The Man Who Makes Oprah Melt

Rick Tramonto might be Chicago's most important chef, but he got his start flipping burgers at Wendy's. He tells Hungry Beast what's in his fridge and what it's like to cook for the Queen of Talk.

If you live in Chicago, you already know Rick Tramonto. If you don’t, you should. Tramonto, a cultural icon in Windy City dining, invokes mystical comparisons. “Tramonto is a blend of mad scientist and magician in the kitchen,” writes Pat Bruno in the Chicago Sun-Times. "He is innovative, creative and somewhat an illusionist.”

Which makes the fact that Rick got his start cooking at Wendy's (yes, that Wendy’s) extra cool. Rick credits Wendy's founder Dave Thomas as the motivating force that got him behind a stove. The guy who has written seven cookbooks (most recently Osteria!), created a bunch of destination restaurants, and won a gazillion awards actually got his start in a place where the most commonly asked question is, "Do you want fries with that?" His current restaurant, Tru, was named the “Most Popular Chicago Restaurant” in both 2002 and 2004. Perhaps his prime beef tartare with Parmesan, truffle and golden egg is a third cousin twice removed from a Wendy’s Triple?

He's a down-to-earth Doritos lover who happens to cook with truffles for a living. We caught up with one of Oprah’s favorites to find out what makes him tick, food-wise.

When you’re at home, what’s always in your kitchen? I always have salt and pepper, great olive oil, a great bottle of red wine, fresh garlic, and some sort of great cheese.

Sounds very Italian. What’s your favorite dish—or meal—to cook for your family and friends? Linguine with white clam sauce.

Do you have a favorite person to cook for? Oprah. I appreciate her enthusiasm and feedback—she is so into food and it’s obvious she truly enjoys it. Plus she’s funny and was very kind to the staff.

What do you make that your kids love? Omelets. I make them with salumi, with veggies and cheese. We have them for breakfast and for dinner.

Any one ingredient you could not live without? Salt. I always have good kosher or fleur de sel around.

You mentioned always having some sort of great cheese. Any favorite? Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is such a versatile cheese with so many uses. Just for starters, you can eat it alone with a glass of red wine, or can grate it over pasta or salads. The real thing, from Italy, has amazing character.

You have a famously everyman cooking background. But rather than Wendy’s, let’s say you’re at a diner—what are you having? Club sandwiches or BLT. I also always order club sandwiches from room service when I travel. Some are better than others, and yet I tend to like them all. I developed a lobster club sandwich for the restaurant, which is dynamite, but at the end of the day, I probably prefer the old-fashioned turkey, bacon, and white toast version.

What is your favorite comfort food? Lasagna is pretty high on the list.

How about candy? Peanut M&M’s. They are so small, how could they be bad for you? When I eat a few, I never feel guilty.

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Is there a food you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t yet? Blowfish. They intrigue me and with a first-rate blowfish chef, it would be fun to try.

Yes, make sure they’re first-rate. We’d love to have you around for a long time.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.