Justin Smillie of Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria in New York City created a menu that was boldly rustic, yet sparked with endlessly surprising nuances.
It was most likely the first open fire built in the Ritz-Carlton’s kitchen. With a wide grin and a glint in his eye, Smillie stuffed handfuls of hay into a small yakitori grill. Flames shot upward, his kitchen crew cheered, and Smillie began searing rosy slabs of tuna for a first course of smoked tuna with grilled pole beans. The dish—a delicate interplay of sea and smoke—is based on a homey Italian classic, tonno e fagioli. But Smillie’s tuna had marinated in wakame, capers, and coriander to bring out its briny, oceanic flavor, and he learned the hay technique during a recent trip to Japan. “Just because something is simple,” he said, “doesn’t mean you haven’t built flavors into it.”
Smillie is famous for rustic cooking with rough edges and big flavors. His mantra—“make it ugly”—is his way of saying that there is beauty in nature, and that presentations should not be fussed over. But do not be fooled: Every course on his competition menu had a smart, chefly twist that amped up the flavors and textures. His gnocchi, for example, were not boiled; they were pan-fried in butter and olive oil, a technique he learned from chef Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto. “They start to puff, and get nutty, crunchy, and light,” he said. His quail, grilled and served with buttery cabbage and crisp farro, was prepared with a green-tea rub and hung for two days before it was cooked. To the dismay of some judges, he served the quail with the foot on. (“Count yourself lucky I took the head off,” he quipped.)
His foie gras, sliced thin and served on a crisp sliver of filone bread, had a surprising enhancement: a touch of bitter Fernet Branca. Smillie’s tour de force, however, was his slow-roasted short ribs, a preparation that requires brining, roasting, and searing to create a hunk of meat with an intensely beefy crust and melting interior. “Every once in a while I eat something and I think, damn, why didn’t I come up with that?” Nancy Silverton said. “I am very jealous of that dish.”
Nancy Silverton is a genius at taking the food people love and sometimes even take for granted–bread, burgers, neighborhood Italian cooking–and transforming it into a groundbreaking culinary movement. She gave Angelenos their first artisanal loaves when she created La Brea Bakery in 1989, and then she developed a method for making that beautifully textured crumb and crust in mass quantity. La Brea bread is now sold in 17 countries. That same year, she cofounded one of Los Angeles's seminal restaurants, Campanile, where she was the pastry chef for 15 years. When she made a simple burger for an article in the Los Angeles Times, it caused a sensation among home cooks. Soon, the type of ground beef she used was being sold as Nancy's Blend at Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
When she opened Pizzeria Mozza with Mario Batali in 2006, she set a new standard for pizza in Los Angeles and helped set off a national craze for blistery-crusted pies and exquisitely fresh mozzarella. As the city's reigning pastry queen–she started her career in 1979 at Michael's in Santa Monica, then moved on to the original Spago in West Hollywood before opening her own restaurants–Silverton has trained a generation of pastry chefs who bring her intriguingly savory, fruit-driven style to restaurants all over Los Angeles. She has written eight cookbooks and won the James Beard Award for pastry chef of the year. And while she may be associated with a rustic, gutsy style of cooking, she was trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London and École Lenôtre in Plaisir, France.
Two years ago, on a trip to New York City, Silverton discovered a chef of startling similarity in Justin Smillie, the 34-year-old behind the stoves at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria in NoHo. He too began by studying classic French technique, at the Culinary Institute of America, and he then worked in top kitchens in New York City. Smillie began to find his own style in 2004, when he went to work for his mentor, Jonathan Waxman, at Washington Park and Barbuto in New York. Waxman, one of the pioneering chefs of California cuisine, helped Smillie develop a relentless appreciation for the best ingredients and for simple presentations that made the most of them.
When Smillie opened Il Buco Alimentari in 2011, with Donna Lennard, he created a rustic Italian menu based precisely on those ideas. Like Silverton's Mozza, Il Buco is a multipart restaurant, with a dining room, a takeout counter and market, and a wood-fired oven at the heart of the operation. Like Mozza, it is a critical success–earning three stars from the New York Times–with a devoted following that fills tables night after night. Mozza and Il Buco are also the only restaurants in their cities that cure their own salumi.
