There is a moment on season three, episode three of Julia Child’s Baking with Julia where a young Nancy Silverton is visibly gripped with terror. After eating a forkful of Silverton’s brioche tart with hot wine syrup, Child starts to weep. Silverton freezes. There is an eternal pause as Child composes herself. “It’s a dessert to cry over,” she marvels. “So good.”
Most people who eat Silverton’s food experience a similar sort of palate-driven rapture: The 63-year-old chef, who grew up in Sherman Oaks and Encino, came of age perfecting her pastry skills in some of L.A.’s most storied kitchens (namely Michael’s and Spago, where she was under the tutelage of Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck, respectively). When she began experimenting with flours and yeast starters and bake times and doughs in a borrowed kitchen on Robertson Boulevard—La Brea Bakery in its nascent form—she couldn’t have known that she’d become one of the key architects of the artisanal bread movement we all take for granted today. The landmark bakery opened at 624 South La Brea Avenue in January 1989; only five months later she and her then-husband, Mark Peel, christened the grill next door at Campanile—a restaurant so revered for its contributions to America’s culinary landscape that it spawned eulogies from food critics when it closed in 2012. Even after losing her multi-million-dollar cut from the sale of her bread shop in the largest Ponzi scheme in history, Silverton managed to make another fortune by building an Italian empire with Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and chi SPACCA (all joint efforts with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s B&B Hospitality group).
In the midst of the cooking and the baking, the three children and the divorce, the success turned ruin turned newfound success, Silverton persevered to become one of L.A.’s most prolific and long-standing culinary innovators—although she’d never refer to herself that way. (“It’s only because, next to Wolfgang, I’m probably the oldest one left,” she laughs.) At the moment, she has temporarily abdicated her throne at the corner of Highland and Melrose to bring her fennel sausage pizzas and creamy burrata with peas to a weeklong pop-up at East London’s Passo restaurant. “I wish it was more fun than work,” she says. “But I didn’t come here to have fun.”
Your restaurants are kind of like unicorns: L.A. lives and dies by restaurant trends, and you’ve managed to open three places in eleven years that respond to trends and stay flush. Not many people have been able to pull that off.
I’ve never really looked at it that way. We have always remained true to our food sensibilities, so we haven’t tried to rebrand ourselves. And luckily we haven’t had to. There’s a whole list of tests that dishes have to pass to make it to the menu. It’s not like all of a sudden we’re adding items because they’re trendy.
What do you recall about L.A. as a food town when you were a kid growing up in the Valley?
I was born in the mid-’50s, so I didn’t understand having a choice about food. As far as my family went, eating was at home and always with the entire family. It was such an important part of my day. We all sat down together, and I learned about politics and what my mother was writing. She was a short story and, later, television writer; my father was a lawyer. But besides the conversations that we had at the table, the food that we were eating was completely secondary. My parents loved to go out for special occasions, though. I remember my dad saying, “We’re going to take you to a place that’s really, really special,” and that was L’Affair.
And now L.A. is considered one of the world’s most notable food cities.
Michael’s and Spago brought a lot of excitement to the national dining scene. Then in 1989 Campanile opened, and so did Patina. And within a couple years of that, Los Angeles really suffered, first with the terrible fires and then with the riots. The food scene was completely stagnant, and you never saw customers from around the country. But fast-forward to no more than five or six years ago, and all of a sudden, something happened: People started opening restaurants. It was these second-generation kids who grew up in the business. Their families had ethnic restaurants, and they were opening up their versions of those restaurants or taking over from their parents. Los Angeles really was at the forefront of that movement—less expensive restaurants with more relaxed service. The amount of international clientele that we have at our restaurants now is so exciting to see because for so long that did not happen.
You first started cooking in the dorm kitchen at Sonoma State University—to catch a boy’s eye, as I understand it. When did it go from casual hobby to obsession?
