Interview with Outstanding Chef Award Nominee Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria MozzaElena North-Kelly
May 02, 2014
After proving her pastry chops at Campanile and La Brea and taking home the JBF Outstanding Pastry Chef award in 1991, Nancy Silverton set out to open her own restaurant in Los Angeles, which bloomed into a celebrated empire and a mecca for serious Italian food lovers. Here, the 2014 Outstanding Chef award nominee tell us about the most spectacular pizza crust she’s ever tasted, her favorite flavor combination, and the moment she knew she wanted to become a chef.
JBF: What item on the current Pizzeria Mozza menu are you most proud of?
NS: I’d have to say our pizza dough, the quality of the crust. It’s the heart and soul of our pizzeria, and what I believe sets us apart. There’s no secret ingredient, just the subtle nuances of the method that we use to achieve a crust that’s fluffy yet crisp, with a depth of flavor.
JBF: You began your career as a pastry chef, and it’s been said that you “saved the lost art of sourdough bread” in American culinary culture. Can you tell us about your early adventures in sourdough?
NS: At the time, there wasn’t the variety of accessible information or books to read that could hold your hand in figuring out the complicated and mysterious art of breadmaking. For me, it was so exciting to just go in blindfolded and figure it out.
JBF: What’s one ingredient or flavor combination that you’re really excited about right now?
NS: Anchovies and spring onions! That’s the key component of the most recent dish we just added to the menu: burrata served with anchovies, spring onions, and crispy butter beans.
JBF: Is there an ingredient or food trend that troubles you?
NS: This is a complicated answer. Gluten intolerance is a very serious issue for people with celiac or other medical conditions. It’s a life-changing thing, and obviously not a choice. However, there are a lot of other people trying to experiment with eliminating wheat or gluten from their diet. I wish that some of these people would, instead, think about experimenting with heritage varieties of wheat that wouldn’t cause the same symptoms as the modern, modified, and processed strains of wheat. I just wish that “trend” would shift to one that emphasizes heritage varieties instead.
JBF: Tell us about the best pizza you’ve ever had. Where was it from and what made it so extraordinary?
NS: The best pizza I’ve ever had was in Italy at Pepe in Grani, located in the city of Caiazzo, about an hour north of Naples. People always ask me what the most important element of pizza is. The thing is, there isn’t one aspect. A great pizza is the sum of its parts. The pizza I had at Pepe in Grani just executed every element perfectly: it had a light, crisp, and delicious crust. I’ve also never experienced anything on par with the quality of their ingredients, from the anchovies to the tomatoes to the fragrant basil and freshly made mozzarella. Everything was just the most flavorful version I’d ever experienced.
JBF: You have restaurants in Los Angeles, Newport Beach, San Diego, and Singapore; and you recently opened your salumeria, Chi Spacca, in L.A. What inspires you to keep evolving as a chef and restaurateur?
NS: It’s always the food and experiences around the table that keep inspiring me to do new things. I love sharing meals with people in their homes or out in restaurants. I had a meal on the Amalfi Coast of Italy where I tasted the most exquisite anchovies I’d ever had, and that was the inspiration for the burrata, anchovy, and spring onion dish I mentioned earlier. I’m drawn to and inspired by ingredients and taste rather than technique.
JBF: As the author of eight cookbooks, you must read countless others for inspiration. What are a few of your favorite cookbooks, and why?
NS: Some of my favorite cookbook authors are Alice Waters, Richard Only, Judy Rogers, and Paula Wolfert. They all use the ingredients I love to cook with and the flavor palate that I work towards. They also have a way of describing recipes that I want to eat right off the page.
JBF: What’s your favorite culinary travel destination, and why?
NS: My mouth and tastes are always drawn to Italy. I’m lucky to have a house in Umbria, where I spend six weeks every summer. It’s so nice to have a home base and not feel so much like a foreigner. It makes everything more pleasurable, because you don’t have the usual angst of trying to fit it all in. There’s so much to taste in Italy, and I know that if I find something that I like or that I didn’t have the chance to try, I can always return. As much as I love new places, having that flexibility and familiarity is what makes it my favorite culinary travel destination.
JBF: When did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
NS: I didn’t grow up as an experimental eater and food certainly didn’t guide me the way it does now. But I distinctly remember a moment that changed everything. It was my first semester in college, and I ended up working in the kitchen to try and meet someone. I remember on one of my first few days on the job, I was preparing a vegetarian meal and I thought to myself, “I love this! This is what I want to do.” It truly was as though a light bulb had gone off.
The 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef is presented by All-Clad Metalcrafters.