Podcast Episode 111

Chef Nancy Silverton: The Key to Finding Your Culinary Obsession

Nancy Silverton | 50 Minutes | July 2, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza, as well as Osteria Mozza, Mozza2Go, and chi SPACCA in Los Angeles. She’s also the creative mind behind Nancy’s Fancy gelato.

In today’s interactive chat, Nancy shares how she built an illustrious career based on prep, timing, and luck. This includes working for some of the most influential chefs in the nation, including Jonathan Waxman at Michael’s Restaurant and Wolfgang Puck at Spago, as well as opening the legendary La Brea Bakery and Campanile Restaurant.

Listen as Nancy Silverton talks about experiencing food on a deeply emotional level, the cookie that changed her life, and finding an obsession in the kitchen.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I am thrilled to be speaking with the one and only Nancy Silverton. That’s right; I said Nancy Silverton!

Nancy’s the co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, as well as Ostria Mozza, Mozza2Go, and chi SPACCA in Los Angeles. She is also the creative mind behind Nancy’s Fancy Gelato.

Before this, Nancy founded the legendary La Brea Bakery and the beloved Campanile Restaurant, a cornerstone of Los Angeles dining for decades.

Throughout her illustrious career, Nancy has worked with some of the most influential chefs in the nation, including Jonathan Waxman at Michael’s Restaurant, and Wolfgang Puck at Spago. She’s also mentored countless chefs who have become successful restaurateurs.

Early on, Nancy was recognized as “Food & Wine” magazine’s Best New Chef. In 2014, she received the James Beard Foundation’s highest honor as Outstanding Chef. That same year, she was named one of the most innovative women in food and drink by both “Fortune” and “Food & Wine” magazines.

Nancy has also authored eleven cookbooks, including “Breads from the La Brea Bakery,” “The Mozza Cookbook,” and her latest release, “The Cooking that Changed My Life.” We’ll talk about that today.

In 2017, she was featured on the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.”

Stay tuned for an engaging conversation with a true culinary trailblazer. You won’t want to miss this episode.

And there she is! Good morning! Thank you so much for being with us today. I’m out of breath already, Nancy. Can I just tell you? I’m out of breath. How are you?

Nancy Silverton: Good. Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Good. Before we dive into everything, I’m going to say I heard through the grapevine, but I read through the grapevine that you’ve been traveling. I’m stalking you on social media. I believe [you’ve had] travels to London, Spain. Wow! Any behind the scenes tips with what’s going on with all the travel. Did you come across some great food?

Nancy Silverton: Well, I always come across great food. Just to add to my bio a little, I now have four restaurants outside the country. I have one in London, Saudi, Mexico, and Singapore, so my travels twice a year take me to those countries as well. This last trip I took started out in London because I had a week’s worth of work to do at my restaurant in London. Then it just so happened, I was lucky enough to be hosted by one of our purveyors, Chef’s Warehouse, who took myself and two of our chefs on a small little food junket in Spain, which was fantastic. Then, [I] wound up stopping off on our way home in Paris for two and a half days because I was asked to cook for a quote-unquote “experience” for ten guests at the palace of Versailles. So I cooked at the palace of Versailles, ran around Paris and ate for a couple days, and came back home. So that was a really great three-country trip in less than about two weeks.

Highlight, highlight. Any of you out there who have not heard of the restaurant – and I’m going to say it wrong because my pronunciation is so bad – but it’s in Spain outside of San Sebastian. It’s called Etxebarri and it’s in a little town outside of San Sebastian where the most humble man… (Netflix did a series on fire-based food cooking. I don’t know if you saw that one. It was one of the most recent. They featured a chef from Australia who actually used to cook at Etxebarri.) Anyway, just the most humble man, cooks in a small, little, very modest kitchen where he has a few different grills going where he is able to maintain the specific temperature he wants to grill certain items. When you eat there – what a treat! It’s six or seven courses of simple, beautiful fish dishes. The meal culminates with a fantastic steak that he cooks. One of the most brilliant meals I’ve ever had. Put that on your bucket list.

Food Experiences

Kirk Bachmann: I will. I have some friends that are going to San Sebastian in August, so I’m definitely going to put that on their bucket list.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that cooking experience that you were involved in? Then I’m going to talk a little bit about the Aspen experience. Do you think people are looking for food experiences that they can share with others more than ever before?

