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.
It Was a Cold Winter Night
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."
Chef Chooses His Career
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."
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.
Developing a Taste Memory
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.
"I mean, you have to start at the grass roots, below, cooking, cleaning vegetables. And if I took 10 guys, 10 girls out of cooking school, brought them into the kitchen, [and if] I told them, 'Here's an artichoke, you clean it,' I bet you six or seven wouldn't know how to do it," he said.
Eventually, he said, they will do it enough to learn. And then will come a better understanding of their kitchens.
"I could be cutting vegetables with the guys and all of a sudden hear something behind me, and I know it's not right. I mean, I like to say I can hear fire and I can hear anything," he said. "When you're in the kitchen the sound of cooking is like music. That sounds weird, but it really is true. That's how in-tune I am with cooking."
Even a renowned chef has a few marginal items in his cupboard. When asked about his favorite junk food, White named potato chips, because "it's the crunching sound, it's salt ... As a young person I didn't have a lot of junk food. I liked to go to my friends' house when I was little to go get junk food."
White moved on to cheeseburgers and then his 11 p.m. special -- high-quality Italian tuna with oil, celery and Hellman's mayonnaise on whole wheat toast.
"That's what Michael White eats late at night," he said.