Welcome back to my Chef’s Table guide. As a reminder, you can find all installments in this guide on my Netflix series page. And here’s a link to my guide to the last episode, which featured Russian chef Vladimir Mukhin of acclaimed Moscow restaurant White Rabbit. Today’s episode features American chef Nancy Silverton, longtime restauranteur and founder of La Brea Bakery.
As a child, Nancy Silverton never dreamed she’d become a chef, let alone a world-acclaimed chef, one day. She went to college intending to pursue law, but ended up falling in love with cooking after holding a cafeteria position. After dropping out of college, she attended Le Cordon Bleu in London and received a formal culinary education there. She worked in California with pastry chef Jimmy Brinkeley before returning to Europe — France this time — to round out her culinary education.
While in culinary school, she met her now ex-husband, chef Mark Peel. When Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in LA, both she and Mark secured positions at the new restaurant. She was the pastry chef, and Mark was chef de cuisine. Critics raved over Spago, but mostly focused on her pastries and Wolfgang’s cooking. Mark fell by the wayside. Not long after the birth of their first child, Mark and Nancy decided to get away from the fast-paced, high-pressure LA cooking scene. They moved to Italy, where Nancy fell in love with Italian cuisine.
Upon returning to the United States, the couple opened the restaurant Campanile in LA. Simultaneously, La Brea Bakery opened beside Campanile; Nancy served as head chef of the bakery and head pastry chef of the restaurant. It was the bakery, however, that took off quickly. By then, Nancy had developed an obsession with bread, and took it upon herself to recreate European bread in the States.
With a complicated recipe, she achieved success — so much success that La Brea Bakery became a big hit and needed more space. But with more space, the baking process became mechanized, and Nancy realized that it no longer gave her joy. She and Mark sold La Brea Bakery, and she looked towards a future of cooking with her own hands.
That’s where Nancy Silverton is happiest, in the kitchen working with her own hands. She admits that she can’t handle it when someone compliments “her” food when she’s not the one who made it. As she became more removed from the cooking process at Campanile, and as she became more acclaimed as a baker — appearing once on Julia Child’s TV show and bringing Julia Child to tears with the deliciousness of her baking — her relationship with her husband Mark became strained. He resented her success. Eventually, they divorced, and she fled back to Italy.
She missed Campanile the most. Not her ex-husband. When she returned to the States, she knew it was time for her to strike out on her own — and create a place where she could be the cook, the one in control. Partnering with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, she opened first Pizzeria Mozza, a pizzeria, and then Osteria Mozza, a restaurant, in quick succession. Both became acclaimed in a matter of months after their opening. Osteria Mozza received a Michelin star in 2008, which it still holds. And in 2014, Silverton won the James Beard Foundation’s highest honor, the award for Outstanding Chef.
Now, at Osteria Mozza, she’s queen of her own kingdom. She’s launched a series of additional enterprises, including a gelato line. She and her longtime boyfriend, Michael Krikorian, have recently landed themselves in hot water with a “tone-deaf” article tying together the looting of Osteria Mozza, the protests over George Floyd’s death, and the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. You can read that op-ed here, and a reaction to it here.
Tomorrow, we’ll be rounding out Volume 3 of Chef’s Table. You’re invited to the feast… of words!