Nancy Silverton: Yep. I’m noticing that more and more. It’s interesting. I started hearing that word around 2020 when a lot of food events, obviously, came to a halt. The world immediately switched in all areas, but definitely in the food area as well, to online as well. I know that where I had previously traveled across the country doing different kinds of dinners for different kinds of charities locally and around the country, and that switched online. Somebody got the brilliant idea of, “Well, look. If we can’t do it in person, let’s do it on Zoom.” I did so many cooking classes online with different charities. We did a lot of events where we actually made food at our restaurant, boxed it up, sent some of it out locally, some actually across the country, and then people would receive their boxes and we would cook together online. They started calling them “food experiences.”

I think an outgrowth of that. In life, everybody’s looking for the next best thing. Let’s do something better, different. I think out of that, people were really rethinking how to have events. All of a sudden, these food experiences started happening. I know that one of the food experiences that I’ve been doing quite a bit of are people have been hosting events in my backyard. Rather than saying, “We have a charity and we’re raising money for this organization, and this is how much tickets are going to cost, and we’re going to do a hundred people. Let’s charge more. Let’s do less. Let’s let people do it in your backyard where they actually come to your house. They feel like they’re eating at your house.” Well, they are eating at my house! It’s a much more intimate experience. That’s an example of one of the food experiences that I’ve done, quite a few at my house.

Then, I’m also noticing that people are putting together these events, for instance a woman’s fiftieth birthday. She happened to also be able to afford the party of inviting ten of her friends where she flew them around the world and had a different experience in a few different countries, and one of them was cooking in Versailles. There are a lot of bragging rights behind it, but also for someone like me, it brought me to Paris, and it allowed me to cook at the palace of Versailles where only a few people have ever cooked before. It was an experience for me as well.

Kirk Bachmann: I just think it’s fabulous. Staying on that topic a little bit: here in Boulder in Colorado, the idea of farm dinners, intimate farm dinners where there really isn’t a set menu because we’re waiting to see what’s going to be harvested. It creates community. It creates emotion. I absolutely love it.

We chatted about it before we got started today, but I saw something on Instagram where you’re coming to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. Yay! But I’ve never seen – I’ll let you explain a little bit more of it – but folks can actually hop on the plane and fly with you as you travel to Aspen. Tell me a little bit more about that. I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get to L.A. so I can get on that flight. Fascinating.

Nancy Silverton: Get on that flight! Obviously, there are small planes that fly to a handful of not-too-far destinations. I know that the jet that I’m working with also flies to Aspen. I think it does Vail. It does Cabo and probably somewhere else. That’s their route. They got the idea to have me curate a meal onboard for fourteen or sixteen people that will be flying to Aspen. Look, what a great way to fly, if you can, where you don’t have to go through TSA, and you don’t have to go through the rest of what tends to be kind of a nightmare when you travel. They’re always small airports. You drive right up, get on. This is the first time I’m doing something like that. Again, another food experience.

People love food, and people love to use food as a vehicle for entertainment and obviously sustenance and everything else that goes along with it. It’s going to be really fun.

We curated this small little meal. Obviously, we can’t cook onboard because these small planes don’t have anything but a very small oven to reheat. We made a nice little brunch menu, and we’ll see. I hope it’s not too bumpy in that small plane.

Taking the Opportunity that Arises

Kirk Bachmann: It reminds me of a story – this is years ago – Kenny Loggins was a star when I was growing up. He had a place in Aspen. I was at the Denver airport also flying to Aspen, and I got to fly on this flight with Kenny Loggins and his entourage and stuff. Yeah, it’s a little bumpy, but they’re so wise with the winds. No one’s going to be at risk. It’s going to be a lot of fun. The mountains are absolutely beautiful.

Chef, your culinary journey has been incredibly inspiring to many, myself included. As a student of the craft, I’ll call myself, and like I said before, many students will be listening to your words, so no pressure. Can you share a pivotal moment? We’ll get to your growing up and all that in just a bit, but a pivotal moment or experience – using that word again – that significantly shaped your approach to food and more so cooking and baking.

Nancy Silverton: I think there were two. They were both early on in my career, I have to say. The first one was after dropping out of college in my senior year, realizing that I did want to be a cook, and I had no desire to really finish school even though I was in my senior year. I didn’t need a degree. There was nothing I was going to do with a degree, so I went to cook at a restaurant. I chose a restaurant that was close to me in Northern California that I felt was one of the most reputable restaurants in that area. I went to work there. I knew it was going to be for a little over a year because I signed up to go to cooking school in London at the Cordon Bleu. It was close to a year-and-a-half waiting list.

