Chef Nancy Silverton on Netflix, pizza dough and becoming a celebrity chef
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Chef Nancy Silverton — known for culinary ventures like La Brea Bakery, Campanile and, most recently, Mozza — is one of the subjects of the next season of Netflix’s acclaimed culinary documentary series, “Chef’s Table,” which premieres this weekend.
She also was one of the victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, where she lost the profits she made on her sale of La Brea Bakery. Marketplace host David Brancaccio spoke with Silverton about her rise to celebrity chef status over the past 30 years and gets some help with his own pizza recipe. An edited transcript of their conversation is below:
David Brancaccio: When these Netflix people came to you to broach the subject of being featured in this series, did you even have to think about it?
Nancy Silverton: My first reaction was, “You know what? This is not something I want to do.” I had recently spoke on behalf of chef Dominique Crenn from San Francisco, and so that was easy because it wasn’t all about me. I flew up there and I talked about her and it was quick and it was fun, and I thought that would be the end. And then I got a call a few weeks later, and they asked if I would also be willing to be the focus of their next season. And I was really taken aback. I had never seen “Chef’s Table” as of then, and so I said, “Look, let me watch a couple of these shows and let me see if this is something that I feel comfortable doing.” The first one I watched was Francis Mallmann, and he’s a chef who owns an island whose show was just so polished and beautiful and he had so much to say. And the show just seems so so different than anything I felt like I could actually ever pull off. And so my first reaction was, “You know what? I can’t do this. This is something that I’m just not comfortable doing.” Just like, I’m not comfortable competing in competition shows — it’s just not the way that I work.
Brancaccio: I know, because the chefs [in ‘Chef’s Table’] come off like Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony — a hero emerges.
Silverton: Right. And I just didn’t see the hero in me. I was very reluctant. And they said, “Please? How can we convince you? Because I think you have a great story.” And I was trying to think, “what is my story?” And they said, “Don’t worry, we find that story and we tell that story. We allow you to tell that story.” But I was still very hesitant and I went back and forth and back and forth and weighing, ‘Should I or should I not?’ And I thought about my business and I thought about being an owner of a business and our business was already 10 years old and it’s time to bring in new customers. So certainly that was a great a great way to do it. I talked to the staff a little and they were so excited to be a part of it. And so I just sort of threw in the towel and I said, “Okay! I’ll do it.”
Brancaccio: Are you prepared for what’s going to happen once people start streaming this on Netflix? These mini-documentaries are lushly produced, but there’s always something missing, you don’t actually taste the food that you’re seeing. And of course, the viewers want to taste your food so they will come rushing to you.
Silverton: I still have my eyes closed and sort of not thinking about it. I hear sort of whispering of, “You know, business is going to be crazy.” And what I feel badly about is that starting in the beginning of March, I have to do a little bit of traveling and I’m not going to be there in the restaurant. I’m going to be in my restaurant in Singapore for a few weeks. And so I feel like, all of a sudden the show comes out and people make reservations and they’re there to come see me and I’m not even going to be there for the first couple of weeks in March.
Branccacio: As you watch this piece, you get a sense of your story but there’s something interesting at the beginning. I would have just assumed that chef or baker or something you always wanted to be. That’s not the case.
I think in today’s world — with all of the chef television shows and very young children grow up watching these shows and by seven or eight or nine they decide that they want to be a chef when they grow up. I’m, you know, 63 [years old] now. When I grew up there was “The Galloping Gourmet.” And later on, a few other TV shows that I didn’t watch, but nobody aspired to be a chef in America in my day. So no, that wasn’t something that I ever thought about until I entered college when I started cooking. And I knew as soon as I started cooking in my college dorm that this is what makes me happy: using my hands. Working with food was just something that felt so natural to me. But I still didn’t think of chef, I didn’t think of the word chef, I thought of the word “cook,” that this is what I want to do. I want to cook one day.
Branccacio: It’s so interesting, why didn’t we want to become chefs some years ago? It was just seen as, I don’t know exactly why, I guess they had a less exalted status here. Although if you came to a fancy restaurant the chef was still supreme. Something has shifted.
Silverton: Something shifted a lot, especially because I think that chefs in today’s world have reached sort of like a celebrity status. But, you know back in the 60s, certainly in America, it just wasn’t a profession that anybody thought about. You know, you thought about being a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, you know, an accountant. It was a very limited sort of amount of professions one thought of growing up, which is different than Europe obviously where there was a lot of people, someone like Wolfgang Puck at age 14 was already apprenticing in kitchens because it was a career.
