Johnny "Ciao", THE self-created, celebrity chef/culinary rocker of our time, is an enigma who has inspired me. I met him on a Tuesday night in December of 2012. I walked into the semi-crowded room and he immediately came over to me and introduced himself. He offered me food. I declined. I was too nervous to eat. I had a feeling all day that my evening was going to be exciting. I already felt that I was right.
He intrigued me from the start and even though I didn't know who he was, I knew he was someone special. He was tall, over 6'0 for sure and thin as a rail. I immediately took in his mass of dark black Italian spiky hair, his eclectic clothes, his really cool glasses, his energy, his charm, and his ability to put me at ease in an instant. I was enchanted. A man with true panache.
I was dressed to the hilt. It was a public relations event after all and being an actress, it behooves me to attend them when I can. This one had a good cause attached to it; bring an unwrapped toy for a child for Christmas, and in return, we would get some red carpet photo opportunities and a fun evening. Perfect.
I was hoping to meet some interesting people. Other actors, maybe some producers, directors, musicians, who knew! Johnny Ciao, as it turned out, was the new Koncert Kitchen celebrity chef and host that evening at the venue, the Infusion Lounge at Universal City Walk in Universal City, California. He was new to the venue, just having created a deal with the Infusion Lounge to begin serving up his Koncert Kitchen California soul food and music experiences. He refers to his food as inventive culinary treats, a blend of comfort foods that are created with his vast knowledge of spices, special ingredients, love, fun and always the beat of his harmonica.
His persona, his brand, is Johnny Ciao, but who is the man behind the brand? I wanted to find out. He agreed to be interviewed for my column and this is what I learned. The man behind the brand is John Persico. A tried and true New Yorker who spent the first 12 years of his life living in Brooklyn, New York with his extended Italian family. He played stickball in the streets, played the harmonica to pass the time, and learned street sensibility during his formative years. His family was very close. They lived in a 6-unit apartment building, which allowed him to grow up with his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents - all of whom created authentic Italian dishes that were shared with the entire family.
When Johnny was 12 years old, he and his immediate family left Brooklyn and moved to a small town near Woodstock, New York. He fell in love with the small town atmosphere, all of the lakes nearby, the hiking and the ability to be closer to nature. He told me that he has always felt that the switch to this small town environment at that age has kept him balanced over the years.
Johnny's grandfather was a "strict Sicilian", who raised seven children. He was in the building business and had been since the early 1900's working on such landmarks as the Empire State Building, the Verrazano Bridge, Sing Sing Prison and Madison Square Garden. "He was a very proper man who had style and grace."
Johnny's father, as a young man, had been a very well known ballroom dancer who competed all over Italy. Once he moved to the United States he chose to give it up. Marriage and obligations came first. His mother, a stay at home mom, "is an angel, my rock. Never a drink, a smoke, or a ticket. She cared for her family, and she still does. She’s first generation, born in Brooklyn, sweet and tough. Helpful and she consoles everyone!" Johnny told me he gets his Dr. Phil aspects from his mom. He inherited his dad's flair for dancing, his strong work ethic, and his mother’s compassion for others. Johnny has one brother, Saverio who is also a chef and works with him today.
At 17, Johnny left the small town and headed to Florida to get his broadcasting degree. He began his career as a disc jockey in St. Petersburg, working at an all black radio station. "The first white boy to ever work on a black owned and operated radio station on the west coast of Florida." During that time he also promoted concerts and eventually moved to Atlanta promoting jazz artists including Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith and Eric Gale just to name a few.
He morphed that venture into a communications firm/artist development firm and took on new clients, including but not limited to Hank Aaron and Isaac Hayes. He represented politicians, discos, running coaches, musicians, Georgia Tech professors, unions, baseball legends, music legends, and political figures. All that plus many musicians who needed help getting their careers going. He received very little reward back, but his knack for managing and directing careers was a force to be reckoned with. After that, he moved to Beverly Hills and provided marketing to the home-video industry.
So when and where does the cooking come in?
As a treat for the people that he represented, he would cook for them as a way to bond with them, create friendships, and to feed them creative, healthy and delicious meals. He began to gain a reputation for not only his management skills but also for his culinary skills. Word got around. Eventually, the need to don a chef’s apron began to overwhelm his producer ambitions, so much so that he was eventually asked to create meals for larger groups of people.