I started cooking at this restaurant. It was very compatible with just intuitively how I thought about food. Now at that time, I didn’t really know my style, or I didn’t have a style. I didn’t even think of whether it was going to be an international style, or it was going to be American, or if I wanted to be a hotel cook or a caterer. I didn’t really think anything; I just knew I wanted to cook. The restaurant I chose to work at was a restaurant that was run by the owner, who was self-taught, college-educated. He cooked his menus out of cookbooks. I loved what we were cooking.

But while I was there, I went to eat at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. I think that’s a restaurant that I don’t even need to tell you what it is because hopefully everybody that’s listening to this podcast knows what Chez Panisse is. This was back –

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

Nancy Silverton: -in ‘76. It was early-ish on in the life of Chez Panisse. I forget when it opened. I think it just had its 45th birthday or something like that. Or 50th birthday or something. It was pretty early on. I remember sitting down at that meal. I had heard about this restaurant. It didn’t have the cachet that it has now, but I had heard of it. I went to eat there, and I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember so clearly thinking, “Oh! I get it. This is what food should be about. This is what the dining experience should be about. This is the kind of food I want to cook.”

I don’t think I ever veered off that path. I never changed and said, “You know what? From now on I think I really want to learn how to dabble in molecular gastronomy.” My interest right then and there was simple, flavorful, seasonal, respectfully-sourced, and I knew it right away. That has been it. That was definitely a pivotal moment, to be able to so early on establish one’s style.

Then, I think, the second pivotal moment was when I started to work at Michael’s Restaurant, and I think this is key to your students. I think for myself, my success, if I had to [answer] “How are you successful? What happened?” I think mine was all about timing. It was all about being at the right place at the right time, no matter what it was. The key is to be open to all possibilities.

Michael’s was a restaurant that I wanted to work at, and I wanted to be a line cook there. I wanted to cook savory. But at that time, there were no openings in savory. Actually, when I first got the job there, I went to interview. I had met Michael the night before – Michael is the owner of the restaurant. I met Michael the night before, and I told him that I would really love to work at his restaurant. I had come back from the Cordon Bleu. He said to come the next day and meet our manager, Carl.

And Carl was not the kitchen manager; he was the general manager of the restaurant. He was very desperate to have somebody relieve him on his lunch shift. That involved working on the computer and taking orders. I’m not going to bore you with what it did, but it was so far away from whatever I wanted to do. He said that’s what he would like to hire me as.

I thought about it. I could have said, “No. Uh-uh. I want to be in the kitchen.” But I somehow knew that you need to get your foot in the door. Just get your foot in the door of the place you want to be, and you will find your home in that restaurant. And that’s what I did.

I worked there only for a month or so. I was terrible at what I did. But the next opportunity given to me by Jonathan Waxman when he found out why I was so bad at what I was doing was because that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the kitchen. He said, “I need you to work in the pastry department. We’re about to lose our pastry chef. I need you to learn everything you can from him.”

Pastry was also not where I wanted to be in the kitchen. At the Cordon Bleu, pastry was a struggle for me. I didn’t do well in it, and I really didn’t have any interest in making pastries. Again, it was one step closer to the stove, so I took that position. As we know, I fell in love with it, and that really became my passion.

Those, I think, were two really pivotal moments for me: finding my style, and realizing how important it is to just really take advantage of an opportunity. It’ll work out in the end. I think that’s key.

And it did work out for me.

A Journey to Le Cordon Bleu

Kirk Bachmann: I love that memory. I love that story. Serendipitous timing.

Ironically enough, the conversations around Chez Panisse, that’s a whole other podcast. We could talk for hours. In the early days when we brought Escoffier education to the United States, Jeremiah Tower was on our board and provided a lot of direction and feedback. Ironically enough, I’d love for you to talk more about your experience with Cordon Bleu and London. I’m not sure we talked about this yet, but I spent about fifteen years of my career working with the Le Cordon Bleu organization, bringing some of their schools to America for a period of time. Really fascinating organization. What was that time like for you away from family and such in London?

Nancy Silverton: Let me just tell you how I got there, to the Cordon Bleu. First of all, I was so naive back then when I chose my career path of being a cook. I didn’t even know that there were schools in the United States. The Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales and many schools, I didn’t even know they were available or a choice. I didn’t even know that people went to school to cook.

When I told my parents I was going to be dropping out – by the way – second semester of my senior year. Really, all I had to do was take finals and write a paper, which I didn’t want to do. I was a little bit nervous. They were professional. My father was a lawyer. My mother was a television writer. They were snobby. They could have said, “How dare you? No child of mine is ever going to cook.” Back then, cooking did not have the prestige that it has now. I run into parents of small children, and they say, “My kid wants to be a cook when they grow up,” and they’re so proud and excited about that. That wasn’t the case then.

