Chef John DeLucie has turned up the heat at a new kitchen — with a different mindset and a changed perspective – nearly a decade after his restaurant empire went up in flames.
DeLucie, who rose to fame at celeb magnet The Waverly Inn with partner Graydon Carter, has dug deep into his Southern Italian roots to open a new eatery in the West Village called Ambra.
“I really wanted to delve into the Italian part of my culture. I just returned from Puglia — we go to Italy every year — and I’m really excited to cook Italian,” DeLucie, who has a wife and 5-year-old son, told Side Dish.
The 75-seat eatery — from restaurateur Andrea Ienna, founder of San Paolo Hospitality — is at Hudson and W. 11th Street, near the legendary White Horse Tavern, the famed literary hangout where poet Dylan Thomas supposedly drank himself to death.
It’s also not too far from where DeLucie and Carter held court. The city’s upper crust would come to feast – and sometimes feud – at The Waverly while chowing down on $55 entrees of mac and cheese.
His run of success continued with Village hotspots like The Lion and his partnership in five restaurants with Crown Group Hospitality earned more than $40 million in revenue in 2014.
DeLucie’s book, “The Hunger: A Memoir of an Accidental Chef,” was going to be turned into a movie.
Then it all imploded after a falling out with his Crown Group partner, ex-trader Sean Largotta, who allegedly skimmed from the top to pay for things like private jet trips and divorce lawyers. Largotta always denied any wrongdoing. There were reports of DA investigations and lawsuits but it all came to nothing,
Crown Group did have to cough up $575,000 to waiters who won a class-action suit after being stiffed on tips at The Lion.
DeLucie opened up to Side Dish about the difficulty of watching everything that he had built suddenly collapse.
“It was as bad as can be and I was left with a lot of debt. It sucked. But it was a long time ago and there is nothing I can do but move on,” he lamented.
“I learned that the people you are involved with in your personal life and your business life are of the utmost importance, so choose wisely in all endeavors from your life partner to your pickleball partner,” he continued.
“I made a mistake. I picked a business partner who wasn’t right and I paid dearly, but I moved on and harbor no bitterness. Lesson learned.”
Like for many, his priorities changed after he witnessed COVID ravaging the city.
“Frankly all of us — even lawyers — were looking down the barrel of nothingness during COVID. The courts were closed and clients had dried up. People way smarter than me, we all learned an incredible lesson.”
He married Julia Chien, a retail fashion exec, and helped raise their 5-year-old son, Giuseppe, known as “Seppe.”
“I don’t take things for granted. I have become open-minded about opportunities and what being a chef means. It’s just different now,” he said.
“I was probably very judgmental about what I wanted to do, only cooking in a certain place, and when it gets all taken away, you become very humble. You do what you have to do. I’d fold t-shirts at the Gap if I had to in order to support my family.”
During lockdown — when he had “absolutely nothing going on,” living in the Village with a view of the refrigerated morgue trucks outside the hospital — DeLucie also became involved with Cook Unity.
The online meals subscription service is like a chef collective, with collaborators including chefs Marc Forgione and Esther Choi. It’s now in New York, LA, Chicago and Miami.
“It’s an amazing platform. We’ve tripled our growth in under two years,” DeLucie said.
He also has recently partnered with HGU New York to open Lunaca, the hotel’s flagship eatery, along with his roles as executive chef at the Ainslie in Williamsburg and the Bowery, and reopened Chelsea’s iconic Empire Diner in 2017.
Ambra came together quickly and serendipitously, DeLucie said.
“Andrea was looking for someone to do Italian and they knew someone who knew me. I’ve been in the West Village a very long time and they called me. I looked at the space, talked about the menu, and it happened very fast — in a week.”
It had its official opening last week but A-listers including Justin Timberlake have already been spotted feasting on DeLucie’s take on old Italian classics. Ambra also hosted some high-profile Fashion Week events, a private party for Paper magazine and celeb soirées, including a dinner for designer Christian Siriano and his fabulous friends and muses, like Janet Jackson, Alicia Silverstone, and Laverne Cox.
“It’s been really fun and the response has been incredible. People are loving the food, decor, and location,” DeLucie said.
The restaurant’s classic design is by Legeard Studio, whose clients include KYU and La Grande Boucherie. The overpriced mac and cheese has been replaced by pasta dishes that top out at $32 for a pappardelle with short rib ragu. A New York strip steak costing $45 is the most expensive item on the menu.
So what’s changed the most since he launched the Waverly Inn all those years ago?
“People who I cooked for then are coming in now with their kids,” he said.
In addition, young singles dining with friends or on date nights are also eating healthier, hence more plant-based options.
“We’re here to provide hospitality and part of that is to deliver what people need and want to eat,” he said. “I’m having a great time delivering this menu. Italian doesn’t ever seem to go away. People just love it.”
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