Arena has been cooking since he was 12, but wasn’t legally allowed to do it for a paycheck until he was 17 and working at a supermarket in the prepared foods section. From there, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America. He did his externship at The Flagstaff House and from there got a job at Jax Fish House. Arena started training at The Bitter Bar in 2011 and took over the helm in June of this year.
Favorite music to cook to
Depends on the prep for the day. Butchering is classical, specifically Debussy. (One, for the comic relief it offers when a server walks into the kitchen and witnesses the event, but mostly because butchering is very technical and the music relaxes me.) Bread baking is Jamaican dancehall music. Anything else is usually done to Harry Belafonte radio on Pandora. Clean up time is salsa.
Strongest food memory
1998, fourth grade spring break, Myrtle Beach, S.C. I was at a calabash-style seafood house with my parents. My dad ordered fried calamari with marinara sauce. Up until that point I liked my PB&J sandwiches without crust, and bless your soul if you tried to serve me anything other than a chicken cutlet with mashed potatoes. It was that meal that I decided to try something new. I asked my dad for a piece of calamari. The flavor was unmemorable, but the result of the experience snowballed into what my palette is today.
Favorite hangover remedy
Lying in the fetal position, shaking and sweating… The only thing that seems to work for me is drinking a gallon of water before service and then sweating the rest of the booze out.
Kitchen tool you can’t live without
My plating spoons. A professional painter would have a nice set of finishing brushes to add the finest of details… my spoons are my brushes.
Yummy banana cheesecake
1 lbs. cream cheese
1 C white sugar
3 overripe bananas
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp bourbon
1 ½ tsp salt
12 honey graham crackers
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 stick butter
1 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch fresh-grated nutmeg
In a food processor, whip the cream cheese until smooth. Separately, whisk eggs and sugar together until smooth and lightened in color. Add the egg mixture to the cream cheese and continue to mix until fully homogenized. Thoroughly mash the bananas in the bourbon, vanilla and salt. Add to the cream cheese mixture.
For the crust: Place crackers in food processor and pulverize evenly. Melt the butter and add to the cracker crumb. Mix in remaining ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Grease a nine inch spring form pan and lay in the crust. Press down on the crumb to form an even layer. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan. Place in the middle rack of pre-heated oven and bake for 1 hour. Turn off the oven and leave the cake inside with the door closed for 30 additional minutes before removing.
Remove from oven and allow to cool for four hours before removing the outside of the spring form pan.
Top with chocolate or whipped cream.
This recipe came back with me from St. John, Virgin Islands, just this past April. If I had to eat one dessert for the rest of my life, it would be cheesecake, but more importantly, this cheesecake. I run through about 30 of them in a week at The Bitter Bar.
Please note: This is a corrected version of the recipe that was printed in the magazine. The baking time was incorrect. –Ed.