Anyway, my parents, rather than being disappointed or scolding or saying what a parent probably should have said, “You’ve got one semester left. Just get your degree and then do what you want,” they were so supportive. My father said, “Just do me a favor: I want you to go to the Cordon Bleu.” I didn’t even know what that was.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that amazing?

Nancy Silverton: I know! This was in London. I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” Go to cooking school.

To go to London for six months on my own. I don’t know how old I was. 18, 19 years old. How old are you when you’re about a senior?

Kirk Bachmann: About that. Very young.

Nancy Silverton: Before 21, let’s say. There I went. I went off to London, and I went to school. I just loved the discipline. I was very serious in what I did. I wasn’t a great student, by the way. In those days at the Cordon Bleu – it’s changed very much since then, and I’m not sure how it was in France. I didn’t go to France, by the way, because I didn’t speak French. I think at that time there was only a London campus and a French [campus,] one in Paris. I don’t think there were any in the United States.

Kirk Bachmann: I think you’re right.

Nancy Silverton: it was a little bit primitive then, meaning every day there was a half day worth of lecture; that was demonstrations and note-taking. Then there was always a half a day of cooking. For the cooking, we were paired up in twos in a very, very tiny kitchen with two burners of home-style cooking burners, no restaurant quality. Very, very simple equipment. No exotic ingredients whatsoever.

But what I learned was the basics. I think that really is what school is all about. The advantage of going to a cooking school rather than just getting a job at a restaurant, although they are both very important, and not to say one is necessarily more important than the other. However, in cooking school they bring you up from the beginning, and they teach you from the beginning. Whatever that is: how to make a mayonnaise, a stock, a mother sauce. That’s something that in today’s cooking world is missing. It’s missing because so many restaurants these days – and I think mainly because one is not allowed to work twenty hours a day at a restaurant anymore. One is only allowed, without overtime and things like that, an eight-hour shift.

Kitchens are really divided into two parts: a prep kitchen, the people who do the prep work, and the line cooks that come in and cook the food. It’s the line cooks that miss out on so much of their culinary education because they don’t do it anymore. I feel very lucky that, although I’m rusty at a lot of the things that I learned because I don’t do them any more, and it’s something you need to do all the time, at least I have the understanding of where they come from. I think that’s something you only get from a cooking school.

An Obsession with Bread

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. So well said. It will be so beautifully resonated by our students.

Along the same lines, Chef, in your opening statements on the Netflix episode, you state – and I quote – “You have to be obsessed to be a baker.” I would love for you – because I agree. I agree. That passion plays into that. In the series, you go on with some explanations or illustrations of what obsession means. Would you mind sharing a little bit more? I think our students will hang on every word. Define that obsession, and that beauty in that obsession of being a baker.

Nancy Silverton: By the way, it’s not only the beauty, but it’s the ultimate satisfaction –

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, well said!

Nancy Silverton: When you finally get to pat yourself on the pat and say, “You know what? I got there.”

I have to also say that I’ve never seen that Netflix episode because I’ve never watched myself on TV or listened to myself on the radio.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m telling you, it’s fabulous.

Nancy Silverton: I’m not quite sure what I said.

I don’t just mean it in bread-baking, but I probably was talking about that as the obsession then. I can jump ahead really quickly. I know you wanted to talk about it a little bit. My new book, as of last November, I just did. I did become obsessed in that baking book. There is no bread in that book – well, there is a focaccia.

I did become obsessed in that book in setting myself the goal and challenging myself to make what I thought would be the very best version of desserts that we all already know. Whether it’s a blueberry muffin or a pineapple upside down cake. There was a lot of obsession in there because “just good enough” was not good enough for me. It had to be, “Alright. That’s the best version of that I’ve ever tasted.”

I think in that Netflix episode I was talking about bread because bread. There are so many components. I shouldn’t say components. There are so many elements that, in the end, make up for a good bread. They’re so subtle, and even in the way my mind thinks, I don’t understand them all. I’m talking about from a scientific way. I’m talking about temperature, and activity of a sourdough starter or yeast. I’m talking about steam. I’m talking about humidity in the air. I’m talking about new crops of flour that vary all the time. There are so many elements that come into making a loaf of bread that make it challenging. I think what a baker needs to know is what they want to end up with before they even start. Then, not to give up until they get there.

