The correct apple to purchase when planning to craft a duck is the Red Delicious apple, not the Macintosh.
Everyone knows that, right? Just like we know how to spot “young” asparagus and “tired” salmon. ABC, 1-2-3, right?
It seems to be for Rocco Basil, and, in fact, it’s how the man carries conversations. He’s never graduated from a culinary arts school, but he’s instructed for West Virginia Northern Community College; a day after graduating from Brooke High School in 1980, he was determined to become a wood-toy maker; and Basil refuses to make a shopping list before heading to the grocery store or to local markets.
Oh, and he begged his way to his first job in the restaurant business by promising to scrub the owner’s garbage cans. And it worked.
“OK, so I was working with a gentleman in the wood-toy-making business, and he decided to relocate his business to Boca Raton, Fla.,” Basil explained. “But on my way down there to seek my fortune in my Honda Civic, my car decided to explode in South Carolina. I had it towed back to Beech Bottom, and that was that. I had no way to get down there after that.
“That’s when I started begging a local restaurant owner, Lou Feola, for a job. And yes, I told him I would even scrub his trash cans if he would hire me,” he continued. “After three weeks of pestering him, he finally said, ‘Why don’t you go out there and scrub those cans so you’ll finally leave me alone.’ From there I started doing the dishes.”
He was drawn to the kitchen as a youngster, and the same held true inside the Anchor Room, where he annoyed cook after cook with question after question.
“I would hurry up and get all of my work done so I could go see what was happening on the other side of the kitchen,” Basil recalled. “After about three years I actually ended up running that kitchen, and I was there for a total of seven years.”
And then Basil became the food manager for Christopher’s Cafeteria at the Elm Grove Crossing Mall, and after that he got a gig at Sandscrest Conference & Retreat Center.
“I was with Christopher’s for all of its 12 years, and one of my main duties was taking care of the off-site catering. And we did a ton of that for a lot of years,” he said. “The whole time I just kept learning and learning about cooking and everything else connected to it. It was a big part of my education.
“And Sandscrest is one of the great, hidden gems of the Wheeling area,” Basil said. “It’s a beautiful place that everyone should experience. It’s special there, and I can’t think of a better place to have a cup a coffee in the morning, a glass of iced tea at noon, and a glass of wine at night.”
Basil then became the chef for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in 2005, and he also operates a catering business. He goes about things a little differently, though, and that’s because he’s adamant the extra time is worth it.
“There are a lot of methods that have fallen by the wayside, but it’s those things that I pay a lot of attention to. Those methods are very intricate, and they do take hours and hours, and that’s why you do not see those methods very often anymore,” Basil explained. “You do see those methods still performed on cruise ships and at casinos, and I try to put those methods into what I’m doing now.
“I believe presentation is a large part of culinary arts. It’s not all of it, but it’s an important part, and I enjoy doing those things for people. It makes it fun for me,” he said. “What I have learned through the years is that in order to prepare a good meal, you have to revere every ingredient you are using. You know, things like the lowly onion and the lowly garlic clove are complementing and submitting something to the final product. You have to treat those ingredients with as much reverence as you do the steak.”
Again, he talks like this.
“At the Anchor Room I was exposed to a lot of big-volume cooking and a lot of real hands-on experience, and when we would do those big jobs, we would get in huge pieces of beef that we would then cut into steaks,” Basil said. “While a lot of places use products that are already portioned, Lou was adamantly against that. It was hands-on learning; that’s for sure.
“Plus my mother, my Grandma Basil, and my Grandma Huggins did a lot of cooking. Grandma Basil was Italian, so I learned how to make those dishes from her, and my Grandma Huggins was from southern West Virginia, so I learned from her how to make a lot of country, comfort-food dishes,” he continued. “Everything those three ladies made was all from scratch, so they taught me that way, and I have benefited ever since.”
When he orchestrates his garden on his Brooke County farmland, Basil stashes salt and pepper shakers and a knife inside a posted mail box near the entrance.
“That’s because there’s nothing better than cutting a piece of a beautiful tomato that’s ripe not because it was sitting on your window sill,” he said. “It’s still warm from the sun, and it’s one of the most delicious things ever.”
And he makes you hungry, right?
Believe or not, Basil cooks a lot at home, too, for his family, and when he does?
“All sorts of seafood.”
“I love a plate of linguine with a white clam sauce, especially if you make homemade noodles.”
“Oh yeah, man, German and Indian food, and I really enjoy doing a lot of French and Italian cooking.
“And there’s nothing like a pot of chicken and dumplings,” he said. “And sometimes, in the middle of preparing a meal, I’ll decide to add a course because I come up with a new idea for something.”
Of course he will.
“Hey, man, anything is possible with food,” the chef said. “There’s always new combinations when it comes to food and what’s in the fridge.”
Basil is set to show off some of his skills during the 2016 Wheeling Arts & Culture Festival scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at Heritage Port. The expanded event is orchestrated by the Wheeling TWCA and the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission and will feature live entertainment, a plethora of artisan food and beverage vendors, and a special children’s area that’s focused on cultural education.
Basil will present ice sculpting and vegetable garnish carving. If he crafts the red-flesh duck, it’s a Delicious Red, be sure.
“Arts Fest started as a great event, and it’s just continued to improve year after year,” he testified. “It’s evolved in great ways; the entertainment is unbelievable, and that’s why the crowd has grown each year. It’s one of the most well-rounded festivals that we have here. It’s a great day out, and I’m looking forward to doing the demonstrations involving ice sculpture and vegetable garnishing.”
He Feels the #Wheelove
Stellar reputation. Crowded catering schedule. Wears a Fedora. There’s the ever-present chef jacket. Food.
Although he planned to scoot away from the Northern Panhandle even before receiving his high school diploma, Basil insisted he didn’t like that Honda Civic anyway.
“I thoroughly enjoy this area. I really do,” Basil said. “The fact that my car blew up was a fortunate thing for me, I believe, because I have been blessed ever since with the experiences I’ve had. My car pretty much told me to go back home.
“I think the food scene in Wheeling is really on the fringe of becoming really interesting. There are a lot of great places around town that I visit to get certain things,” Basil said. “But some people out there are starting to introduce some different dishes than a lot of people are used to around here.”
He digs what’s happening in Centre Market, but when Basil eats out, he’s chasing after specific meals at specific restaurants. That’s changing, however.
“I think we are seeing some innovation, and we see a lot of smaller places opening up that seem to be making it very interesting,” he continued. “There’s always been a lot of good food in this valley, and there’s a lot of predictable food, too. It’s good, and it’s straightforward, but now we’re seeing more unique dishes that are fresher. And around here, with all the different cultures, there’s room for everything.
“I do like the fact we are now seeing some dishes here now that we used to have to drive an hour to Pittsburgh to get, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. It’s looming on the horizon, I do believe.”
And on that horizon of his, does he also envision a “Rocco’s” restaurant?
“I absolutely love being here, love the people of this area, and you never know what I could do next,” he revealed. “There are a few things that I haven’t yet done in the food business, so I may choose to go off and do one of those things. Who knows?
“I have entertained thoughts about that, so I guess you never know,” Basil admitted. “I think the key is to have a brief menu while keeping some things rotating through. I like to shop in a more European way instead of how so many people do it here, and that means when I go to the grocery store I do not have a set list of what I need. I see what’s there, and I buy what looks best, and I think a restaurant that works like that could be successful around here.
“A menu that’s brief but continuously changing so that what’s used is the freshest and most beautiful available, I believe, would work. And that’s another key – you have to start with the best ingredients. That’s what makes a good meal, and that’s what would make for a good restaurant.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)