Nancy Silverton: Queen of Tarts

28 November 2014 by
Nancy Silverton: Queen of Tarts

Nancy Silverton, the celebrated chef and co-owner of acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant group Mozza, talks about being the first pastry chef to win the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef award and a career that now spans more than 35 years. Kerstin Kühn reports

Winning the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef award in the USA is much like winning the Chef Award at the Cateys in the UK. It's a very big deal. The award is limited to an elite club of chefs who have truly made a lasting impact on their country's culinary industry.

So it's refreshing to see that Nancy Silverton, chef and co-owner of the acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant group Mozza, takes her recent award with a pinch of salt. "It's funny because it's not like the Olympics where you can really measure somebody's performance. Sometimes I think it's really arbitrary," she says. "It's wonderful to have won, of course.

But it's not like it has gone to my head or I thought: ‘Yes! Now I've finally made it.' I have been in this business for a very long time and I think that's probably part of why I won."

"Of course, it's great but there just are fewer women than men running kitchens," she insists. "What's more interesting is that I am the first pastry chef to win it. Awards are not generally given to pastry chefs. Even in a large restaurant with a pastry department, those who run it are very rarely recognised."

As far as pastry is concerned, Silverton is now widely considered the doyenne of her craft in the USA. Through her now iconic Campanile restaurant and La Brea Bakery, which both
opened in Los Angeles in 1989, she helped redefine the culture of bread baking in the country, and won the inaugural James Beard Foundation's Pastry Chef of the Year award in 1990.

This year, La Brea, which Silverton sold in 2001, remaining a consultant, celebrates its 25th anniversary and is one of the largest sellers of fresh bread in the USA, supplying
grocery stores and restaurants nationwide.

Silverton has published numerous books over the years and now runs the successful Mozza restaurant group together with partners, Joe Bastianich and acclaimed New York
restaurateur Mario Batali, with outlets in California and Singapore.

Put off pastry

But being a pastry chef wasn't always Silverton's chosen profession. After dropping out of college to pursue a restaurant career, she went to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu in 1977, which put her off her now beloved craft.

"It was very different back then," she recalls. "Ingredients weren't great: a lot of stuff was frozen, a lot came from a can, nothing was seasonal or fresh and it was all about technique.

"I didn't do very well there and my worst subject was always pastry and they were kind of instrumental in my initial dislike of that part of the kitchen. They were so strict and every
time I would question things - do I really have to put seven eggs in this, what if it's too eggy? - I was always met with a stern 'No!' Pastry really scared me at first because there seemed to be no room for variation."

Returning to Los Angeles, Silverton was hellbent on working at Michael McCarty's acclaimed Santa Monica restaurant Michael's, but to her dismay the only position available was as assistant pastry chef. In the hope of being moved, she took the job but under the tutelage of Jimmy Brinkley discovered that pastry didn't have to be boring.

"I was sold," she beams, thinking back. "I was so lucky to work with such a young, genius pastry chef, who hardly ever measured anything. We made all these fun, interesting desserts
and it was a real turning point for me."

In 1980 she decided to embrace pastry and went to France to study at the École Lenôtre, run by famous French pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre, to hone her skills. On returning to
LA, she helped Wolfgang Puck to open Spago as executive pastry chef.

"Spago had such a big national presence," she says. "Everyone was talking about it. At that time LA was the place for restaurants." After working at Spago for a few years and a
short stint in New York, in 1989 together with ex-husband Mark Peel and partner Manfred Krankl she opened La Brea Bakery and six months later the Campanile restaurant adjacent
to it.

"It was a lot of juggling and looking back there were a lot of hard times," she recalls. "I would work at the bakery from midnight to 8am, then sleep for three hours, work a little, nap a little, go back to do desserts at Campanile - it was crazy."

But the hard work paid off and both bakery and restaurant became Los Angeles institutions for years to come.

With authentic artisan bread noticeably absent in the USA at the time, Silverton began teaching herself the art of sourdough bread baking. She developed a baguette, rosemary olive oil
loaf, olive bread, country white, whole wheat and dark Normandy rye.

"There really wasn't much going on with bakeries at that time. There were a handful in San Francisco and New York, but that was it," she says.

Two years after opening La Brea, she moved the bakery to a much larger, fully staffed commercial site and split it off as a business separate from Campanile. "It became clear that
the bakery could really be something," she says. "My partner had the foresight to separate the two businesses because we knew one day someone would want to buy it."

That day came in 2001, when La Brea was sold to investors in a deal quoted as anywhere between $56m and $68.5m.

Silverton continued to work at Campanile until 2005, when she split from ex-husband Mark Peel. Two years later she opened Mozza.

One-woman mozzarella bar

The inspiration for Mozza was a lunch that she served to famous San Francisco chef Jeremiah Tower, who told her about ObicÁ , a mozzarella bar in Rome. "I knew that's what I wanted to do in LA: find a tiny little space and run a mozzarella bar where I'd do everything myself.