Let’s suppose they’re saying, “I want my bread to have a crust color like this. I want the oven spring to be like this. I want the interior crumb to look like this. I want it to taste like this. I want the chewiness of the texture of the crust to be this.” But really, understand what it is that you’re looking for, then not stop until you get there. I know that it’s a lot of hard work, and there are a lot of setbacks. It’s really easy to say, “Oh, that’s good. I think that’s good enough.” But what you have to be is really critical, and not stop until you get there.

I think that when I started making bread back in 1989, I think that was to my advantage, but it was also a lot of hard work. But at that time – which doesn’t seem that long ago. It wasn’t like a generation ago, or several generations ago. It was in 1989. It was still in this century. But then, there were not a lot of “bake bread” books out there. Now, there are thousands. They’re so good. Every day I get another one to write a blurb about. There are so many great bread books out there. There are so many great bakeries to learn from, and there are so many people to talk to, and so many classes to take. That wasn’t available then.

I really do have to say I was self-taught. I was able to go to France right in the beginning of trying to figure out how to make the loaf of bread that I wanted to make. I took a five-day baking class back at the school that I had gone years after the Cordon Bleu, to Lenotre school outside of Paris. I did take a five-day baking class, which helped some. Again, bread is so tricky because of the flours and the environment. It just changes everything. You can’t just take a recipe from somebody else and put it in your kitchen and make that same loaf of bread.

I really did have to teach myself. Every day, it was many experiments, many trials, and many failures.

Kirk Bachmann: A couple of key things there. It is great to have these chats. Sometimes people, students, we forget the years and years of work.

Nancy Silverton: I have to say, the still years of work. I am still learning all the time. I love it! That’s what keeps me going is that I haven’t learned it all. There’s still one more thing for me to learn, and then the next day there’s one more. And I love it when I learn it, too.

Kirk Bachmann: Aren’t we the best versions of ourselves as teachers when we, too, are learning. Knowledge is everywhere today. I’ve asked my instructors now, for years, because students used to come like you went to Cordon Bleu. You went there because that’s where knowledge was kept, but knowledge is everywhere today. Our educators merely need to be facilitators of knowledge. Our students have great things to say, great things to share.

Nancy Silverton: Not only great things to say and share, but also great things to teach. I’ve learned so much from someone that’s just started out. They have some little, teeny trick that they did somewhere. “Oh, wow! I love that.”

The Right Time for Great Bread

Kirk Bachmann: I do, too. I totally agree.

Nancy, “L.A. Magazine” named you as L.A.’s most prolific and long-standing culinary innovators.

Nancy Silverton: It’s only because I’m old, I always say. [inaudible [00:29:34]

Kirk Bachmann: Humility. I love it. I love it. Going to keep coming with that.

Many say that you’re the key architect of today’s artisan bread movement.

Nancy Silverton: Again, it’s timing. Look at it. When La Brea Bakery opened in 1989, and people started to write about it, I would read these things, articles in newspapers or magazines, that I “created” bread. I did not create bread. Bread was around. I’m not that old, let’s put it that way. I did not create bread.

Again, it was timing. It was that the country, the world, was ready for great bread and I just happened to be there to make a loaf. It could have been somebody else.

Kirk Bachmann: But it wasn’t. It wasn’t. It was you.

Nancy Silverton: It wasn’t. But I say that also about Spago. I think that I was at Michael’s at that time, which is still around. Michael’s just celebrated its 45th birthday, Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica. When I was at Michael’s and it was very popular, trendy – that was the place everybody wanted to be. It was a really great place for me. When Wolfgang opened Spago – and I didn’t even know Wolfgang. He wasn’t a friend of mine – obviously, I didn’t have a crystal ball to say, “Oh, Spago is one day going to be this.” I did take the chance of leaving Michael’s and opening up the pastry department, because at Michael’s I was only the assistant pastry chef. I had an opportunity to be the pastry chef.

Had I not been at Spago, and been able to ride on the coattails of Wolfgang, who knows? I could have just gone anywhere and just been lost in the masses. Again, it’s just about timing, luck, opportunity. That’s really what I have to thank.

That whole bread movement, yes, I was one of the early ones, but I like to say that when I went to France in 1979 to go to Lenotre pastry school – not bread, but pastry school – and Michael’s Restaurant had sent me there, which was a wonderful opportunity. A friend of mine from college was living there. When I got there, he threw me on the back of his motorcycle and took me to Poilane Bakery in Paris. Probably one of the world’s most famous bakeries in Paris. He said, “I want you to try this bread.” He took me there. They do a few different kinds of bread, several different kinds, but one of their most famous is one called la miche, which is a giant loaf, which you can buy by the weight, which is great. We bought whatever, a quarter of a kilo of bread. I remember ripping into it. I remember thinking, “Okay. I’ve never tasted anything like it. One day, I would like to make bread like this.”

