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Home Style Food & Drink

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Back to headlines
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Degree not only path to success


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Joseph S. Certo

Andrew Russell/Tribune-Review

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  • Second-career chefs

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  • By Karin Welzel
    Wednesday, May 25, 2005

    Second-career chefs don't have to graduate from a formal culinary school to be successful in the cooking business.

    A former corporate marketer has turned her love of her ancestors' cooking into a home-based school focusing on authentic cuisine, and there even is a dentist who moonlights as a chef and caterer. Both do it for the sheer love of food.

    Rita Venturino

    For 37 years, Rita Venturino marketed products from the H.J. Heinz Company to the food service industry. When it was time to retire, there was a special chef's apron waiting for her.

    Venturino is the owner of Rita Venturino's Italian Table cooking school in Richland. It's a modest business -- seven people per class -- taught out of her home kitchen.

    "I did it because I love to entertain," says the Pittsburgh native. "You can't every night of the week, but this is my way of releasing my love for people and food and for bringing them together. This is who I am."

    Venturino was passionate about food long before she signed on with Heinz. Born into an Italian household in Braddock, "I always was involved with food and the family," she says. "My mom always put out a big table. It's been instilled in me (about company) that, 'if you don't eat, we will hold you hostage.'"

    As an adult, she carried her love for cooking -- primarily Sicilian, her mother's heritage -- into her own kitchen. "I would spend all day in the kitchen on Saturdays," says Venturino, 59. "It's like a guy going out to play golf. It was my way of relaxation."

    No one among family and friends complained about her weekend pastime. Upon her retirement from Heinz, they asked her what she was going to do. "I am going to cook," she told them. People had said they would love to learn about Italian cuisine from her.

    "The seed was planted," she says.

    At first, Venturino taught classes at outside locations, then realized that most facilities didn't suit her. So she invited students home for theme classes, such as "It's Gnocchi Time"; "Easter Traditions"; "An Evening with Pavarotti"; and "Extreme Desserts Siciliano." The last featured Rita's Triumph of Gluttony, a "layered sponge cake with pistachio preserves, milk pudding topped with marzipan ... and more!"

    Venturino's kitchen contains a Wolf cooktop, a granite island with a deep sink at one end and a Thermador double convection oven, perfect for demonstrating techniques and getting good results. "(The equipment) was in here before I retired," she says. "I knew my kitchen gets used. I had to have the best of the best."

    Her Web site, http://www.ritaventurino.com/, features class schedules and photos of some her dishes. Classes are offered from January to June and from September to mid-December. At other times, she's planning classes or working on a cookbook of her recipes.

    "I try to show people the simplest way to put together a very impressive meal. I pick recipes that aren't going to be outlandish."

    The greatest reward, Venturino says, is when repeat students tell her they duplicated one of her menus in their own kitchens.

    "And they've come back to learn more."

    Joseph S. Certo

    By day, Joe Certo of Forest Hills fixes people's teeth for a living. In the evening and in his free time, he's a caterer, cooking instructor and WQED "kitchen magician."

    For 10 years, Certo, 49, has comfortably and safely wielded both dentist's drill and chef's knife. He's the behind-the-scenes guy for Chris Fennimore on the "QED Cooks" television series on Channel 13 -- the one who pulls the handle on the oven and "out pops the food, so beautifully done," he says.

    Eight years ago, he and his wife founded The Borrowed Chef, a catering business that specializes in at-home events.

    "Most people end up in the kitchen," Certo says. "We open some wine and lay out hors d'oeuvres and just laugh and gab. It winds up being a party for me."

    At first, it might seem as if Certo has all the fun. But he takes cooking as seriously as his dentistry practice, Certo & Trichtinger Dental Associates in Swissvale.

    To hone his cooking skills, Certo -- who cooked at home as a youngster because both parents worked -- spent each Sunday for 26 weeks studying under Christine Dauber, co-founder and former owner of the much-heralded Le Pommier French restaurant on the South Side. She was teaching at Crate, a cooking school and cookware store in Green Tree.

    He wanted to go to the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, but no evening classes were offered. "I couldn't leave my job to go to school, so Crate fit into my schedule.

    "I wanted to make sure that what I was doing was correct," says Certo, who has had a lifelong passion for home cooking and entertaining. His wife encouraged him to take the cooking classes. To supplement his studies, he worked evenings at The Pines Tavern and Restaurant in Pine. "The hours were just killing me," he admits. "My family didn't recognize me."

    Certo started teaching cooking classes at Crate with another instructor. The store's owner, Linda Wernikoff, asked whether he'd go solo, so now he handles some of the basic cooking skills series as well as fun topics, including homemade pasta, biscotti and souffles. He has sort of a fan club. "There's definitely a following," he says, laughing. "They are blue-haired with an average age of 72."

    People stop him at Giant Eagle and at Mercy Hospital, where he sometimes works, to talk food.

    "I get just as many emergency food calls as dentistry calls during Thanksgiving," Certo says. He makes himself available to students via e-mail if they have questions.

    Certo acknowledges that some people might think he's crazy to pursue a second career that involves so much time and effort.

    "There's no sense in doing it if you don't enjoy it," he says. "It should give you a boost.

    "Most people in the food industry truly love what they do ... It's certainly not the money."

    Karin Welzel can be reached at kwelzel@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7992.

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