From His Wisconsin Kitchen to Big City Restaurants

The Thrill of Competition

White said he has been asked if he would compete on reality television shows. He replied that, with 26,000 restaurants in New York City, from fine dining to hot dog stands, he competes every day.

"You have to be reinventing yourself, and that's difficult. Heading up an Italian restaurant the food press has this idea of what Italian food is all about," he continued. "The rolling hills of Tuscany, you know, Piedmont wine. And that's fine, I take those flavors, I take them and put them into a box and then I get to mix them up. I might take something from Sardinia and mix it with something from Puglia and have a dish together."

White said that in order to really cook Italian food, investing time to absorb culture in Italy is a must.

But the U.S. has its unique strengths as well. White credited everything from farmers' markets to the Food Network for bringing good food into Americans' homes.

Before television devoted air time to food, people just cooked, he said. Now they know about food.

"You can't fool anybody anymore. Eighteen years ago, I started in a restaurant called Spiaggia in Chicago working with chef Paul Bartolotta, and I remember cooking risotto for the first time," he said. "It was like no one knew what that was, and we were making basil pesto, we were making potato-leek raviolis. Nobody had ever seen these things before. Now if you want to do a food demonstration, people say, 'Oh, I make risotto at home now. Oh, I've had potato raviolis.' So, it's difficult."

Rather than thinking about competition from other restaurants or the Food Network, White said he relies on what he calls "total immersion."

"I've been involved in competition my whole life," he said." I'm a highly competitive person."

If a chef wants to play in "in Series A, in the professional baseball of cooking," White said, he or she has to have that drive, that competitiveness. "You could make no one want to be a chef: long hours, when all your friends are having fun, you're working, holidays. It's hot, hot, hot," he said.

"When people say, 'Oh, I want to be a chef!' You know, you better check it out first," he said. "You'd better hang out in a kitchen before you spend 50 grand to go to cooking school. Because if you go to cooking school first, you come out, and you decide you don't want to do it, well then, you went, threw your 50,000 bucks on the table."

Cooking professionally also comes with the perk of instant gratification, White said, and that's much preferable to working for six months as a salesman to get one commission.

"If I have 200 people at night -- you know, you do antipasto, you do pasta -- I could get instant gratification 600 times a night," he said.

And he gets to make people happy. "It has to be light: New Yorkers eat out every single night of the week in my restaurants. I have customers who come two and three times a week, and in order to have food that is approachable, that has full impact, flavor, you can't kill somebody at night with lots of butter and things like that. And that's why the Italian kitchen is so important, the fact of using olive oil and light broths and things like that. It's really great for people who eat out every day," he said.

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