Michael White Remembers His First Days in Italy, Tastes a New Risotto, and Welcomes a Surprise Guest … Just Another Afternoon at Marea
I often lie, to myself as well as others, that my least favorite place to meet with chefs is in their own restaurants, because of all the distractions. But the truth is that, while it might not be the most productive venue, I actually love working in restaurants. Love breaking one of the hospitality world’s many fourth walls by moving the pre-set silverware and glasses to the next table. Love the ready availability of food and drink. And, as a writer spends most of his time alone, I love the presence of all the people; the more the merrier.
So, it should come as no surprise that while I always request an office meeting with Michael White (you can read a little about our project on this site’s book page) for the privacy and productivity it affords us, I secretly prefer working in one of his restaurants. Which is good, because Michael has three of them in Manhattan alone, and likes to be in them as often as possible. When we meet at one of them, almost always between lunch and dinner service, the sessions are like that box of chocolates that so obsessed Forrest Gump: I never know what I’m going to get—Managers come and go seeking answers and approvals; Michael’s aide-de-camp and head of media relations for Altamarea Group, Olivia Young, is often at the next table working on an Apple store’s worth of mobile devices and laptops; and then there’s Michael’s cellphone, and mine. We always get our work done, but don’t necessarily take the most direct path from A to B.
Case in point: Tuesday’s working session. I arrived at Marea around 2pm to find Michael wrapping up an impromptu visit with his pal, photographer Nick Solares. I’d heard a lot about Nick, but never met him, so it was great to make his army-jacketed, British-accented acquaintance. And he was such a friendly guy that I felt no compunction about hitting him up for a photo of me and Michael working, which he was only too happy to stick around and shoot. (That’s his shot up at the top of this post; you can see more of Nick’s work at his site.)
And so, we cleared our table, I busted out my laptop, and with Nick circling us and clicking away like a war correspondent, we got ready to pick up our interview where we’d left off the other day…
But just then, out of the kitchen came chef de cuisine Jared Gadbaw, who set down before us a wide, shiny bowl of wet, red-tinged risotto and a Tupperware container full of plastic spoons. This only means one thing, no matter what restaurant you’re in: the chef de cuisine, or in some cases a sous chef or executive sous, is about to have the executive chef taste a new dish, or a rejiggered old one, or maybe samples of meat or fish from possible new purveyors that have been cooked up for evaluation.
In this case, the dish was a yet-unnamed risotto Jared and Michael had previously discussed, made with the telltale ingredients of pasta putanesca, which features tomatoes, anchovies, capers, and olives. (It’s not news that the name translates to “whore’s pasta.” There are a number of explanations for this. My favorite is that it’s such a simple pasta that it can be prepared by a hooker in those few precious minutes allotted to her between johns.) The risotto—a relatively wet one in the style of the Padovan dish risi e bisi—featured tomatoes and capers. In place of anchovies it had tuna belly, but the anchovy was present in another form: the risotto’s addictive, almost umami-like quality was provided by a drizzle of Colatura anchovy syrup, a clarified liquid that hails from Cetara on the Salerno side of the Amalfi coast. (Michael compares its effect to that of Asian fish sauce.)
Michael tucked into the risotto and his approval was almost instantaneous. He had just one question:
“Did you include the peperoncino (pepper)?” he asked.
Jared had. They discussed how the olives were to be added later via a sprinkling of dehydrated black olive crumble (Michael loves a bit of crunch on many dishes), and that was that. I had a taste for myself (delicious, naturally), and then Jared split for the kitchen.
It wasn’t until then that Michael explained to me that the pepper was red jalapeño that is cut, de-seeded, and rubbed on the bottom of the bowl before the risotto is plated, resulting in a faint, impossible-to-name effect, more sweet than hot. He picked up the trick in Italy, where it’s not uncommon to rub, say, a mixing bowl with a cut garlic clove before tossing a mushroom salad in it, ensuring a not-too-strong garlic presence in the finished dish. (Somewhere in here, Nick got his shot and took off, leaving Michael and me to our work.)
Moments like this are why we haven’t been able to generate a final, locked-down recipe list for the book, even though we deliver the manuscript later this year. As Michael and his team are constantly generating new dishes, we’re always wanting to add more; Michael told me early on that he wanted to keep things loose, to allow for the unexpected. As a result, we’re going to end up with more recipes than we can fit into the book and pare them down, the way film editors take a three-hour cut of a movie and trim it to two. Hey, we can always use the rest in the sequel.
Now here’s thing: My intention for this post going into this session was to write about what Michael and I have been discussing this week, namely his formative first days cooking at San Domenico restaurant in Imola, Italy. It’s great stuff, and we delved deeper into it Tuesday afternoon: He remembers the details of his inaugural days overseas, in January 1993, indelibly, like the way the roar of Vespas in the night gently rattled the picture frames in his hotel room on his first night, or the cappuccino and brioche he had for breakfast the next morning, or what he calls the “ten-epiphany-a-day” period he enjoyed for a few weeks. And that’s not to mention all the nuggets about the boarding rooms over the restaurant or the first thing he cooked at San Domenico (venison), or his observations regarding the similarities and differences between French and Italian kitchens.
I wanted to write about all that, but it’ll have to wait for another day because right now, I find the risotto and our discussion about it more compelling. That’s how things go when you write a book, or a blog, at a restaurant. Not only was there the risotto tasting and interview, but we also made a sudden trip downstairs to the pasta-making area so Michael could show me a few things pertaining to that portion of our interview.
Oh, and did I mention that Chris Tucker showed up, two friends in tow, seeking a table at which to enjoy a late lunch? He didn’t have a reservation; it was a spontaneous impulse. Michael stepped away from our meeting to welcome him, and not just because Tucker’s a celebrity. It was more personal than that: If there’s one thing this chef can relate to, it’s spontaneity.