If you see a black bandana at a festival or farmer’s market this summer, chances are good that some delicious food is nearby.
Thomas Litranta, otherwise known as “the chef in the black bandana,” and his partner Crystal Madrigal recently launched a street food and catering company that is filling Whidbey Island with a taste of Italy.
Litranta’s first exposure to the world of culinary arts began as a child. Although his father’s naval career brought his family to Oak Harbor, where Litranta was born and raised, he spent summers in his mother’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
There, his Italian great-grandmother taught him a skill that became the foundation for a successful culinary career – making pasta from scratch.
Litranta remembers those summers in great detail; Running to the market for ingredients, attending Catholic prayer service twice every Sunday and having dinner with the family every night, 15 to 20 people crammed into a tiny apartment and everyone talking about each other Was doing. Mostly, she remembers being in the kitchen with her great-grandmother, paternal grandmother and aunts, where she learned everything there was to know about pasta that was so deeply ingrained in her Italian heritage.
He enjoyed working in the kitchen so much that pursuing a career as a chef came without hesitation.
“It made perfect sense to me,” he said.
Litranta started working in restaurants as a teenager. In his first restaurant job as a dishwasher, he said he used to watch the cooks during his free time and ask if he could help them.
As an adult, he moved to Seattle, where he worked in several restaurants, then eventually studied at the Culinary Institute of America. He also spent three months studying in Italy, where he “fancifully discovered pasta,” he said.
He moved back to Seattle and continued working in the culinary industry, eventually taking ownership of the Italian bistro Agrodolce.
Litranta said he had been thinking about opening his own business for years, but within a year of taking ownership of Agrodolce, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing the closure of businesses across the country.
He managed to keep the restaurant open for a while by offering take-out, but he was doing almost everything himself, from operating the business to preparing food and washing dishes. Exhausted, he closed the restaurant and went back to his hometown of Oak Harbor.
It was here that he met Madrigal. He joked that she won his heart with his skills in the kitchen.
Litranta was working as the executive chef at a downtown restaurant when he made an exciting find at a garage sale; A big meat smoker caught sight of him, and he knew he had to eat it.
He and Madrigal hosted barbecues with friends and family. Littranta describes its style as “Northwestern barbecue”. Laughing, Litranta recalled how one of her neighbors had called the fire department that day for “the neighborhood stinking”.
The firefighters seemed nonchalant upon their arrival, he said.
He joked, “I honestly think they were just looking for some snacks.”
This was the first step in a new business idea. Litranta and Madrigal decide to use the smoker to cook street food, which they affectionately call “Stinky”, which they sell at markets and fairs on the island.
His Northwest Smoked Meats is one of three aspects of his business, Chef in the Black Bandana. Litranta continues the tradition of making their own homemade pasta, sauces, and other Italian food, and they also offer customized catering services. Madrigal, who brings years of business experience to the company and serves as operator and co-owner, said Litranta uses local, seasonal ingredients from Whidbey Island and other Washington farms.
The brand name, Chef in the Black Bandana, stems from a habit instilled in Litranta by his father, who encouraged him to always carry a handkerchief with him.
“The handkerchief is a little old school for me,” said Litranta, who chose to go with the bandana instead.
The black bandana he usually wears around his head has become his trademark and is an easy way to make him stand out from the crowd at markets and events. Litranta sells pasta and smoked meats at the Coupeville Farmers’ Market and South Whidbey Tilth, as well as at special events around the island.
“We just want to feed people, and that’s who we are,” Madrigal said.