At one point, totally unrelated and halfway across the world, Michael Jackson collapsed on stage due to exhaustion. Johnny was called. They wanted to interview him to possibly become Michael's personal chef. What? He went to Neverland Ranch for the interview. Johnny wasn't interviewed by Michael, but he knew that Michael was watching from another room - he had to be. Johnny was hired and became Michael's personal chef for a year, even cooking for Michael's chimps throughout his time at Neverland. Many guests came to Neverland such as Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Whitney Houston and a host of others. Johnny cooked for them all. His reputation continued to grow.
Johnny Ciao calls himself "an accidental chef and musician." With no formal training and only his passion to lead the way, he has created a business and a career out of what he loves to do - cooking, and creating music. He drives it all home in a cohesive and entertaining combination that dazzles his audiences. As Johnny says - "It will leave your taste buds feeling like they've been to a symphony." His ability to bring this world to life, creating fun, entertainment, love and craziness wherever he goes has taken him all over the world and allowed him to cook for some of the biggest names out there.
As time went on, he began to present events for major charitable organizations including ALS, American Cancer Society, First Tee, Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy and many other charitable organizations. Johnny "Ciao" was officially born.
In addition to his travels and his events, he wrote two books. The first one - Cooking with Country Stars, is a book that includes autobiographies, recipes and autographs from Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels, the Oak Ridge Boys, Barbara Mandrell, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, Jr. and many more. It has sold more than a million copies. He also wrote Johnny Ciao's Koncert Kitchen: 100 recipes from America's culinary rocker. "Top Five and Ten" recipes: Tasty dishes that can be made with five to ten ingredients in five to ten minutes for five to ten dollars. Johnny is currently working on a third book, an autobiographical cookbook.
Johnny Ciao is an astute business man with a strong intuition. From my observations, he has the ability to immediately understand people's needs and assess what needs to be taken care of. He genuinely loves his work, loves the people he interacts with and truly does make cooking and music come together as an art form.
He calls himself a musicologist - he feels he has a vast knowledge of the 20th century music world. He has an impressive collection of records and players from the 20th Century.
Music is an extension of our personalities. What one listens to reflects what one is all about.
Harmonicas are usually known around blues artists, but his style and his love is to add funk and soul to his music and to his life.
Music and food are one big part of life, take for instance recording a record. Recording a record is like creating a recipe. In music, one starts off with a rhythm track - drums, base and guitar. In a recipe, you start off with garlic, olive oil, and shallots. Then add the lead guitar and the piano. In cooking it's the bell peppers and mushrooms. Then comes the strings and the horns - in cooking it's the parsley and the tarragon. Finally spicing it up with the Cumin, which is similar to overdubs on a record.
I had some final questions for Johnny:
What do you want to be remembered for after you die?
"That I was kind to everyone and that I knew how to make people happy one way or another through understanding, music, food, love, energy and humility."
What are the top 3 most important lessons your parents taught you?
"Always respect others. Always love your siblings and your family. Be kind and be careful - always. Per mom. Eat well, and take care of your body. Nothing is ever "that bad" even if it is.
As long as you have great food, love and family around you, anything is possible. Respect."
What are you most passionate about?
"Life, family, people from all walks of life, music I listen to, food that I create and eat. Nature."
Do you feel like you've reached your full potential in business yet? If not, what is on the horizon for you?
"I'm branding my retail spot, The Koncert Kitchen (@ The Infusion Lounge), expanding the Johnny Ciao brand and continuing to film around the world, having fun filming people and the cultures from around the world, listening to music and recreating foods that are indigenous to regions around the world."
You went back home for several years and changed the course of your career. What inspired you to do that?
"I had been on my own as an entrepreneur for over 30 years and felt it was time to go back home and spend time with family, since I had left at such an early age. I wanted to re-establish my East Coast roots, which I felt had disintegrated over the years due to world traveling and living elsewhere."
What did you learn about yourself during that period?
"I learned about my inner soul - and where my real talent lies. It took time for me to understand the magic I feel inside in caring, conversing, and sharing time with everyday people from all walks of life. I love to bring positive energy and create hope and fun for those who have not yet found the way to do that for themselves. It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle I had been experiencing. I resented the struggle most people had to go through to become famous. I always felt I had that in me without having to have a TV show. Many people who have achieved financial and personal success, never seem happy. To be happy you must have a willingness to be able to share with others."
How has your new perspective affected the way you now do business?
"I'm more focused on Johnny Ciao, and establishing the Johnny Ciao brand to the masses."
Final thoughts - John Persico is a good samaritan - he's helped people through cancer, and other difficult situations through food, positive energy, love and compassion. He's also zany, a little nutty, talented, complex and the life of the party.
What a blast and a joy it was to interview this man - this enigma, who brings light and so much fun to all those that he comes in contact with...including me.
Ciao for now.