Rick Laakkonen has an extensive resume, but his cooking has classic Italian roots

By Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Amesse Photography

In New York City’s culinary landscape, Chef Rick Laakkonen is a bit of a big deal. Schooled at both the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Paris’ École Lenôtre, his job credits include executive chef stints at eateries like Brooklyn’s River Café and Delmonico’s in Midtown. But impressively extensive resume and extraordinary experience aside, Laakkonen’s cooking style and overall humility is absolutely traditional.

“I think my style of cooking is a mix of both rustic and refined,” the seasoned chef said during a recent interview from the confines of the bustling kitchen at Pasticceria Bruno in Dongan Hills, where Laakkonen now works as consulting chef.

“I have a strong handle and appreciation for traditional recipes and while my presentation may be more modern—I think that’s required to remain competitive in the New York market—I very much respect traditional cooking and never look to add any bells and whistles to recipes that have been perfected years ago.”

That commitment to tradition is probably what has made Laakkonen, a 30-year veteran of the business, and a success. Now an artisan, he got his start in the industry at the age of 15, when his father drove him to a local family style restaurant that had posted a “Help Wanted” sign in its window.

“I took a job as a dishwasher, and when the head chef was very busy, he would call on me to help out,” Laakkonen recalled. “He was a wonderful chef with a great sense of humor and I loved the organized chaos of his kitchen. I was only in high school, but working there ignited the process”

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Laakkonen later enrolled at the CIA in Hyde Park. Upon graduation, he earned a line cook position at the River Café, which he held for four years before traveling to Paris. He briefly considered becoming a pastry chef but instead continued on a savory path, staying in Europe for about a year and a half, working at Lenôtre in Paris, Restaurant Alain Chapel in Mionnay, Le Louis XV in Monaco, and Les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie-les Bains.

He returned to the River Café as executive chef in 1994 and ran the famed eatery for seven years before leaving to open Ilo at The Bryant Park Hotel on 40th Street.

Two years ago, after meeting up with the maître d’ at Pasticceria Bruno (whom Laakkonen had previously worked with in Manhattan), the chef signed on to help perfect a gourmet menu of lunch and dinner options the posh bakery had been gradually introducing.

“Pasticceria Bruno had morphed into a casual restaurant shortly before I got here,” Laakkonen explained. “So we worked on refining some of the standard recipes. We also started changing things seasonally to make offerings more dynamic.”

Some of Laakkonen’s most notable menu additions include pinwheels of sausage, served with roasted peppers, broccoli rabe, and a sweet dressing. An angry red snapper with olives, capers, garlic, plum tomatoes, and hot cherry peppers also shines.

“The preparation is quite stylish, and with just a little heat to it…the result is stunning,” Laakkonen said.

The Flushing, Queens resident commutes to Staten Island six days a week to oversee operations at Pasticceria and said his stint here has been one of the highlights of his career.

“This is by far the nicest family I’ve worked for and with,” he noted. “We have a tight team, and this is a wonderful environment.”

Laakkonen enjoys experimenting for his Staten Island audience with new ingredients. For example, he recently used a pressed tuna roe to garnish a dish, and even added the component to a pasta sauce.

“It’s an ultra traditional ingredient, so old that it’s new,” the chef said. “And the old timers, my transplanted Italians, loved and embraced it.”

Laakkonen perhaps loves cooking for those patrons most, offering options like Giambotta—a summery stew—with ingredients that he pulls daily from his extensive home garden.

“It’s a really classic, hard-to-find dish,” he said.

In the future, the chef hopes to continue to bring those often lost Italian recipes and dishes to the table.

“For me, cooking is all about honoring those wonderful traditions,” he concluded. •

Pasticceria Bruno
1650 Hylan Blvd. / 718.987.5859 / pasticceriabruno.com