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Michael White on His New Cookbook & Rapid Expansion

Michael White.
Michael White.
Photo: Evan Sung

Last week, New York chef Michael White released his new cookbook Classico e Moderno, a comprehensive look at Italian cooking that's split into two sections as the title suggests. As Eater's Paula Forbes noted yesterday in a first look at the book, the Classico section has just been "slightly reorganized to 'reflect the way we eat in the United States'" while "the Moderno section just skews more Michael White."

In the following interview, White discusses the decision to split the book into two parts, why he wanted to reflect the American sensibility toward Italian food, and why we even need another Italian cookbook in the first place. He also discusses a wild year of expansion for the Altamarea Group that has involved multiple new openings in New York City, plus openings in London, Istanbul, New Jersey, and, shortly, Washington, DC. Here now, the interview:

michael-white-classico-moderno.jpegI know you wrote you split the book into the two parts to show both aspects of your culinary identity. But how did you go about splitting it?
It's a very comprehensive look at what is Italian. There have been lots and lots of Italian cookbooks, so the question is why we need another Italian cookbook? Well, I think splitting it into two parts like that really demonstrates how I seek inspiration for my modern Italian food. It's really rooted in the tradition. A lot of times people put together flavors that go together, but they might not be Italian. I really want it to show that the ingredients used [in Italy]. You won't find cilantro, you won't find avocado, you won't find those things that sometimes people take liberties to do.

I liked that you use the inspirazione marker to point readers toward the recipes that inspired another recipe.
Yeah, that's how I look at Italian food. I can be anywhere eating something and I'll try to think about how I could do that in a modern way. When I say modern, I don't mean technically modern. The cooking technique is part of what all of us learn as chefs. I think we all look at food differently. I just feel the way I look at [Italian food] is very respectful to the tradition if that makes sense.

Actually could you explain that a little more?
Well, how we do clams and potatoes and leeks to do sauce for a piece of fish. So I'll make a sauce that has potatoes and leeks and clam stock and build on flavors, and I'll put that down first on the bottom. Then I'll put a garnish on top of it that would be clams, leeks, but in the real form, and then the fish and then baste it with the clam and leek juice. Just building on flavors the French way.

When you look at the chefs that are doing the best Italian food in the country, they are people that are not born in Italy.

So, I noticed a lot of the chapters are built toward an American sensibility, such as soup got its own chapter to reflect how Americans eat soup. How and why?
I think you raise a good point. I think if you look at how a handful of us that do Italian food, we all look at it with this Italian sensibility but through an American lens. That's why when you look at the chefs that are doing the best Italian food in the country, they are people that are not born in Italy. We don't take it for granted. And you look at Italian food a different way. But we apply the American sensibility to it.

When it comes to chefs from anywhere outside of New York, when they come to New York I think one of the things that happens that they miss is that American or New York sensibility. I'm not going to name names. It's not so impeding for us when chefs such as myself and others go outside of the United States. We have this New York sensibility. It might be something that is a betterment, say if I'm in Istanbul or in London. We're not handicapped. Sometimes when people come to New York, they're handicapped by that.

By wanting to stick to the tradition?
Not by sticking to the tradition, just not knowing how to adapt to it. Or they're used to working in a certain manner. The Italian food in the modern section of the book is very Italian in nature, but it has a New York sensibility to it, if you will, or an American sensibility. My sensibility.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater]

I was also talking to Ivan Orkin yesterday about his book and the huge gulf between Japanese and American sensibilities. Obviously Italian is familiar here, but it also has a life of its own. What is it like to bridge that gap?
There's many answers to that question, but for example, we think about pasta as an entree in America. In Italy, they don't think of pasta as an entree. It is a middle course. That's one of the things that we as Americans — myself included — we're like, "Oh wow, I want that bowl of pasta with whatever condiment." And then you want so much of it that you cannot eat the entree. I think that a lot of times people miss out on how good some real classic Italian cooking can be because they eat so much pasta. I wish people looked at pasta in a different way. But I can't blame them, you know what I mean?

