Nancy Silverton likes to talk in terms of these days—meaning now, as opposed to those days, back then. She does this matter-of-factly, without dwelling. In the late seventies, when she was coming of age in California’s historic restaurant kitchens, cooking as a profession wasn’t glamorous or glorified. The template for her career didn’t yet exist. And the idea of a restaurant chef—let alone a woman—publishing a ninth cookbook, as Silverton has just done with Mozza at Home, and filming a television episode, as she’s just done with Chef’s Table, was unthinkable.
Silverton starts these days with coffee and the newspaper, followed by an hour-long walk around her neighborhood, holding weights. She’s at work by eleven, on the corner of Highland and Melrose that houses Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, Mozza2Go, and Chi Spacca: a pizzeria, upscale Italian restaurant, takeout shop and retail storefront, and meat-centric restaurant, respectively. “I catch up, tell them my new ideas, recap things I noticed, and kind of just float,” she says; with the exception of Thursday nights and Sundays, her time off, she’ll work the mozzarella bar till late at night.
These summer days, she’s on the road. She’s in between trips when I catch up with her. She spends at least five weeks of the summer at the house in Umbria that she bought for her father after the sale of her iconic La Brea Bakery. (“He was a general partner in the restaurant,” Nancy says. “Everybody did so well when the bakery sold.”) She admits to a tendency to overbook. I’m lucky to be filling a spot.
Though we’re inside Osteria Mozza, with its tall ceilings and towering flower arrangements, she wears sunglasses while we talk, different pairs on different days. I am slightly afraid of her: she is a legend; she is formidable; she is wearing shorts with seashells on them. Sparkling barrettes pin back her curly hair. She’s at enviable ease in red lipstick. When it comes to Silverton, confident is a word that comes up a lot.
Chief among the these-versus-those-days distinctions is that these days, in Los Angeles, there’s a surfeit of restaurants. And not just restaurants but really, really good ones. That LA’s restaurant scene is now full to brimming with such talent raises the question: Would all this have been possible without Nancy Silverton? “She should be crowned queen of Los Angeles,” says chef Jonathan Waxman, a former coworker turned mentor and friend of forty years.
Nancy Silverton was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1954. Her father was an attorney and her mother a writer, first of short stories, and later of television, for General Hospital, among other shows. Her mom worked from home and cooked for their family every night. In those days, “Food wasn’t anything I paid attention to,” she remembers. “Now kids can’t get away from it, mainly from television. I think that’s what really captivates the younger audience.” Her mother was a committed home cook, trying her hand at ethnic cooking and refusing to make anything out of a box. Nancy liked the TV dinners she ate at her grandmother’s house—packaged food that she saw other kids eating.
“Everything seems like it was so different back then, or maybe I was,” Nancy tells me when I ask how she chose Sonoma State, the college where she began to cook. “My best friend was going there, and so it was like, I’ll go there too! It had nothing to do with education or location or anything. It was just, Sounds like fun.”
The breeziest story of how it all started—it all being the illustrious pastry, bread, pizza, and mozzarella careers; the lauded desserts at now-legendary Los Angeles restaurants; the groundbreaking and award-winning bakery that sold for millions; the five Mozza outposts in Southern California and two more in Singapore—goes like this: Sonoma State had a brand-new, student-run dining hall with two menus, a standard meal and a vegetarian option. “The first couple days I was there, I noticed this incredibly attractive guy who was working in the kitchen,” she says. “I went up to him and told him I loved to cook.” This was a white lie; she didn’t. “I told him I was a vegetarian, which I wasn’t, and that I wanted to work in the kitchen,” Nancy recalls. “And that’s really how it started.”
She bought a cookbook, Cooking Creatively with Natural Foods, and followed the recipes for seventies-era vegetarian staples like roasted vegetables and lentil loaves. “I remember so clearly standing in that stainless steel kitchen, thinking, This is what I want to do. I want to be a cook,” she says. “I probably didn’t even know the word chef back then.”
Buoyed by the thrill of the dining-hall job, Silverton sought out restaurant work. During college summers, she worked in the kitchens of “pseudo-French cafés” in LA, making omelets, Niçoise salad, and crepes. She was a year shy of graduating when it dawned on her that she wanted to do this for a living. It was those days, not these, remember. Cooking was an unglorified, blue-collar job. Silverton’s father said, “That’s fine with me as long as you go to the Cordon Bleu.”