I recognized my calling at such an early stage. I still remember that day: I was following the recipe for something as simple as lentil loaf or steamed vegetables and melted cheese, a chef’s knife holding the pages of my cookbook open, and I thought, “This is what I want to do.” From then on, my path never changed. It was 1976 when I phoned my parents to tell them I was dropping out of school and that I wanted to cook. I didn’t say I wanted to be a chef or a restaurant owner; I said I wanted to be a cook. For them to say that they understood—in an era when being a cook or a chef or a restaurant owner had absolutely no cachet—I feel incredibly lucky. My father said, “OK, as long as you enroll in Le Cordon Bleu.” I had no idea what that was. Which is sort of funny. But I went in 1977. And I was not a good student.
What was your downfall?
Definitely the baking.
That is truly outrageous considering baking became your specialty.
I questioned the teachers all the time. Like, “Do you really have to use canned grapes on that tart?” Or, “What if I added less sugar?” They were always shaking their heads at me. Everything had to be so precise—there was no room for creativity or individuality. It’s not what I was good at. I was a C+ student at that school.
And yet you managed to land gigs working under Jonathan Waxman at Michael’s and Wolfgang Puck at Spago. How did you go from C+ student to all-star apprentice?
Before Le Cordon Bleu, I found this restaurant in Marin County called 464 Magnolia, and I started working there for free. After Le Cordon Bleu, I returned as their lunch chef for a year. In 1979 my mother showed me this article about Michael’s that was actually from Los Angeles magazine. She had gone the night before and loved it—she said she wanted me to go there to see if I could get a job. We booked a reservation, and that’s where I met Michael McCarty. He said, “Absolutely. Come in tomorrow.”
But you didn’t start in the kitchen, right?
The only thing that was available was this job working the computer. As far as I know, Michael’s was the first restaurant in the country that was computerized both in point of sales and ordering from the kitchen. I was so at bad it—I put the wrong things in for the kitchen, and then they’d cook them, and then they yelled at me. Jonathan Waxman said, “Come work with the pastry chef. He is very temperamental, he’s got one foot out the door, nobody knows how to do the pastries here—come in and learn everything that he does.” Desserts! My downfall in ’78! But it’s like, “Sure, I’d love to.” So Jonathan dragged me into the kitchen, and that’s where I started working with him, too—this 22-or 23-year-old genius.
What was it like being a woman in a kitchen back then? Have you ever felt like your gender was a hurdle in this field?
When journalists called me up and asked me for horror stories about being a woman in a kitchen, I was like, “I don’t have any.” I worked for Michael McCarty, Jonathan Waxman, and Wolfgang Puck, and they all treated me with respect. I never realized that being a woman was an issue or a problem. There were many more women in California who were cooking the food that I wanted to eat: Alice Waters and Joyce Goldstein and Judy Rodgers and Barbara Tropp and Patty Unterman in Northern California. In L.A. there was Evan Kleiman and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. I read their books; I ate their food. Besides Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller, I couldn’t even tell you any other men whose food was influential at that time.
A number of people on that list are credited as pioneers of California cuisine, and you’re counted among them. Do you think of yourself as a “celebrity chef ”?
I always take it with a grain of salt. I started La Brea Bakery because I wanted good bread at my soon-to-open restaurant, Campanile. I knew from making bread at Spago that I needed a bakery environment. The only way to do that was to have a wholesale-retail bakery. So I did it. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been somebody else two years later. But I was there at the right time. People were saying, “You’re responsible for bringing bread to L.A.” That’s a big compliment—but I didn’t bring bread to L.A. Maybe I started a bakery, maybe I raised the bar for restaurant bread, but I certainly did not invent bread. While I was at Michael’s, I went to Ecole Lenôtre, in France. I discovered Poilâne bakery, and when I ate that bread, it was like, “Wow—this is what bread is supposed to be.” Around that time I tasted the bread that Steve Sullivan was baking at San Francisco’s Acme Bread. Those two influences gave me that road map for what I wanted to achieve.
You opened La Brea Bakery and Campanile within months of each other. What was it like in the early days?
