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NY Sun: From Dishwasher to Pasta Expert

2833_largeA Voce Restaurant serves about 100 pounds of fresh pasta each week. But as with most Italian restaurants in New York City, the penne, spaghetti, and ravioli are not made by Italian grandmothers or celebrity chefs. They are made by a little-known force of dishwashers and porters turned pastamasters.

At A Voce, the much-lauded pasta is made in-house by Jose Guermos, a prep cook who has become an expert in handmade pasta under the watchful eye of chef Andrew Carmellini. "There are prepguy dynasties in the city," Mr. Carmellini said, while sipping an espresso on the terrace of A Voce. He recalled the Vargas dynasty in the 1980s and '90s, when 10 family members worked at Lespinasse, Le Cirque, and Aureole. "Chefs keep them a secret, because you don't want someone to find out about them and steal them."

In 1999, Mr. Guermos was dishwasher at Café Boulud, where Mr. Carmellini was chef de cuisine. Pasta became increasingly popular on the menu, and Mr. Carmellini asked if Mr. Guermos wanted to learn to make it. "I had no cooking experience before," Mr. Guermos said. "But I said ‘I'll try.'"

Prior to working at Café Boulud, Mr. Guermos made clothes in his native Cuervo, Mexico. Turns out the handiwork and skills required to sew are similar to making tortellini. Now he's faster and better than Mr. Carmellini. "A lot of chefs won't say it, but being a chef is like being a good basketball coach," Mr. Carmellini said. "You don't see Lenny Wilkens out hitting the three-pointers."

Mr. Caremellini is working on a cookbook now, "Urban Italian," to be published in fall 2008 by Bloomsbury Press. In the book, he hopes to translate the restaurant pasta-making abilities to the home cook. "Here we make five kilos of dough at a time, and at home I'm starting with four cups of flour," he said.

He's experimenting with handcrank pasta machines versus electric machines, and electric dough mixers versus hand-kneading on a counter. It's a challenge, particularly in a small kitchen. But Mr. Guermos has reached pasta-master status without having set foot in Italy, so Mr. Carmellini's methodology must be good. "He taught me to make the best," Mr. Guermos said. "You put the good pasta with the good flavors [sauces], it's easy."

Basic Pasta Dough

This recipe makes more dough than you would normally use for a meal for four. I like to have extra dough because it is easier to knead and gives you plenty of room to make mistakes.

The recipe calls for "00" flour, which is very fine-ground Italian flour for pasta (Italian flours come in grades "1," "0," and "00"). Durum flour is high in protein and made exclusively from Durum wheat. Both "00" and Durum can be found in specialty-stores and some supermarkets. King Arthur Flour Company is an excellent online source for specialty flours and baking supplies ( Unbleached all-purpose flour can be used as a substitute.

2 cups "00" flour 
4 cups Durum flour 
10 Whole eggs 
6 Egg yolks 
Pinch salt

On the counter or wooden cutting board, place the flours in a mound and make a well.

Add the eggs and egg yolks. Using a fork, beat together inside the well.

Add the salt.

Using your fingers, slowly incorporate the liquid egg mixture together using a circular motion. After the dough comes together, knead it into a ball, folding the outside into the center, in a constant motion to smooth it out.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let rest overnight in the refrigerator.

Follow the instructions of the pasta machine and roll out the dough and cut into the desired thickness and shapes. Use more Durum flour as you work (sprinkle onto the pasta, rollers and work surface), so it does not stick.

To serve, bring a pot of salted water to boil until al dente. Serve with sauce as preferred.