If you spot a black bandana at a festival or farmers market this summer, odds are good that some delicious food is close by.
Thomas Litrenta, otherwise known as “the chef in the black bandana,” and his partner Crystal Madrigal recently launched a street food and catering company that is inundating Whidbey Island with the tastes of Italy.
Litrenta’s first exposure to the culinary world began early in his childhood. Though his father’s Navy career brought his family to Oak Harbor, where Litrenta was born and raised, he would spend summers in his mother’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
There, his Italian great-grandmother taught him a skill that would become the foundation of a successful culinary career — making pasta from scratch.
Litrenta remembers those summers in great detail; running to the market for ingredients, attending Catholic mass twice every Sunday and eating dinner each night with the family, 15 to 20 people packed into one small apartment with everyone talking over each other. Mostly, he remembers being in the kitchen with his great-grandmother, grandmother and aunts, learning everything there is to know about the pasta that was so deeply ingrained in his Italian heritage.
He enjoyed working in the kitchen so much that pursuing a career as a chef happened almost without second thought.
“It just made sense to me,” he said.
Litrenta began working in restaurants when he was a teenager. In one of his first restaurant jobs as a dishwasher, he said he would watch the cooks during his down 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 “delved into pasta hardcore,” he said.
He moved back to Seattle and continued working in the culinary industry, ultimately taking ownership of the Italian bistro Agrodolce.
Litrenta said he had been thinking about owning his own business for years, but within a year of owning Agrodolce, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shutting down 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 making the food to washing the dishes. Burnt out, he closed the restaurant and moved back to his hometown of Oak Harbor.
It was here he met Madrigal. She joked that he won her over with his prowess in the kitchen.
Litrenta was working as the executive chef at a restaurant in town when he made an exciting discovery at a garage sale; a large meat smoker caught his eye, and he knew he had to have it.
He and Madrigal hosted a barbecue with friends and family. Litrenta describes his style as “northwest barbecue.” Laughing, Litrenta recalled how one of his neighbors called the fire department on him for “stinking up the neighborhood” that day.
The firefighters, he said, seemed unconcerned upon their arrival.
“I honestly think they were just looking for some snacks,” he joked.
It was the first phase of a new business idea. Litrenta and Madrigal decided to use the smoker, which they affectionately refer to as “Stinky,” to cook street food that they sell at markets and fairs on the island.
Their northwest smoked meats are just one of three prongs of their business, Chef in the Black Bandana. Litrenta continues the tradition of making his homemade pasta, sauce and other Italian food, and they offer customized catering services, as well. Madrigal, who brings years of business experience to the company and serves as the operator and co-owner, said Litrenta 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 Litrenta by his father, who always encouraged him to carry a handkerchief with him.
“A handkerchief’s a little old school for me,” Litrenta said, adding that he chose to go with the bandana instead.
The black bandana, which he usually wears around his head, has become his trademark and is an easy way to pick him out of the crowd at markets and events. Litrenta sells pasta and smoked meats at the Coupeville Farmers Market and South Whidbey Tilth, as well as special events around the island.