Looking back, it’s one of those moments where you go, “Wow, I actually did that.” Because if somebody were to tell me what it was going to involve, including having two children and eventually a third, it’s like, no, this is not what I want to do [laughs]. But it doesn’t happen all at once. And then, before you know it, it’s happened. You’re caught up in it, and there’s no looking back. I did get the advantage of opening the bakery first, but the hours to run that bakery—going in at three in the morning, which got backed up to ten o’clock at night, working that ten-hour shift, and then having to create the desserts for the opening of a restaurant—what helped was living over Campanile. Since I lived upstairs, I could sleep for three hours, run down for four, throw something in the oven. I looked and felt like a mess. Maybe that’s why I wear dresses to work all the time now, to make up for those years where I was flour-coated and chocolate-stained.
After you and Mark Peel sold Campanile in the early aughts, you sold La Brea Bakery for what’s reported to be somewhere between $55 and $79 million. Was it hard for you to give up your darlings?
La Brea Bakery and Campanile were under one limited partnership. Our managing partner, Manfred Krankl, had the foresight to say we should separate the two. We kept all the same investors but made two different entities. When the time came to sell—I won’t say for how much, but it was more than $79 million—I got a fraction of it. There was an incredible amount of debt and close to 50 partners involved. So, yes, it was a nice chunk of money. But two years later, I lost it all, so it didn’t matter [laughs].
That’s right—Bernie Madoff literally made off with your reported $6 million profit. How’d you get that news?
I was on my way to do an event with a couple of our cooks at Meadowood in Napa. We just had lunch in Oakland, at Oliveto, and I called my dad to check in. He said, “We’ve lost everything. It was all a scam.” So what did I do? The only thing I could do. I celebrated at French Laundry. We had reservations anyway. It was just like, “Wow, I’ve got nothing. I’ve got zero.” But my immediate reaction was, “Thank goodness I have a job.” It was only a year or so before that, maybe two, when I decided that I needed to leave Campanile. When my marriage was splitting up, I had no intention of leaving, but it became obvious that it wasn’t a good working environment for me. Truth be told, I could’ve said, “I’m going to take a few years off and figure out what I want to do.” That would’ve been devastating. But the fact that I was earning a living kept me on my feet.
You mean with the pizzeria and the osteria. How did Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich get involved with those?
Mario and I were acquaintances. It’s not like we hung out or had a long history. He had asked me if I would move to New York and help him with his baking program at Del Posto. It was around that time that I started to realize that my relationship with Mark and my days at Campanile were numbered. But I couldn’t move to New York because I had a small child. So I said, “How about you move to L.A. and we’ll open a restaurant here?” His immediate reaction was, “Nope. People don’t eat there, people don’t stay up there.” He didn’t think it was a very exciting dining city. It wasn’t until I came back from one of my summers in Italy, where Jeremiah Tower pointed me in the direction of a mozzarella restaurant in Rome. It was a fantastic concept. I must’ve seen Mario soon after I returned, and I told him I wanted to have this tiny, 25-seat place with me behind a mozzarella bar. That’s when he and Joe stepped in, and it became a giant operation.
Late last year, four women accused Mario of sexual harassment. Chefs like John Besh in New Orleans, Paul Qui in Texas, and Mike Isabella in D.C. are also facing harassment or assault charges. What needs to change in the restaurant industry? What does moving forward look like for you?
What I’ve tolerated at my restaurants has never changed, and people who work for me know that. But what I needed to do during these times was to reassure my staff about who I am, what I tolerate, and what I believe. So for myself, it’s not anything that I need to change or be different because that is who I am and have always been. Besides that, it’s moving forward and reminding people that if you thought this was OK, it’s not.
You’re involved in all three of your kitchens, and you’re still working behind the osteria’s mozzarella counter a few nights a week. Not that anyone’s trying to get you to retire— please don’t—but is there an end in sight?
I’m so stimulated by the people I work with at my restaurants, and often I’m lucky enough to play the role of the editor. When it comes down to realizing dishes, I get to step in and guide them. It’s such a satisfying relationship. It’s what keeps me so involved and interested. So I’m not going anywhere. And the best part is, I don’t see myself at the end of my career—I see myself as just starting.