Nancy Silverton says it plainly, from across the table. “I’m a cook, not a chef,” she corrects. I ask the difference, more curious than aware of my ignorance. Her answer, though subtle, is not without conviction. Silverton’s pride, she says, resonates not with her craft in the kitchen, but her impact outside of it.
Silverton was born in a Los Angeles suburb within the San Fernando Valley in 1954. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a writer. Silverton recalls dinner being essential and not auxiliary growing up; dinner was served at 6:30 each night. As she remembers it, “I had interest in the table but not food.”
Though not particularly fond of her mother’s food, Silverton harkens back to nights spent at her grandmother’s home where she would indulge in a Swanson’s TV dinner.
It wasn’t until her freshman year in college that Silverton would step into a kitchen. As she explains it, “There was a guy cooking in the dorms and I thought the quickest way to meet him was to cook there, too.”
“I know how much time it takes and what it takes to be obsessed with something and how it drives you … now I feel like I am obsessed with running my business correctly but I do not want to be obsessed with a process again.”
Silverton would ultimately drop out of college and spend time apprenticing in Northern California at 464 Magnolia. Following her father’s suggestion, she would enroll in Le Cordon Bleu in London in 1976 and spend the majority of her next few years studying and traveling.
By 1979 Silverton had returned stateside, deciding to make her home in Los Angeles where the culinary scene and its professional prospects were much more promising with the likes of Trump’s, Michael’s, and Ma Maison.
Silverton’s career, like that of so many other culinary legends, can be traced to moments in time in particular kitchens. Her first such moment would come at Michael’s in Santa Monica.
Though her interest was the kitchen, she started at Michael’s running the restaurant’s new digital Point-of-Sales (POS) system which proved difficult. “I was terrible,” Silverton recalls with a laugh.
Silverton made the transition from front to back of the house when Michael’s chef Jonathan Waxman found himself in desperate need of a pastry chef. Still not what Silverton truly desired (she notes that while at Le Cordon Bleu she felt dessert lacked creativity and was intimidating), it was nonetheless a step in the right direction. It was at Michael’s and under Waxman that Silverton came to view dessert as “not only fun but also not limiting,” adding that she “felt so at home at that point in the kitchen.”
Silverton spent a year or so at Michael’s before heading to France to study baking. Upon her second return home, she was given the opportunity via future husband Mark Peel (the two met at Michael’s) to be the pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant, Spago.
Silverton and Peel spent the next few years transitioning from Spago, where Silverton graduated from pastry chef to running Spago’s entire bread program, to Maxwell’s Plum in New York City before they took the sabbatical most people only dream of: a month off in Italy where they did nothing but cook and eat and eat and cook.
By 1988, the pair had returned to LA and raised money to open their first restaurant in a space large enough to support a separate retail and wholesale bakery. The ball was in Silverton’s court; the pressure was on and the clock was ticking. What followed was one of the more clutch performances in the history of the culinary arts.
Expanding on the foundation she had built thus far in classrooms and kitchens, Silverton continued to build her skills as a baker. She describes the months leading up to their opening as “the hardest of my life.” She explains that if you want to be a baker today, there are resources: books to read, schools to attend, and apprenticeships to be had. This was not the case in 1988.
The months following their opening were not any easier on Silverton, who recalls a few times when she “closed the window shade and put up the ‘closed’ sign.” Speaking to the obsessive process required to truly excel at baking, Silverton would bake from midnight to 10:00 in the morning, sleep for a few hours, wake, and start her day again in the restaurant.
With the breadth of her current responsibilities, Silverton no longer bakes regularly, and that’s probably for the best, she says. “I know how much time it takes and what it takes to be obsessed with something and how it drives you … now I feel like I am obsessed with running my business correctly but I do not want to be obsessed with a process again.”
“It’s not about possessions or wealth or reviews … it all comes from how you feel as a person … it is very personal and all about the journey.”
Many years after the success of Campanile and La Brea Bakery, Silverton was summering at her home in Italy when she prepared lunch for celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower. What was on the menu? Silverton designed “a lunch around Mozzarella.” Once full and satisfied, Tower told Silverton that she had just produced a better version of something happening at a restaurant in Rome called Obika, imploring her to check it out.
Silverton followed Tower’s advice, found further inspiration, and decided when she returned home to open “a little something small with a counter where Mozzarella is the star.” Things got interesting upon her return when Tower ran into friend and peer Mario Batali, who promptly replied “I’m in” when Silverton uttered the words “Mozzarella bar.”
Batali sent out his partner Joe Bastianich who, along with Silverton, scouted Los Angeles for locations. The Mozza Restaurant Group now operates Chi Spaca, Pizzeria Mozza, and Osteria Mozza on the corner of Melrose and Highland. They also have two properties in Singapore, via a partnership with the Sands Group (whom Batali and Bastianich work closely with in Las Vegas).
Silverton still works five days a week in a managerial capacity, and when you dine at Osteria Mozza, you will see her in her element, perched behind her Mozzarella bar.
As our time together winds down and I reflect on the stories I have just heard, I ask Silverton how she defines success. “It’s not about possessions or wealth or reviews,” she says, adding that “it all comes from how you feel as a person … it is very personal and all about the journey.”
This fall will mark another leg on that journey. Silverton’s ninth book, Mozza at Home, comes out in October, and she will also make an appearance on the third season of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” In 40 years Silverton has much to call hers: a lifetime of memories and friendships as well as dozens of awards and accolades, including 2014’s James Beard Outstanding Chef Award, which the modest Silverton reluctantly admits made her feel jubilant – if only for a few, fleeting moments.