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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Nancy Silverton

From pastry to bread to pizza, the wonderful rise of LA's "goddess of the delicious"

Every Chef’s Table episode — and by connection, its subject — could be distilled into one word if necessary; a thematic hook that each mini-documentary hangs its narrative upon. Sometimes it’s subtle. Other times, it’s front and center, and Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton, who currently operates Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza, and chi SPACCA, does everyone the favor of defining her own story literally seven words in — by uttering the word “obsessed” with a little smile.

The A-list talking heads tapped for the episode agree. Acclaimed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold puts it another way: “I suppose under different circumstances, you’d call it OCD.“ Chef Mario Batali, another: “It’s not obsession. It’s sickness. It’s a twisted, inside-her-mind, Los Angeleno, crazy person thing.” That narrative thread links each dramatic element of Silverton’s Chef’s Table turn. To recap (and check out Eater LA’s take):

• Chef’s Table sets up Silverton’s story at her LA restaurants and in Italy, the latter a place of both inspiration and escape for the chef. Editing-wise, this creates a wonderful introductory FOMO moment: Silverton’s first sit-down interview takes place in a sunny room, presumably in the States, and she’s rocking an unbelievably, effortlessly chic black top with yellow flowers. In the next, cut to a sunny room in Rome and she’s wearing an unbelievably, effortlessly chic yellow outfit with green polka dots. Relatedly, I want all her outfits.

Here’s Silverton’s story, in brief. She was born in Sherman Oaks, CA in a family where going out to eat was considered a special treat. But when she entered college and found herself “very attracted by a handsome man” who worked in a kitchen, she landed herself a job and a new passion. These details, which all lead up to her stint at Wolfgang Puck’s celebrated LA restaurant Spago in 1982, are intercut with present-day scenes of Silverton working at Osteria Mozza: interacting with staff, introducing herself to a new hire, tasting meat at the counter, politely but firmly admonishing a cook for a batch of meatball sauce. “I had to yell at them for my meatball sauce,” she says to a different cook later, relaying the conversation. “You know that is my biggest pet peeve.”

• About bread in the ‘80s: Before Spago opened, most restaurants, even those under chefs of Puck’s caliber, used a packaged mix for bread. “All you had to do was add water and bake it.”

Family leave advocacy moment: While working at Spago alongside her partner, chef Mark Peel, the couple decided to start a family. Silverton gave birth to her daughter on a Thursday — her day off, she notes — and was back to work on Tuesday.

• It isn’t until 20 minutes into the episode when we get the first mention of a Silverton-owned restaurant, she and Peel’s influential Campanile, which opened in 1989. “That put her into kind of a cult status,” Batali says of the restaurant’s famous grilled cheese nights, which Silverton spearheaded.

• Speaking of, it’s adorable that Batali obviously relishes the opportunity to praise Silverton to a wide audience. He’s wonderfully animated in each interview, and later, he’ll refer to Silverton as “the goddess of the delicious.”

• One of the episode’s most touching moments comes as Silverton, now operator of her own La Brea Bakery, MAKES JULIA CHILD CRY during a television appearance in the ‘90s. Silverton is still clearly moved recounting the memory of baking on Child’s program, and the moment when the legendary culinary figure takes her first bite. “And I look at her — she looks at me — I see these tears streaming down her eyes. And I thought, I just burnt Julia Child.” Instead, Child marvels: “It’s a dessert to cry [over]; it’s so good.” If you’re not tearing up a bit, too, then you’re probably watching the wrong show and reading the wrong website right now.

• The first introduction of Chef’s Table’s signature Slightly Dramatic Music happens once Silverton decides to sell the La Brea Bakery concept, which had by the late ‘90s, had grown into a more industrial operation. It notably does not kick in when Silverton talks about her separation from Peel in the mid-aughts; after the divorce, she left the restaurant they shared. “It was not the loss of the relationship that was difficult for me,” she says. “It was the loss of Campanile. It was the first time since I was 21 years old that I had not worked consistently. I was alone.”

• The post-Campanile redemption moment is framed around Silverton’s trip to Italy, a ride on a Vespa, and her idea to open a counter “like the experience of making sushi, but using cheese as the canvas.” The new obsession, everyone, is cheese, and I am sold. And thus, Osteria Mozza was born. “I get the best of both worlds,” Silverton says near the episode’s conclusion. “I get to socialize, but I also get to create.”

Pastry, Pizza, Bread: Recapping Nancy Silverton’s Obsessions on Netflix’s Chef’s Table [ELA]
All Chef’s Table Coverage [E]

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