But being in France for six months, everybody around me said, “Oh, you’ll never be able to make bread like that. You’ll only be able to make bread like that in France. You don’t have the right flour. You’ll never be able to do it.”

So I kind of accepted that until I came back to Los Angeles and went up to Berkeley where a former dishwasher or busser at Chez Panisse, who started while he was at Chez Panisse baking bread and went on to open his own bakery, Acme Bakery, which opened before La Brea Bakery by a couple years. I had heard of it. I went up, and I tried his bread. I’m like, “Okay! This is like Poilane. It can be done in this country.” He solidified the idea that, yes, I can make that bread one day. It was him that really was the beginning. I just got more publicity than he did, but he really was the beginning of what was, I would say, the artisanal bread movement in the United States.

A Dessert Worth Crying For

Kirk Bachmann: I just absolutely love that genuine story. We’ve been talking about Cordon Bleu a little bit, and I read that Julia Child once tried your brioche tarts, I believe.

Nancy Silverton: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: With the hot wine syrup. It made her cry? True story?

Nancy Silverton: True story, and interestingly enough, I never did it again. That was a dessert I was making in those days at Campanile. After Campanile, I thought, “I’ve done that. It was a great dessert.” And I left it in my bag of tricks. Just last week, I thought, “You know what? I think I need to bring that dessert out again. That was a great one.”

Yes, it did. It brought tears to her eyes, and she said, “This is a dessert worth crying for.” Wow. Can’t do any better than that.

Kirk Bachmann: No. Absolutely.

Nancy Silverton: Because that’s what food’s about. Food’s about emotion. That dessert must have taken her to some place where that was very sentimental.

Kirk Bachmann: Just like “Ratatouille.”

Nancy Silverton: Yep, just like “Ratatouille.”

The Importance of the Family Table

Kirk Bachmann: Can you talk to us a little bit about leading up to that? Were you a curious baker or foodie growing up at all?

Nancy Silverton: Not at all. Not curious. Not even interested in it.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that something?

Nancy Silverton: My mother loved to cook. As I said, she was a television writer and a short story writer. She wrote from home. Cooking the family dinner – a nutritious family dinner – every night was key to how she wanted to lead our family, but also it was key to me growing up. I have to say that family dinners are rare. I think family dinners came back around 2020 when people were home and eating again. People thought, “Well, this is nice.” Maybe people are still carrying on that lost tradition because they realized what a special moment at the table is.

It’s funny. Right now I’m talking to you. I’m looking down at the table [that] I’m talking to you at. This is the table that I grew up with.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, isn’t that something? Wow.

Nancy Silverton: I took off the white stain, so it’s the natural walnut now.

Kirk Bachmann: It is still part of you.

Nancy Silverton: It is my table. It was a table. It had leaves, so it’ll fit six. We kept it in four because there was my sister, my mother, and my father. Every night we sat down together at 6:30 at night, no matter what, and we all had our places. We all sat at the seats that we sat at every night. That is where it was family time. I heard about my father, his trials in court. He was a litigator and he loved it. What my mother was writing. But most important: politics. My parents were very political. I just learned so much at that table.

And I also took it a little bit for granted. I knew that’s how my family lived, but I would go over to some other families. I grew up in the era of TV dinners where a lot of families switched from tables to eating in front of the television on TV trays. I would go to a lot of friends’ houses, and there were those metal TV trays lined up in front of the television, and there was the family in front of the television.

Where food was not important for me growing up just because my tastes were very simple, and my mother’s tastes were a little bit more eclectic, but sitting at the table is something that was instilled. The importance of sitting and the joys of sitting at a table were instilled in me very early on. To this day, my favorite part of life is to be at a table with family and friends with food and conversation. That is probably where what I ended up loving to do was that gathering. It wasn’t food. I really had no interest in food.

Entrepreneurship and Mentorship: Empowering People

Kirk Bachmann: I love so much about that story. It’s not even a cliché. My wife and I were talking about this the other night as our children’s activities change with age. Pizza night tends to be Friday night, but now we’re trying to shift that to Sunday, maybe earlier in the day so we can stay together. Even if you’re not really interested in food, food still brings you together. There’s a purpose to come to the table where you’re sitting right there. I’m so glad that you said that. Young people need to hear more of that. Come together. Learn about politics. Learn about the world through the lens of your family. There’s no greater thing.

