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.