The Mercury News
CHEWING THE FAT WITH NANCY SILVERTON
The chef behind Mozza and La Brea Bakery talks pandemic, bread and more in a new book
Kristen Loken’s new book, “Food People (Are the Best People),” is an homage to the California food and beverage industry. Loken traveled the state, connecting with industry pros and focusing on how they’ve managed the pandemic, summer wildfires and more over the past year.
“Crisis breeds creativity, and connections make us all feel better, no matter what we’re going through,” says the storytellerphotographer, who crafts photo and word portraits of 129 chefs and restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, bakers and others whokeepthe state’s food chain moving. The $35 book, published by Acorn Press, will direct 15% of its sales to benefit the charity No Kid Hungry. It’s available to purchase at foodpeoplebook.com.
Sharing their thoughts are a number of celebrities, among them Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos and Los Angeles chef, baker and author Nancy Silverton.
Silverton, 66, co-founded the renowned Campanile in Los Angeles (1989-2012) and single-handedly founded the 31-year-old landmark La Brea Bakery, which was sold in 2001. Her baking artistry is credited with popularizing artisan and sourdough breads throughout the U.S.
Silverton’s restaurants at Melrose and Highland avenues — known as the Mozzaplex — have been called some of the best Italian restaurants in L.A. The Michelin Guide California awarded a star to Osteria Mozza (the only Italian restaurant in L.A. to hold one), a Plate award to the meat-centric Chi Spacca and a Bib Gourmand award to Pizzeria Mozza.
Silverton has written a library of cookbooks and has a pantry full of awards, including four from the James Beard Foundation, outstanding chef among them. Surprisingly, she is somewhat taken aback by the accolades she has garnered over her career. “I don’t feel comfortable being put on a pedestal,” says Silverton, a classically trained chef who calls herself “a cook.”
She was profiled in 2017 on the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table” but didn’t watch it, she says. “I’ve always had issues with listening to myself in interviews and watching myself on television.”
Last March, she had been providing meals and supplies to restaurant workers when she tested positive for the coronavirus. She quarantined at home for two weeks, closing her restaurant operation and feeling like she’d “let everybody down.” She was mostly asymptomatic and spent her time binging on TV cooking shows, vintage game shows and classic movies (“Casablanca” was her favorite). “I got through it ‘with a little help from my friends’ and by taking it hour by hour,” she says in “Food People.”
Silverton spoke to us about the future of restaurants, the challenges of baking bread and her favorite thing to eat. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The new model at Mozzaplex is takeout, pickup and delivery. How has that changed the menus and styles of cooking?
We’ve been through a number of closures and reopening and at one point turned the parking lot into an outdoor dining room. We needed to reinvent not only how we packaged our food, but we had to be sure we only put dishes on the menus that lend themselves to traveling, and I’ve personally tested every item. What we’re packing up is just as good at room temperature as it is coming out of the oven. But don’t reheat it — that will dry it out.
You’re one of the most celebrated chef-bakers in California, yet you’ve said, “I don’t feel that I’m innovative.”
I see a lot of chefs out there who lead us down paths of their creativity, while I base my menus on what I crave. I’m inspired by food I’ve eaten and flavor combinations I’ve seen or read about. All I do is take dishes that have already been done, bring them into my world and personalize them according to my creativity. Not that I’ve invented something that’s never been done before.
Are you still hands-on in your kitchens? A I am. I was just now doing handpulled breadcrumbs for 200 pasta kits we’ll be packing. That’s 50 loaves of bread. Yesterday I was elbows-deep in potato gratin to go in 400 packaged meals. I try to keep my hands as busy as possible because that’s when I feel the best. It’s what got me into cooking in the beginning. My grandmother used to say I should have been a sculptor.
What’s the crowning achievement of your career?
I feel like at all times there is something I am obsessed with, and I have to figure it out. That’s what fuels me. The process of coming up with bread for La Brea Bakery was the achievement that was the most painful and challenging, and my most rewarding. Mainly because there weren’t the breadmaking cookbooks or classes available like now, or bakers to talk to. I was pretty much on my own and self-teaching.
There were a lot of lonely nights in the kitchen and a lot of lack of success along the way. With bread, results are not immediate. It’s not like baking a chocolate chip cookie in 15 minutes. In bread, oftentimes it’s more than 24 hours of patience before you know if you’ve succeeded. It took me about four months to make an acceptable baguette. From there, each new loaf had its own challenges, but I was slowly learning the process and developing a repertoire.
The National Restaurant Association reports that more than 110,000 restaurants have completely closed due to the pandemic. What does the future look like?
Absolutely restaurants will come back, but there will be a lot of changes. Talking to people in the industry who have restaurants at our level, with 50 or more employees, we’ll be looking at ways to be more efficient as far as menu choices and the number of staff in the front and the back of the house. We’ve all realized how fragile our industry is. As for smaller-scale restaurants, it will be more of a struggle.
You can have anything you want to eat, any time you want. What are go-to foods these days?
I really love toasted crusty bread, rubbed with garlic, drowned in olive oil and seasoned with flaky sea salt. I could consume a pound of that. Lately what I’ve been craving more than anything are toasted nuts, whether hazelnuts or seasoned almonds.
What are the essentials a home cook needs to know?
Choose fresh ingredients, use simple techniques to prepare them and have fun doing it. Do not overcomplicate. If you labor over a dish, the food will taste labored.