Kitchen Casanova

On a recent afternoon in a small apartment in the East Village, several students from The French Culinary Institute gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of them, 29-year-old Reinaldo Faberlle, was holding a large, vodka-infused watermelon. While his friends looked on, munching on onion-stuffed cheeseburgers and spinach artichoke dip, Mr. Faberlle moved his gaze intently back and forth over the fruit.

“I’ll need a paring knife and a serrated knife,” he said. “And a towel. This sucker’s going to leak like a shotgun victim.”

Knife in hand, he began hacking away, filling a bowl with the red, vodka-soaked insides as, slowly, wings began to appear, then a tail and a long swooping neck with a small serpent-like head. Mr. Faberlle bent over his work, army cap askew on his head, his plaid shirt and jeans threatened by the red juice. Finally it was done: a graceful, 90-proof swan.

Mr. Faberlle is known among the current students at FCI as the best fruit carver in the class. Once every three days, when the students put out a new buffet, he is called on to work his carving magic, perhaps turning a watermelon into a Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa-shaped bowl (for gazpacho) or turnips into flowers. He takes a break from whatever he is doing—butchering a cow, preparing a stock—to construct these fruitful presentations.

A few days earlier, Mr. Faberlle was standing outside the back entrance of FCI on Crosby and Grand streets. It was shortly after 3 p.m. and the corner was crowded with cigarette-smoking, toque-topped chefs and their students, each carrying a bag of knives. Mr. Faberlle had changed out of kitchen garb—white coat with the FCI insignia and charcoal-and-white plaid pants—into a black T-shirt and jeans. His tan skin was moist from the heat of the kitchen and his smile revealed pearly white teeth. He has a tattoo of three stars wrapped around the muscles of his forearm.

He gathered a group of students and walked down to Onieal’s, where they can be found most afternoons drinking and discussing their day in the kitchen. On this afternoon the bartender Cody flirted mercilessly with Mr. Faberlle, displaying her lacy red thong to evident and fully conscious advantage whenever her duties required her to lean over to pick up a bottle.

The students were varied in age and background, from Ryan, 22, who used to be a paramedic in Michigan, to Ester, the baby of the group, who is just 20. They were four months into the culinary school’s highly respected six-month culinary arts program. The respect comes with a price tag: tuition for the six-month term is $38,500, but students get to breathe the same air as food luminaries such as master chef and dean Jacques Pépin, who could be seen riding the elevator with Julia Child before her death in 2004. By the end of the six months, the students are cooking for the public at L’Ecole, the on-campus restaurant on Grand Street and Broadway. Two months to go, and their hands and arms displayed multiple bandages—war wounds of burns and cuts from the kitchen.

“There’s no division at all,” Mr. Faberlle said, taking a sip of his margarita. “We all just hang out together.” This month, part of their assigned task was helping make lunch every day for the institute’s 300 staff members and students. “It means we cook for everybody’s ass,” Mr. Faberlle said.

He may be FCI’s premier carver of vodka swans, but one senses that perhaps Mr. Faberlle has yet to embrace the professional chef’s code of unyielding commitment. “One day I got drunk and didn’t come to school,” he noted. “Only three people were there, but they got lunch out.” His anecdotes tend to be full of hung-over food prep in hot kitchens after long nights of drinking in his neighborhood—the Lower East Side. The previous night he had been to the film premiere of Rescue Dawn with a friend he calls Roxie Cottontail. “Next thing I know, I’m stumbling home at 8:30 this morning,” he said. He arrived at school half an hour later and began his tasks for the day: charcuterie and making stocks. “It’s a little tedious, but it’s still fun if you like hacking up animals,” he said. “Tomorrow I have to make a veal stock. I have to come in and ground up 100 pounds of veal bones. After I’m done I’ll be glad I did it.”

Mr. Faberlle, Puerto Rican by birth, grew up in Texas and Virginia. “My mother taught me and my brother how to cook when we were kids. She would always say, ‘I don’t want you guys to have to depend on a woman,’” he said.

He swam competitively in college in Miami and began his self-described career of “fashion shit,” which involved, mostly, “standing in front of cameras.”

“I was one of those kids,” he said. “It offered me the freedom to do what I really love, which is to play music.” He is a percussionist in a group which he described as “still a Frankenstein monster, not really a band yet.”

Modeling led to minor acting roles, including a memorable Winterfresh commercial for mouths that are “much, much cooler!” He continues to act, and says he is about to start a project with Puerto Rican director Carlos Hernandez.

And his future as a chef? “I’m not ready to give up plan A yet,” he said, referring to acting. “This right here for me is the whole ‘I’m 30 and I’ve got to find something else to do with my life’ shit. I love it—don’t get me wrong—it’s not a bad plan B at all.”

Another round of drinks, and his attention drifted toward a Brazilian woman with long dark hair at the end of the bar. He motioned to Cody the bartender and offered her a deal: He would set Cody up with a friend of his if she’d introduce him to the Brazilian. “I just need ten minutes,” he said.