She was backed by Batali, who had long rejected the idea of investing in a restaurant in Los Angeles, where "nobody eats after 9pm and everyone's on a diet", but who loved the
mozzarella bar idea and immediately came on board.

Looking for the perfect site they found one that happened to have a pizzeria attached. And so the idea of opening a pizzeria as well as a mozzarella bar was born.

"We immediately split all of our ideas. In the pizzeria, it's all about the pizza: we have salads and antipasti, but they're on the side. In the osteria, it's more about the pasta. We have
a very traditional way of looking at this. Pasta is done so poorly in this country, so we really want to be as close to Italy as we can."

The menu includes garganelli with ragu bolognese; ricotta and egg ravioli with browned butter; corzetti stampati with eggplant, olives and fresh ricotta; orecchiette with sausage and Swiss chard; and tagliatelle with oxtail ragu.

Then there's the mozzarella: burrata is served with Tsar Nicoulai caviar; with leeks and fett'unta; with braised artichokes, pine nuts, currants and mint pesto; or with baconmarinated
escarole and caramelised shallots.

Bufala mozzarella comes smoked with prosciutto di Parma; with pesto, salsa romesco, tapenade and caperberry relish; or with jumbo asparagus, sieved egg and bottarga.

Her pizza meanwhile is widely considered among California's best. "It's not Neapolitan, nor is it Chicago or New York-style," she says. "It's a mix between the pizza bianca sold
around Campo de' Fiori in Rome and [Phoenix chef] Chris Bianco's pizza."

The dough rests 36 hours before being used, and includes rye flour and some malt, giving a crust both spongy and softly chewy inside with a crispy crunch on the outside.

Pizzeria Mozza has since expanded to Newport Beach and San Diego, and the Mozza trio opened an osteria and pizzeria at the 2,500- room Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore in
2010. Silverton says they are planning to open a few more osteria/pizzeria outlets in Asia.

After 30-odd years in the industry, where does she continue to draw inspiration from? "The world of food really inspires me, whether it's an ingredient or something I eat," she says.

"But my way of cooking has never really changed. I have always been very interested in fresh, seasonal ingredients. I have never been interested in manipulating food or cooking with toys.

"My philosophy is that when you compose a dish you have to have the ability to edit it. I've always been an editor and I know intuitively when a dish is lacking or when the lily is being
gilded. You've got to have that balance."

Fried squash blossoms with ricotta

  • Makes 40 squash blossoms
  • 226g (1 cup) fresh ricotta
  • 226g (1 cup) small-cubed low-moisture mozzarella
  • 113g (½ cup) freshly grated
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg, plus more to taste
  • 40 squash blossoms
  • 320g (2 cups) rice flour
  • 470ml (2 cups) sparkling water
  • Grapeseed oil or other neutral-flavoured oil, such as canola (or rapeseed), for frying
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • Maldon sea salt or another flaky sea salt, such as fleur de sel

Combine the ricotta, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg, salt and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or nutmeg, if desired.

Use the filling or put in an airtight container and keep it in a fridge for up to three days. Trim away all but the last 2.5cm of the squash blossom stems and discard the trimmings. Use a small, sharp knife to gently cut an incision the length of a blossom to open it.

Gently open the flower to reveal the stamen and use the knife to cut it off and discard. Repeat with the remaining blossoms.

Working one at a time, lay a squash blossom on your work surface, open it up, and spoon about a tablespoon of the filling inside. Some blossoms may take more or less filling inside.

You don't want to overstuff them; you want the filling to come up to just where the blossom starts to break off into multiple petals.

Close the blossom and press it gently in the palm of your hand to squeeze the filling down toward the stem. With your other hand, grab the petals at the top and twist them slightly to close the blossoms and seal the cheese inside. Repeat with the remaining blossoms and filling.

Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Put the flour in a bowl smaller than the ice water bowl. Add the sparkling water and whisk until smooth. It should be the consistency of thin pancake batter; add more water if it is too thick.

Place the bowl with the batter in the ice bath to keep cold. Fasten a deep-fry thermometer to the side of a medium saucepan and fill it between 7.5cm and 10cm deep with the oil. Heat the oil over a medium-high heat until the thermometer registers 350°F.

While the oil is heating, line a baking sheet with paper towels. Working in batches of about six at a time, carefully drop the squash blossoms in the batter and gently turn to coat them all over. Pick a blossom out of the batter, give it a twist to close it again, and carefully drop it stem-first in the oil. Repeat with the remaining blossoms in the batter and fry until golden brown, turning them so they brown evenly - three to four minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the blossoms from the oil and transfer them to the paper towels to drain. Squeeze a drop of lemon juice on each blossom, season with the sea salt, and serve immediately.

Use a slotted spoon to clean the cooked bits out of the oil. Add more oil to the pan if it has dropped below a depth of 7.5cm and wait for the oil to heat back up to 350°F.

Repeat, battering and frying the remaining blossoms in the same way until you've fried them all.

Recipe from The Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton

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