The last time an Angeleno won the James Beard Foundation's outstanding chef award — a very big deal — it was 1998, smoking had just been banned in the state's restaurants, and Wolfgang Puck was the awardee. This year, a woman who once was Spago's pastry chef took home the honors: Nancy Silverton, a founder of seminal fooderies Campanile, La Brea Bakery, Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. Silverton has bounced back from Bernie Madoff's takedown of her nest egg, with more Mozzas, including one in Singapore. L.A. eats on its own terms, set in part by Silverton herself.
What does the award mean?
I think it almost means more to the staff than it does to me. "I'm so proud to be working here," that's what I hear. I'm not thinking I am the greatest chef of the year, because you can't measure that. You can measure an Olympic gold medal by certain standards, but something like this, you can't.
Being a restaurateur isn't just about cooking but about conceiving and running a restaurant.
Earlier the day of the awards, I thought, What if I do win? What am I going to say? I said, "What I find myself talented in is being able to recognize talent in people and encourage and nurture them. If I can inspire them, I feel I've done my job as a chef, even though I'm not standing at the range."
What's your take on the debate over organic food versus just healthier, sustainable food?
It's informing us. If we didn't have it, would we realize there were factory farms? Early on at the farmers market, just a few [growers] were certified [organic]. Others said, "The cost of being certified is so high; we can't mention we're organic because we don't have the licenses." But you can't even say "raised organically," because that could protect people who don't do it correctly. So there's a lot of gray.
I think the food scene has gone militant over the last few years and some good things have come of that — laws that make certain [practices] no longer permissible, or awareness that you can make choices.
How important is sourcing and labeling?
Alice Waters, when she was first writing her menus, included and thanked her sources, farmers she was using. I thought it was a terrific addition, one that got people thinking. Like many things, it got overused. It was difficult to read a menu, with all the credits. People taste our food and can tell it's seasonally fresh and handled with care. I don't name all the different [sources, but] there are certain things, like a special anchovy we're using from a tiny fishing village on the Amalfi coast, and I want people to know.
Restaurants have gotten so noisy, some people decide where to dine according to that as much as the food.
I understand that. The pizzeria started out with the Mario Batali bravado — loud, fun, so it's still that way. Thankfully we have quieter tables. My dad will only eat in this room [the private dining room], or the patio or back dining room.
You grew up in the Valley in the 1960s. Where did you eat out?
It was an era when you didn't really eat out much. Moms cooked and everyone ate dinner together. When we went out, it was a special occasion.
I remember Hamburger Hamlet, Du-par's, Casa Vega. Growing up, I had very strong opinions about what I would eat, like a baloney sandwich. My grandmother would buy Swanson's TV dinners, and I loved the way everything was compartmentalized.
We did a lot of road trips and my parents used to find these little cafes and I was so angry – why can't we just go to Denny's? That was really my taste. I did like it when my mom stuck to simple things like chili and roasted chicken with lots of paprika, but when she opened up her Julia Child's, I was just not into that.
Do you still go to Denny's?
[She shakes her head]. If I went to Denny's, what would I eat? Probably their tuna melt. A tuna melt is generic, and I see a place for some of those old-school flavors.
Did you have an epiphany dish?
I had an epiphany of cooking. I was at Sonoma State my first semester, and I had such a crush on this guy who cooked in the dorms, so I said I'd love to work in the kitchen. I had never, ever worked in the kitchen, no cooking with my mother or grandmother. I shortly realized how I loved working with my hands. It's like a light bulb went on: I want to be in the restaurant business.
Besides taste, what do you most prize in food?
What I most enjoy is food that is not manipulated with all sorts of tricks, with some of the techniques people are using right now. I use a lot more traditional methods — a grill, a sauté pan, an oven.
I also have trouble when there's dots and specks on the plate. You'll see a plate that has so many different herbs, little flowers, little dots of sauces — I need it all to come together. So I'm not a fan of food that's precious and manipulated.
The first time I went to El Bulli restaurant in Spain with a group of chefs, we were so excited. It was the most humorous meal I ever had. It was funny to eat something that tasted so closely like spaghetti carbonara but was just gelatin. Did I want to eat that way every night? No. Did I enjoy everything? Yes. There's so much that can be done in a laboratory but that's not where my focus is.
Have you figured out umami, the so-called fifth taste?
It's funny to think that fifth flavor became known to us because of a hamburger! I would probably not use the word "umami" but just "tasty" or "delicious."
Is the word ''foodie'' overused now?
Yes. What it meant at the beginning was, I'm a food enthusiast. People started to use it in the sense that they were in the club: "I'm a foodie, therefore, since I like your food, you know it's good because I'm a foodie." It's like anything else you get annoyed at [when] it's overdone. The expression "farm to table," or "artisan," at first really meant something, then all of a sudden they were so overused you don't know what those words mean any more.
The New Yorker carried a story called "The End of Food," about a nutrition drink: no dining, just a quick swig.
When I say "food," I think of the pleasure at the table. The way I would change the world is that every single family would have to sit down at 6:30 and eat together. It was a ritual [in my family]. It was only four of us, but we had our places, dinner would be no less than an hour. Nobody was in a hurry, and I learned about politics, about law; we would have friends over. Doing that now would change the world. So, eating packets of food just for nutrition? It's not only about nutrition.
You've done TV as a judge for cooking competitions, cooking with Martha Stewart. How does TV cooking influence the food and restaurant scene?
I hear my friends talk about how the TV business has changed their restaurants. There's a whole other story about how much importance television plays in the success of a restaurant. It's all about a brand, so keeping the integrity of a brand and becoming a public personality, you need to find that balance.
I'm pitching a couple of things right now but definitely not TV competitions in the sense of making silly compromises with food. In the early days, when Mario and Emeril [Lagasse] were on, people learned how to cook. There were no tricks.
Is there a glass ceiling in this business?
The few kitchens I worked at before starting Campanile, I never had that experience. I worked with Wolfgang. That guy was generous, fun-loving, and it didn't even cross my mind that there was an issue of whether you were female. Now I know a lot of women have struggled, and it all depends on what kind of kitchen you end up working in.
This year's James Beard awards — I think women did the best out of all years. The award I got was only the fourth time it was given to a woman since 1991, and it's been 16 years since it's been given to someone in Los Angeles. I've got to say, being a woman and being from Los Angeles are the two most difficult [factors] as far as national awards.
Why has Southern California been off the restaurant map?
Until the last few years, when people came to the West Coast, their first choice to go eat would be Northern California. A lot of people didn't even know what was going on in Los Angeles. As far as flashy restaurants making the news, making it on the culinary radar, there weren't large openings [here]. But in the last couple of years, a whole slew of people have been opening restaurants that a lot of people are excited about. Now there is so much interest, finally, in Southern California.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a transcript.