In 1995, when she was about 18, she manned the grill station at I Matti in Adams Morgan as part of her training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson Valley.
She went to Italy again in 1997, and traveled the country and cooked at small hotels in return for room and board.
Italy was the formative impact on her cooking, teaching her the value of quality fresh products and keeping it simple.
“It became the hallmark of my cooking style,” she said. “Clean, fresh, simple.”
She went through a brief marriage and began working for Susan Gage Caterers out of Oxon Hill. She built a name for herself and cemented relationships with clients like then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Kimsey and the Cases. She prepared dishes for Dick Cheney from game he had killed while hunting.
She left Susan Gage in December 2005 after six years. Kimsey had referred her to Joe Robert, who was going through a divorce at the time and was in the market for a private chef.
She began cooking for Robert at his gated, six-acre McLean estate — with three separate houses — on Jan. 4, 2006, for $35 an hour. Because she was on call around the clock, her billable hours with him began to add up.
Three months after she started, she became a full-time employee at an annual salary of $70,000. As part of the deal, Robert and Crovato teamed up to design a new, state-of-the-art kitchen where she could cook at his home.
Working for Robert was stressful. He would phone from his car with 20 minutes’ notice and demand lunch for half a dozen friends, who might include musician Quincy Jones, comedian Chris Tucker and others. One New Year’s in Colorado, he decided to throw a party for 30 with less than a day’s notice.
“I felt like I was on the set of ‘Top Chef’ every single day, where somebody was throwing you a curve.”
Robert’s favorite foods included poached salmon, roast chicken, blanched snap peas and comfort meals like meatloaf and chili.
He was mindful of the size of portions, and he avoided fried food except when Cardinal Theodore McCarrick would visit and they indulged in fried oysters. He smothered his steaks, chickens and oysters with Old Bay Seasoning..
One of Crovato’s biggest takeaways from her years with Robert is the importance of creating relationships.
“To Joe, IRR, which in business means ‘internal rate of return,’ was integrity, relationships and return. If you have integrity, build relationships, you will get a return.”