Training one's palate to be great is possible, White said, but the passion for food really has to be inside people. They have to grow up on good food and develop what he calls a "taste memory." He savors one of his earliest "taste memories" coming from the tomatoes his great-grandfather grew along with sweet corn and watermelon.
White said what people see in him is the real deal, that there's no smoke and mirrors in his work.
"I'm very much like my grandfather was," he said. "Somebody who is, you know, "testona," a very hard-headed person. If I want something, I'm going to go and get it, and that's how I've acted in New York City as well. It's something that you have to have an unbelievable drive."
Yet when he's around the table with his wife and daughter, sometimes simple goes a long way. They have elaborate meals on the weekend, but maybe something like tomatoes and bacon on toast other times.
"The last thing that a chef wants to have on his day off is something complicated," he said.
And if he wants to get out of the kitchen, there's a wealth of choices in his backyard.
"We're blessed in New York City to have unbelievable ethnic food, whether you're going to Queens out the 7 line, or downtown to Chinatown or to Koreatown, these are things that we're very fortunate to have, and that's what we find on our days off," he said. "My daughter loves Asian food. She's like, 'Dad, could we have General Gao's chicken?' When I was growing up in Wisconsin, you know, it was never about that. Now, obviously General Gao's chicken is something that's pedestrian Chinese, but she's there eating snow pea leaves and Szechuan food, and she loves it! Octopus! You name it, the kid loves everything!"
Could that have something to do with dad? Maybe, he said, but it's probably more about his daughter being exposed to a variety of different foods.
"If they see you eating it and the joy that you get out of eating it, they're going to be the same way," he said.
White said that, to him, food means spending time at the table with his friends and his family. Convivio, the name of his new restaurant, means "at the table, banqueting, conviviality, the fact of sharing with others," he said.
But Italian food is clearly his love.
"You know, going to Italy for the first time, back in 1993, I had this idea of staying about six months and all of a sudden I got there -- I mean, let me tell you, it's not all about food, when you see these great, beautiful Italian chicks, with this curly, long hair, and it's about that too. Because you know, I was 20 years old," he said, adding, "But it's really about the food."
Italian food, White said, is the basis for many other ethnic foods.
"If you cook Italian food or French food, you could cook anything after that. You could cook Turkish, you could cook Russian, because it's the method and technique, the process," he said. "You know, working in Italy for me was one of the great eye-opening experiences. It's about working with cheese that just came from the dairy. ... When we'd make chicken stock, I'd go and buy the chicken bones. You don't get to pick out your chicken bones in New York City or Chicago and San Francisco, at least I didn't."
While many chefs get their start just messing around in the kitchen, going to school is very important, White said. Future chefs need to learn their techniques and even the sounds of the kitchen.