Brancaccio: It was a career. Exactly. I once profiled for this program — I went to the United Arab Emirates and there was a young man who was Emirati, and his parents were absolutely convinced that the best job for him was entering the civil service. That’s what people should do. He felt he heard the calling. He wanted to become a chef and focus on Emirati cuisine, which he had to actually figure out what that was. And he had to lie to his own parents about what he was doing for a long period. “Oh no mom, I’m down at the government office working,” and she’d hear plates clanking in the background because it was not seen as high status at the time. And you know these things change over time I guess.
Silverton: They have you know and certainly shows like “Chef’s Table” that are really going to even elevate it that much more.
Brancaccio: I have to bring up, just briefly, a difficult subject. We don’t have to delve, but I just want to ask you one thing here. We also cover personal finance on this program. You had a hard lesson eight years ago, [Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff] made a decision that lost you millions. Publicly, you were philosophical about it. Are there any broader lessons about money that you could share with us given that experience?
Silverton: You mean besides stuffing it under your mattress?
Brancaccio: I know. In other words, keep an eye on it maybe is one lesson.
Silverton: Well I think also, my father used to always tell me you need to diversify. And I think that is really something that’s very important with finances, is don’t put all your money into — what’s the phrase? Don’t put your all your money into one…
Silverton: Basket. There you go. And I think that’s very smart advice, and I think also, anything is risky. And so if you are going to take that risk, I think you have to accept that loss and I accepted it.
Brancaccio: And you weren’t living off that money, so you’ve argued in the past that this whole thing didn’t really change your lifestyle.
Silverton: It didn’t, because I didn’t live off of it. It came to me in one lump sum and it came to me because I sold La Brea Bakery. Now, I just want to clarify that I didn’t receive all of the benefits of that. I received a very small part because there were many people involved. But I did receive a chunk at one time, and so I just sort of put it away and tried to live off the interest and so it didn’t change my life. And the best part about it was that I had recently started a new restaurant and I had a paycheck, and so it wasn’t going to destroy me.
Brancaccio: All right. Something more fun. A practical question. I am descended from real Italians. I use double-zero flour, yet my pizza crusts are only okay. They’re bready. I could be doing so many things wrong. But I want to ask you, what am I probably doing wrong? What will be your first guess?
Silverton: When you say very bready, do you mean sort of just doughy?
Brancaccio: Puffy, like Wonder Bread-y.
Silverton: What kind of oven are you cooking them in?
Brancaccio: It is a standard home oven. It does go to 550 degrees but it doesn’t go higher.
Silverton: And are you using any kind of a pizza stone or anything like that to give you more bottom heat?
Brancaccio: I do have a ceramic pizza stone that’s been helping, but that thin crust with the bubbles that my Italian forebears in Naples seemed to be able to produce effortlessly eludes me.
Silverton: You know, you talking about that … two days ago at my restaurant, I had who I consider the best pizza maker in the world. His name is Franco Pepe and he has a pizzeria just outside in Naples called Pepe in Grani. You know, the pizza at Mozza is not really Neapolitan, it’s not that soft puffy, it’s more puffy but crispy. But anyway, he has this flour that he has milled for him, and it is a double-zero flour, so that means it’s a very fine — the double-zero relates to the granulation of the flour — so it’s a very fine soft flour. And his is really puffy and but still not doughy and so I know what you mean, and I think that you’re not alone. I think so many of those puffy pizzas just don’t get crisp enough and so they feel so doughy and so I would just say, if you’re using a very high temperature, what you say which you say you are, possibly cut some of the water out of the gel. I don’t know. You know what, you’d have to bring it over for me to analyze it.
Brancaccio: It’s hard to do a diagnosis over 3,000 miles. It’s sort of like going to see the doctor. You may have to be first hand on that. All right, but you’ve given me some insight.
Silverton: But you know, I do have a great pizza recipe in my Mozza cookbook. So not my last cookbook, ‘Mozza at home,’ but the one before that is called, ‘Mozza,’ and half of the book is on [Italian resetaurant Osteria Mozza] and the other half is on [Pizzeria Mozza] and I do feel like I have a great recipe that you may want to try. It does work with double-zero flour and it is designed for the home oven.
Brancaccio: All right. So this weekend I know exactly what I’m going to be doing, so thank you for that. We’ll check it out. All right, so you’re ready for this Netflix thing to become available. You’ve battened down the hatches?
Silverton: You know again, I’m just sort of not thinking about it. How about that?
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