of the Year and numerous awards for his pastry artistry, taste, and technicality. The Institute described Capizzi’s approach to his craft as “light, lush, and beautifully constructed.”
“He could do showpieces, these large elaborate pieces pulled sugar, chocolate,” Benno said. “He could do handmade chocolates, fine dining desserts, casual desserts. Richard understood volume, whether it was 100 covers or a banquet for 3,000 on the Lincoln Center campus.”
During his time as pastry chef, Lincoln Ristorante won one Michelin star and two New York Times stars.
Capizzi is described as being a rare expert in all the pastry arts: a gifted baker, confectioner, chocolatier, and maker of gelato and sorbetto. Before becoming pastry chef at Lincoln Ristorante, Capizzi was a pastry assistant at The Russian Tea Room, the pastry sous chef at the opening of Per Se, and then the pastry chef for Per Se and Bouchon Bakery. He had worked at Le Cirque, Chef Jean Louis Palladin’s Napa Restaurant, The Royaume du Chocolat in Lyon, and Monte Carlo’s Grand Hotel.
Capizzi’s nickname at Lincoln Ristorante was “The Plant Manager.”
“Because while putting out phenomenal desserts and pastries, he knew every electrical wire, every plumbing, everything,” Gallante said. “He ran that restaurant from a mechanical perspective.”
For the tribute dinner, Shea Gallante, Balthazar’s executive chef, is preparing Fra Diavolo, a homemade rigatoni with octopus, with San Marzano tomato, Calabrian chili, and guanciale. Gallante worked with Capizzi when Gallante was formerly executive chef at Lincoln Ristorante.
“He was very much the Italian American who loves fine dining, but he was very down to earth at heart,” Gallante said. “So why don’t I do pasta? It’s just something I know he always was drawn to.”
“He loved any kind of pasta, Frutti Di Mare,” Benno said. “I would help him do the (Feast of the) Seven Fishes for his family at Christmas time. He really loved the Porchetta, the whole roasted pork loin wrapped in the belly.”
Benno’s memories of traveling the world with Capizzi replay almost instantaneously: the many Christmas and Memorial Day meals his family and Capizzi’s family shared, and the all-expenses-paid Disney trips where Benno and Capizzi cooked at EPCOT’s International Food & Wine Festival.
“They take great care of the chefs,” Benno said. “You get to bring your family. I went to Disney four or five times with Richard, his wife Phyllis, and their kids, Gianni and Felicia.”
Capizzi commuted into the city from Long Island, where his roots were. The Island is where Capizzi grew up and where his family lived, and it was so important to raise his family where he and his wife were from, Benno said. He believes Capizzi got his drive for perfection for his craft from his mom and dad.
Besides the culinary arts, Capizzi was also a different sort of master crafter, and then some.
“He was a meticulous carpenter,” Benno said. “He bought an old Victorian and completely restored it. He worked 100 hours a week, did motocross and baseball with his son, and took his daughter to swim meets. The guy never slept. Then we’re speaking about Richard the chef: incredibly talented, meticulous, utmost integrity. I’ve never seen anybody work harder in my life. He really was Superman in the kitchen.”
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.