Cold Wisconsin winters and the smell of freshly baked bread got celebrated chef Michael White into the kitchen. His Italian-inspired creations kept him there.
The Midwesterner grew up tasting food from his Norwegian heritage, but is known for his lavish dishes that incorporate flavors straight out of Italy, including fresh pastas, seafood and tomatoes.
After heading the critically acclaimed New York restaurant Fiamma, White joined forces with his current business partner, Chris Cannon, and moved on to the now Michelin-rated Alto and the Tudor City restaurant L'Impero. White, 37, is now master chef in a new kitchen at Convivio (formerly L'Impero), the Italian restaurant he opened this summer to rave reviews including 3 stars from The New York Times.
White's relationship with food began when he was a boy learning to cook between weekend trips to swim meets.
"I grew up in the Midwest in Beloit, Wis., and as a young person, food was always important to us. We were always cooking. You know, when it's cold out in the winter time, you're not going to running around," he said. "I mean, you know, it's cold, cold in Wisconsin, and so we were always baking bread and these types of things."
His family had a little garden where they grew food in the summertime. Beloit, he said wryly, was "really not the food Mecca of the United States. But growing up we had really great food, produce, corn, sweet tomatoes.
"And I remember my family bringing me into Chicago to eat at great restaurants. And so my brother and I were really exposed to great food at a young age," White said. "Food was something that was important. Being from a Norwegian family, the food bug got set real early with me. Rice, vegetables, cream sauces, fish -- you name it."
Despite their Norwegian roots, the White family had a taste for Italian food. And, living close to the Windy City, there was plenty of it.
"We loved to go out on Friday nights, after a football game, and go and have pizza as a family," he said. "It was really special."
White's career, he said, began to take shape when he would hang out in the kitchen of Italian restaurants and watch the chefs in action.
"It was so cool. I partly learned from just watching and through osmosis, and this was before cooking was popular. Before, it was thought of as a blue-collar job. Cooking now, as you know, is quite a different story. It's something that people think is really cool and hip," he said.
Back when he was young it was still a career that raised eyebrows, especially his father's.
"My dad's a banker, and I told my dad that I was going to be a chef. And he said, 'What?'" White remembered. "I think he had visions of me sleeping down in the basement at home and then flipping eggs at the local diner or something like that. But I think I've done a little bit more than that now."
He has stayed out of the basement -- and the local diner, for that matter. And his parents followed his career, even traveling with him to Europe, when he spent more than seven years living in Italy, often going back and forth to the south of France.
"Everything I do is surrounded around food, which is probably not a good thing," he said. "I don't have that many hobbies. My hobby is cooking."