I don’t feel comfortable being put on a pedestal,” Nancy Silverton says midway through her episode of Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table. Her reluctance to step into the limelight might explain why Silverton, the co-founder of La Brea Bakery and the Mozza restaurants, doesn’t appear on national TV as much as some of her famous chef friends. And that’s one reason why this episode of the lauded series feels like such a thrill to watch — because finally, audiences are getting a peek inside the life and creative mind of one of America’s true visionaries.
The episode is a turning point for the hit Netflix series, and that’s all thanks to Silverton’s unpretentious, but enlightened approach to Italian cuisine. “All of the famous chefs, from Grant [Achatz] to Massimo [Bottura], if you ask them where they really want to eat Sunday dinner, they want to eat at Nancy Silverton’s house,” says Mozza’s co-owner Mario Batali. “It’s that food that is the most nourishing, not just to your palate, but to your soul.”
Silverton’s style of cooking — accessible but brilliant, served outside of a tasting menu format — forced a welcome break from the show’s typical formula. There are no abstract forms or tweezer-food towers here, just rustic pizzas, salads, and vegetables, all composed and executed perfectly. Silverton’s restaurants are certainly hot spots, but they’re much more democratic than most Chef’s Table restaurants. You won’t have to save an entire paycheck and jump through a million hoops to dine at Silverton’s restaurants, and in a first for the show’s history, one (Mozza) even offers its food to-go.
Silverton’s legacy — as one of the architects of California cuisine and the modern American bread movement — adds a layer of depth to this episode that you don’t always find on food TV. Certainly, many Angelenos know about Silverton’s hit pizzeria, or at least La Brea Bakery, whose products can be found in grocery stores throughout Southern California.
But how many people across the country know that she helped jump-start the artisan bread boom with her idiosyncratic work at La Brea in the 1980s? How many people know that she made every single loaf for many years, and turned something people considered a sandwich ingredient or free appetizer into a covetable foodstuff? And how many people know that she helped set the standard for the kind of market-driven Cal-Ital cuisine that is currently in vogue not just in the Golden State but in cities all across America?
And, perhaps most importantly, Silverton’s episode reveals a woman in the restaurant industry who changed the world around her via her determination and creativity — and who continues to be an inspiration to chefs and diners everywhere. Throughout this hour of TV, you see her being the boss, but talking to her staff like they are actual colleagues, not just peons executing her recipes. You see her interacting with diners like they are her friends, not just her patrons. And, even though she’s arrived at the point in her career where she can let the kitchen run itself, you see her actually cooking in her restaurant, during service.
The arc feels like a breath of fresh air after countless docuseries about damaged-but-brilliant men who find redemption for their sins on the plate — oftentimes at the expense of having a remotely normal family life. Silverton clearly knows more about the work/family balance than many people in the industry. She did, after all, open a restaurant with her husband as the co-chef and raise her family in the apartment above the dining room. “My kids lived up stairs from the restaurant, so I could run downstairs, stick a load of bread in the oven, run upstairs, finish the story,” she says. “It allowed me the time I needed to work.”
Nancy Silverton is our pick for the TV Chef of 2017. Hopefully in 2018, we’ll see more people breaking the Peak TV mold, just like her.