I wanted to make sure that we talked a little bit about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. La Brea Bakery, 1989. It’s not just incredible skill, but there’s entrepreneurial energy that comes with running a business and managing employees that can be exhausting while rewarding. I’d love if you could speak to our audience a little bit about how you balance that, this incredible skill that you have, yet running a business where the bills get paid, and you source the best ingredients, and people keep coming back – which they did, with your businesses for years, and years, and years. I think it’s a great lesson for our students.

Nancy Silverton: One thing I recognized really early on is to let the people that do the things that you don’t do well – hand it over to them. For instance: having a restaurant or having a business is not a hobby. Have somebody that is able to manage those numbers and that money do it. I didn’t even attempt to do it because it’s just something that my mind doesn’t work that way. I think key in growing a business is to recognize the things that you’re good at and the things that you need to let go of. And to let go of them in a way that you don’t micromanage. Give those people [freedom] that you’ve handed off some of the those tasks to. Let them feel like it’s their part of the business. Let them feel empowered. Don’t try to micromanage. I think I learned that really early on.

Kirk Bachmann: Along those same lines, sort of related sort of not related. You spoke a little bit about mentorship – we didn’t say that word – but there were some people that mentored you as you found your way. How important is mentorship to young people today that are coming into the industry? They have energy. They have ideas. They have knowledge because they’re gaining knowledge, but the mentorship is so important, I would say.

Nancy Silverton: It is, and it’s something that gives me such satisfaction just like a parent. For instance, I don’t know how many kids you have, but I’m sure you want your kids to succeed in life and maybe even succeed better than you succeed, whatever that happens to be.

Kirk Bachmann: Let’s hope so.

Nancy Silverton: I think that’s how I feel about the people that I raise as well. Nothing makes me more proud than to see them succeed. I know there are other people out there that hate it, that when an employee that has worked for somebody for a while and then they leave, they never want to talk to them again. They hate them and they wish them the worst. To want them to succeed, it’s a reflection of you. It’s only a reflection of what a good parent you are if your kids grow up and they find something that they love to do and they do well at it. That’s what you want; you can’t hope for more.

The mentorship is something that is something that is one of my favorite parts of what I do. I’m doing that more and more because less and less can I spend time in the kitchen, actually in the kitchen putting out the food. It’s very important for me when I’m in town, I’m at my restaurants all the time. I’m lucky enough that the ones in Los Angeles are three on the corner, not Newport Beach or further. I’m lucky enough that those three I can just be at, and I can just spend time with everybody. And also help them work on something. Try to inspire. Drop an idea. “Hey, I was here, and I had this great dish. Look at this picture. Let’s do something like it.” Trying all the time to motivate. Motivate, motivate, motivate. And help them grow and help them learn how to be better cooks.

The Cookie that Changed My Life

Kirk Bachmann: Motivation is such a great word. There’s a little push, there’s a little pull.

I don’t know where the time has gone, but I’ve got a couple of questions that I’ve got to get in before we get to an hour here. The latest book, “The Cookie that Changed My Life.” Without giving anything away because we want people to buy that book, but how did that come to fruition and what can you share about that?

Nancy Silverton: It is “The Cookie that Changed My Life,” and then because of marketing, I had to add a subtext: “And over 100 other cookies, muffins, tarts that will change yours.” The reason why is because it’s not just a cookie book. The marketing department of Random House came to me and said, “You can’t call it ‘The Cookie that Changed Your Life’ because people are going to think it’s a cookie book.”

“No, they won’t!” And sure enough, everybody comes up to me: “I just bought your cookie book.”

Anyway, I’ll try to say it very succinctly. This is 2021 when I, by the way, didn’t have the need as the rest of the country and world did to bake my way through sourdough bread baking. In fact, I didn’t really feel the need to even bake, but Michael, who I live with, had brought back this peanut butter cookie from the local bakery, a bakery where the owner and baker used to work for me for years at Campanile. The name of the bakery is Friends and Family.

He brought this peanut butter cookie. I’m looking in and I’m like, “Oh, wow! That’s a great looking peanut butter cookie,” and then I tasted it. And I said, “Oh, that’s a great tasting peanut butter cookie.” I went on to say, “I can’t stand the fact that this person made a better peanut butter cookie than I’ve ever made.” So the competitive side of me said, “I need to make a peanut butter cookie that’s better than that.” I say that tongue-in-cheek, because I’m not saying mine is better; it’s just different. But that was the beginning.

