F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza (Los Angeles)
Experience: Founder of La Brea Bakery, and Campanile restaurant
Books: Author of eight books including Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book and The Mozza Cookbook
Education: Le Cordon Bleu (London)
What are you most known for?
La Brea Bakery breads. I hate the word “artisanal,” but we were the first small neighborhood bakery to make that giant leap into something more commercial and more successful.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child
Name a dish that’s inspired you.
Lindsey Shere’s pastries at Chez Panisse in 1975 or 1976. That was the first time I saw someone bridge French and American pastry. She had the courage to make desserts that were elegant and homey at the same time. She didn’t inspire me to become a pastry chef immediately; when I went to Le Cordon Bleu in London in 1977, they were so rigid about desserts, I got turned off. But in 1979, when I started at Michael’s in Santa Monica the only opening they had was in pastry. I became obsessed.
What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil. I tend to prefer the more aggressive flavors of Tuscany and Umbria. Capezzana is a longtime favorite, also Castello di Ama, Laudemio and Fontodi.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to make pesto. It should be made in a mortar and pestle. Rather than throwing all of the ingredients together, start by pounding the nuts with a coarse salt. Then add the herbs; the salt and nut paste will help shred them. Then I like to grate in the garlic with a Microplane. I usually use about two small garlic cloves to about a tablespoon of pine nuts. Sometimes I’ll use hazelnuts, or almonds if I’m making romesco. Basil pesto is my favorite; I find it’s the most aromatic. But we also make mint pesto, celery leaf pesto, even arugula pesto. To add the olive oil, drizzle it in and stir it slowly to make a paste.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
New Orleans. I had the most fantastic fried chicken, truly the best ever, at a place called Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Another place called R&O’s had a phenomenal ham-and-beef muffuletta, terrific gumbo and fantastic barbecued shrimp.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take all three, because I like crowds. And I wouldn’t want to be on a date with any of them! I’d take them somewhere familiar and accessible and fun, that required using your hands. Somewhere where we wouldn’t need to intellectualize about the food, and we could have a lot of laughs. Come to think of it, why not take them to Willie Mae’s for fried chicken?
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
My ideal space would probably resemble Camino in Oakland, California. They have the wood-burning oven and the wood-fired grill, so everything comes off the menu with those fire flavors.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make?
A jar of ventresca (tuna belly packed in olive oil) either Italian or Spanish, some borlotti beans, extra-virgin olive oil, an onion, a knife and some radicchio. I probably wouldn’t need sea salt but let’s put that in, too.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
O for olive, C for chocolate, S is for salt.
What’s the best house cocktail, wine or beer?
Affordable red wine. I love Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Sangiovese, Barbaresco and Rhône wines. They’re drinkable, accessible, and I usually have luck going by the region, instead of relying on a particular producer or year.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product?
Gindo’s Spice of Life hot sauce made by a bartender in Los Angeles named Chris Ginder. It’s perfectly balanced, spicy and vinegary.
Chef’s Feed, which features restaurant recommendations from chefs. I’m on it, but I also think it’s great.
Won Best New Chef at: Campanile and La Brea Bakery, Los Angeles
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.