Though Silverton and Smillie have so much in common, this was the first real conversation between the two. It was a lightning-fast exchange filled with half-finished sentences, shared purveyors and philosophies, and another discovery: They share the same mentor. –Michalene Busico
JUSTIN SMILLIE:Before you came to Il Buco the first time, I got the call from [Jonathan] Waxman: "Are you ready, dude?" Knowing who you are and what you've always stood for, it almost made it harder to cook.
NANCY SILVERTON:But you clearly have the confidence to just cook. Of course, what you're doing is so close to what we're doing here. Can you see the similarity, as far as the depth of flavors?
NS:So because we both know that food, it is very easy to be disappointed. A lot of people are gifted at writing a menu, and then what you eat certainly doesn't...
NS:So I was elated to find a place where the food was so flavorful, the execution so great, you just know that your heart and soul goes into every single dish. You feel it. I've been there at least six more times. I've never been disappointed.
JS:I only cook what I like to eat.
NS:Right. Likewise. I worked with Jonathan, too, when he was the chef at Michael's [in Santa Monica, Calif.].
NS:So we have one more similarity: Jonathan Waxman. I also got a lot of my food philosophy from him.
JS:Jonathan has this informed intuition. And when he finds that in you, he's really good at bringing it out. He's not super dogmatic. He's expressive. It's a "feeling" kind of cooking.
NS:And the things that impressed him the most were always the simplest. I remember him going on and on and on about the perfect lemon tart. He never talked about anything that was really complicated, and that has always stayed with me.
JS:But sometimes it is really complicated. I was with Jonathan six and a half years–
NS:That long you lasted!
JS:Yes, at Washington Park and Barbuto.
NS:Didn't know it. Jonathan was from the school of Chez Panisse, the capital of all things pure and simple. I never worked at Chez Panisse, so that message was delivered through him to me: His respect for ingredients–his huge respect for ingredients–knowing that's where it all starts.
JS:New York was a very one-sided restaurant city for a long time. When I met Jonathan, it was amazing to see this authenticity and rusticity, and it was amazing that he had the balls to do a restaurant like that.
NS:And he's still doing it. You know, I just have no interest in eating through a 10-course meal at all. And I'm not fond of food made with a lot of chemicals, of food that is for magic tricks. The first time I ate at El Bulli, I didn't know what I was getting into, and it was fun. But after you see the trick the first time you don't need to see the trick over and over again. Who cares about eating a sphere? I'd rather eat an olive.
JS:For sure! I think some of the new avant-garde limits what we're able to achieve.
NS:One thing Mario [Batali] has always said–and what makes us get along so well, and is certainly true in your restaurant–is that we respect tradition, but we personalize it. You feel the Italian mother in your cooking, but your menu doesn't read like an Italian menu.
JS:I am more classic in my pastas. There are no liberties with cacio e pepe, no liberties with carbonara: It is exactly what it is, and you make it as well as you can.
NS:That's another thing. I think pasta is the most misunderstood and poorly executed item. Very few people understand the relationship between the sauce and the noodle, the number of ingredients, the proportion of sauce to noodle. You have to know what the star of the dish is. The truffle might taste good, but the noodle is always the star.
And that's obvious at your restaurant: You understand the noodle. And you know enough about the traditions to be able to make a dish up, but when you eat it, you feel like you're in Italy. How much time have you spent there?
JS:Once for almost three weeks, and last year, for two weeks.
NS:You obviously got it. The Italian experience was communicated. When you go there and eat that first pasta at a place that's good–when you have it and you realize why it works–that's a whole bit of knowledge. That's life changing.
JS:It is. I remember that plate of pasta. When we first went to Italy we went to a restaurant in Venice, and it was bigoli in salsa. I'm obsessed with anchovies. And who doesn't like onions? They're the poor man's truffle. And with the bigoli, the buckwheat flavor, everything together–it was like a marriage.
NS:It sets that bar, and you can never go back again.