So I did this. I loved it. And then I sort of thought, “I think what the world needs is a book where inside the cover is filled with recipes, and you don’t have to go online and see a million versions of them, and [they] are the recipes you actually want to bake at home. Not laminated doughs and all those hard things, but simple things. But the best of them. That’s how it came about.

That year where the restaurants were opening and closing, they were indoors and outdoors, but there certainly wasn’t the staff or the volume of business, where I actually had the time to focus. Given I had that idea to do today, that book wouldn’t be nearly as good because I don’t have the time to devote like I did then.

Nancy Silverton’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: There you go. Perfect, serendipitous timing again. The theme comes. It’s all about timing. 2021.

Nancy, the name of our little show here is called The Ultimate Dish, and I cannot let you go. This is the toughest question, but to come back to our conversation about being around that table that’s right in front of you and memories, but in your mind, what is the ultimate dish? It can be a memory. It doesn’t have to be a specific dish.

Nancy Silverton: My memory or a dish I make?

Kirk Bachmann: Or a dish you make. Either/or or both. I love it; she’s thinking.

Nancy Silverton: I am because it’s like when someone comes into the restaurant and says, “So, what should I order? What’s your favorite dish?”

Kirk Bachmann: It’s tough!

Nancy Silverton: I don’t have favorite dishes. They are all on the menu because they are supposed to be on the menu.

Kirk Bachmann: But I’m going to help you.

Nancy Silverton: Okay, help me.

Kirk Bachmann: What’s the first thing you had when you were nineteen and you went to London to Cordon Bleu? London wasn’t known for great food, although they had an incredible culinary school.

Nancy Silverton: How about if I switch and don’t say a dish, but actually something that I bought in London? Is that okay?

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Nancy, you’re in charge.

Nancy Silverton: Because I’ll tell you, it’s something that is one of my beloved tools, let’s say. I’m a simple cook. I have a free-standing mixer, but that’s the only thing I have that plugs in. I like micro-planes, I like wooden utensils, and I like things that feel good and sturdy and beautifully crafted.

When I was at the Cordon Bleu, I used and also bought – and I still have the same one I bought today, although I have them in various sizes – was a beautiful ceramic mortar and pestle. Mortar and pestles in England are used – probably they’re used everywhere. I guess in all pharmacies, that’s how you made compound pills, you mortar and pestle. But in England, because this is where this mortar and pestle is made, it’s a smooth, very heavy duty ceramic or porcelain. I don’t know exactly, but it feels good. It’s a large size mortar and pestle. I remember that’s the first piece of equipment – if it’s equipment – that I bought when I was in London. I brought it home with me, and it’s still my favorite thing that I own.

Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love it. Listen, we’ve had people give us ten-course meals, acquiesce to wine, but I’ve yet to have someone tell us about an important kitchen tool. Brilliant. I should have expected it. I should have expected a brilliant answer.

Nancy Silverton, thank you so much. My wife says, “Hi,” by the way.

Nancy Silverton: I will see you on that plane. Say hi to here, and come on that plane.

Kirk Bachmann: Or I’m driving over. I’m so excited that you’re coming to Colorado. Thank you for taking the time.

Nancy Silverton: Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Our students and our audience and our guests are going to love listening to your story. Congratulations.

Nancy Silverton: I have to ask you a quick question, you being in Boulder. Do you go to Denver?

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. It’s 36 miles away.

Nancy Silverton: Two former cooks at our restaurant, brilliant cooks, opened up a great restaurant. I haven’t been there yet because last time I was there it was opening the next day. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant in Denver. It’s called, Sap Sua. You need to go. Did you go?

Kirk Bachmann: I went three weeks ago. I walked right into the kitchen. The husband and wife team are absolutely amazing.

Nancy Silverton: Anna and Anthony.

Kirk Bachmann: One of my graduates, Kenny, is one of their line cooks, who is just having the time of his life. It’s a very small restaurant. Their food is absolutely beautiful.

Nancy Silverton: Yep, I know. I can’t wait to eat there. I’m doing a dinner in Denver in October, so I finally get to go. Anyway, that’s an example of…

Kirk Bachmann: I love that you brought that up. It’s a smaller world than we think. I love it. I love it.

Nancy Silverton, thank you so much!

Nancy Silverton: Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: We appreciate you.

Nancy Silverton: Lovely talking to you. Bye-bye.

Kirk Bachmann: Take care.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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