We think about pasta as an entree in America. In Italy, they don't think of pasta as an entree.

That would be one example of that. Does that make sense? We write menus kind of in a three-panel scenario. We want you to start with an antipasto and then go to a small pasta and then an entree and have this very relaxed and convivial type of eating. Not just having an appetizer or just having an entree pasta and wolfing it down.

And if you don't mind, I'd like to ask a bit about your restaurant expansion since you've been at it quite a bit. I'm actually based in DC, so I'm personally invested in this. How is everything going?
Things are progressing along very nicely. DC is coming on very strong. This Summer, we opened up Costata, which is a steakhouse, and then Butterfly, and then Chop Shop, which is in London. And most recently we just opened in Istanbul.

And so now DC is next. That's coming in the next couple of weeks. It's something that we're putting the finishing touches on. It's a fantastic spot. I'm very happy to very thoughtfully fit into the Washington, DC area and just do very simple dishes that we do at New York Osteria Morini on a beautiful spot on the waterfront. So I'm really excited about it. The teams are there hiring and the kitchen is all put in and being ready to get fired up. We're looking very forward to being part of the DC market.

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Chop Shop, London. [Photo: Julie Falconer]

I'm curious, too, what your general expansion philosophy is because this Summer was crazy for you and you're still going.
Yeah, after DC I'm opening Ristorante Morini on Madison between 85th and 86th here in New York City and then moving onto next year. But I tell you, Altamarea Group is made up of over 700 fantastic employees, if I do say so myself. People that are really invested in what we're doing. In order to keep going, I want to maintain the great people that we have and give them a place to open up and call their own. Chef Matt Adler was a chef with me here in New York City who had lived in the DC area. When the opportunity arose, I asked him [to open Osteria Morini there]. That's the beauty of having a group with the infrastructure and so many different people.

We're building a business but also building a platform for everybody else to grow with the company.

We have fantastic people in the organization that can easily operate their own activities, but it becomes so difficult. It's difficult for a group such as [Altamarea Group] to open and secure leases and insurance and the ins and outs of running a business. Think of it for an individual that wants to do it by themselves. So therefore myself and my partner Ahmass Fakahany, we're building a business but also building a platform for everybody else to grow with the company and take on new properties. It's really amazing to watch those people then have families... Things are going fantastic. We're very fortunate, but we're working very hard and doing our due diligence.

So you can keep your talent and also give them more responsibility.
Give them more responsibility, expand their lifestyle, and [their] salaries continue to grow. It's really amazing. Let's say two people want to open a restaurant, a front of the house person and a back of the house person. If you don't have any money and you get money from some outside investors, those investors want to be paid back. Therefore you can't pay yourself a lot of money while you're paying back that person that put you in business. So when you think about that, there's a very, very long time that you have to work and take a certain amount of money. You can never pay yourself a real salary.

So I pay people real salaries, give them the ability to get bonuses, give them the ability to have insurance for their home and family. These kinds of things are very difficult. In order to grow a business, you want to keep investing in your employees so they can keep growing themselves.

Yeah that makes sense. Finally, I wanted to ask you about Istanbul since quite a few restaurateurs are going in there now. How did that come about for you?
I don't know if you've ever visited Istanbul, but it is a burgeoning city and it has upwards of 20 million people and almost has a trillion dollar GDP. In the next 15 to 20 years, it'll be at $2 trillion. The growth, the people wanting to have new experiences and new kinds of food, it's really an amazing time there. Kendall College, my old [culinary] school from Chicago, is opening a branch in Istanbul. So there's a tremendous amount of investment.

The Zorlu Center where I'm at is a mixed use building that has a hotel, beautiful stores such as Prada and Louis Vuittton. Jamie's Italian is there with me. Tom's Kitchen is there, Tom Aikens from London, and Eataly as well. It's amazing and I hope to do more projects in Istanbul someday.

· All Michael White Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

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