Pagano got his culinary start as a kid, working every lowly position at a small Italian joint in Staten Island.
“The chef wolves kidnapped me when I was 13. I worked in this place that was owned by two young brothers. They had inherited it when their father passed away. It was kind of a wise-guy neighborhood. I really got into the fraternity of these cooks, waiters, bartenders. There was something romantic about it all. I started out as a busboy and salad guy and left as a waiter and cook.’’
Pagano tried college for a spell — he was thinking about going to law school so he could work as a sports agent. But the kitchen kept calling. So he switched gears and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“I never planned to be a chef on TV. That was unheard of when I was at CIA. There wasn’t a Food Network when I graduated. The advent of the celebrity chef started soon after that,’’ he says.
“My idea of being a successful chef was getting a story in your local paper or something like that, not going on the Today show. I just knew I was in for a lot of hard work. Anybody who tells you being a chef is not hard work is lying to you. Don’t lend money to that guy.
“I was told once that being a chef was like being a prostitute. You work when everybody else is having fun — weekends, nights, holidays, your birthday, my birthday. It takes a certain passion and a certain character.’’
Do the contestants from the Fort Lauderdale cooking school have what it takes to stay in the game?
“They’re still in school. And succeeding is about more than just making a good béarnaise sauce,’’ says Pagano, whose new restaurant focuses on fresh seafood and showcases the space’s broad ocean view.
“But they’re all going to learn something from this show. And they’ll all have opportunities. I have friends all over the place. You want to work in Hawaii? I know somebody there. I can make a call. You want cook in Belize or Costa Rica? You want to go to France? I know some people.’’
So how tough is it to receive scrutiny from Pagano while the cameras are rolling and the clock is ticking?
“What I learned from him is to expect the unexpected,” says first-round contestant Cameron Bevan ” He threw a lot of wrenches our way. But that’s what happens when you’re in the kitchen every night. The stove goes out or something. You have to learn how to improvise because something always goes wrong during rush.’’
“Ralph was tough, but he was very encouraging,” says Krystal Battle, also in the first round, who hopes to work as a pastry chef when she graduates. “I think the biggest thing I learned from being on the show is that being a chef is always going to be hard work. But I love it. I’m ready.’’