Culinary Masters Competition 2013: California Connection

Nancy Silverton discovers a decidedly West Coast point of view in New Yorker Justin Smillie.

Nancy Silverton is a genius at taking the food people love and sometimes takefor 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; 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.

Also in 1989, 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 ground beef she used was being sold as Nancy’s Blend at Huntington Meats 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 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.

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 your first time at Il Buco, I got the call from [Jonathan] Waxman: “Are you ready, dude?” Knowing who you are almost made it harder to cook.

NANCY SILVERTON  You 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, in the depth of flavors?

JS  Yep!

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 . . .

JS  Doesn’t match.

NS  So I was elated to find a place where the food was so flavorful, the execution so great, you can feel your heart and soul goes into every single dish.

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.].

JS  Really?

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 good at bringing it out. He’s not super dogmatic. He’s expressive. It’s a “feeling” kind of cooking. I was with Jonathan six and a half years—

NS  That long you lasted! Jonathan was from the school of Chez Panisse, the capital of all things pure and simple. He delivered that message with his huge respect for ingredients, and 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 is certainly true in your restaurant, too—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  Well, 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 three weeks; 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  I remember that plate of pasta. When we first went to Italy, we went to Anice Stellato 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.    


Cultivating a Curriculum

Eight years ago, Nancy Silverton walked onto the playground of the 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles and saw 7 acres of cracked asphalt standing hard by Interstate 10. The schoolyard was due to be repaved, but a group of teachers, parents, and community members had a different idea. They invited Silverton to join their effort to build a garden that would be a centerpiece for the school and integrated into every aspect of its curriculum. She has been involved with the Garden School Foundation ever since.

“It was a pretty terrible sight watching the kids out there on the yard, next to the busy freeway, under the scorching hot sun,” says Silverton, who chose the foundation as a beneficiary for the Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition. “Over the years, I’ve seen it grow into a flourishing garden and a flourishing organization.”

The idea behind the nonprofit group, says its executive director, Julia Cotts, is to create a garden education program at 24th Street that can be used as a model for the Los Angeles Unified School District and beyond. “Everyone is so excited about school gardens, so a ton of them have been built,” Cotts says. “But unless you have some good programming and support, it’s hard to actually access their potential.”

A master plan was created, and a test plot was built. Over the next few years, the asphalt schoolyard sprouted a three-quarter-acre kitchen garden, a quarter-acre native-plant garden, and a small reading garden. Silverton has been its most prominent supporter, holding fund-raisers at Mozza and arranging a La Brea Bakery booth at the Santa Monica farmer’s market that donated part of its profits. She has sent chefs to teach classes and has come to the school herself to demonstrate how wheat is made into flour and then bread.

This fall, the foundation published its Seed to Table curriculum and will be making it available nationwide. The kindergarten-through-fifth-grade program includes 120 hour-long lessons in science, language, cooking, and nutrition. Four additional L.A.-area schools will implement it this fall, reaching a total of 2,500 students. The foundation itself has also grown, with five full-time staff members, more than 150 volunteers, and an annual budget of almost $400,000. 

“Nancy is very conscious of the power of food as an educational tool,” Cotts says, “and that ethos is integral to what we are. We have a whole program of garden education that comes from that sense of purpose, from Nancy.”  —M.B.

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