“I don’t know how the Cordon Bleu runs itself now,” Nancy says, and there again is the then-versus-now distinction. “It was very rigid. I know that I went to see the school a few years ago, they completely updated it. This was really, really just the basics. But I learned the basics.”
After culinary school in London, she returned to the Bay Area, to 464 Magnolia, a restaurant where she’d apprenticed the year before culinary school. This was the era of self-taught chefs revolutionizing California’s cuisine. Berkeley had Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower. Marian Burros, writing in the New York Times in 1982, would observe, “Another significant element in the California style of cooking is the willingness of the young chefs who run the most influential restaurants to experiment.” In Larkspur, at 464 Magnolia, the style was like-minded—loose, self-taught, casual, experimental, exciting.
The chef of 464 Magnolia, Michael Goldstein, wanted to open the restaurant for lunch, and asked Silverton to be his lunch chef. She accepted, and she oversaw a kitchen for the first time. “It’s funny because my memory is not strong as far as what I made, or how it was to lead a kitchen. I know that I came up with the menus, and they all came from looking at cookbooks and figuring out anything from roast-pork sandwiches to salad items, but I don’t remember that year very clearly.”
And running a kitchen—what were those challenges? She dismisses it as a simpler time.
“I didn’t even know what food cost was then. There were no HR issues. There were no time clocks. There was no health department. I could go on and on. There were fewer things to manage.”
After a year, she went back to Los Angeles for a visit, thinking she’d probably return to San Francisco. “I had all my stuff stored at my friend’s apartment,” she says. “The closetful of belongings I still wish I had instead of the several roomfuls of possessions I now own. Then it was so simple.”
Back home, her parents were over the moon about a six-month-old restaurant called Michael’s in Santa Monica. Michael McCarty was the then-twenty-five-year-old owner—a precocious Francophile who had style in spades. It occupied a 1930s bungalow with a garden and had opened in 1979 with a team of young but potent talent: Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, and Jimmy Brinkley.
Silverton doesn’t remember the particulars of that first meal, just the impression the restaurant left: “It was very modern, white walls, lots of contemporary art. It just had such a vibe. People dressed up, but it wasn’t like the old-school restaurants I went to with my parents. It was something new, and I hadn’t experienced that before,” she recalls. “It was young waiters—young, good-looking waiters.”
It was nouvelle cuisine—“painterly,” remembers Russ Parsons, a restaurant critic who moved to Los Angeles in the eighties and wrote for the Herald Examiner before moving on to the Los Angeles Times. “Not swashes and things like that. But vegetables carefully fanned across the top of the plate and the protein in the center, with the sauce underneath. It was very au courant for the 1980s.”
“Everything about it was stylish. And Michael was stylish,” Nancy goes on. “I met Michael with my parents, so of course they said, Nancy went to the Cordon Bleu. They were proud of me. He said, Great, come in tomorrow to meet Carl, the manager.”
Michael’s had a computerized wine list and a computerized point-of-sale system—novel for its time. During lunch and dinner, it was Carl’s responsibility to punch the orders into the computer, which would then print them out for the cooks.
“He was so sick of it,” she remembers. “When I walked in to apply for a job in the kitchen, he said, The only thing that’s available is this lunch position on the computer. So I said, I’ll take it.” Her foot was in the door. “I don’t think I even lasted a month. And to this day, I still don’t ever use the computer.”
“She was the shittiest fucking cashier I’ve ever seen in my life,” confirms Waxman. “She was terrible. But she was funny as hell. She’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. And she was totally Nancy back then—off the cuff, self-deprecating, confident.”
Waxman found out that Silverton wanted to work in the kitchen. Though he didn’t have a position for her on the line, he did have one in the pastry department.
He needed someone to work under Jimmy Brinkley, the brilliant but mercurial head pastry chef. Post–Cordon Bleu, Silverton harbored fears of pastry, but just as she’d taken the cashier spot, she took the pastry job without skipping a beat.
Working with Brinkley—who was, by all accounts, a handful—changed the course of her career. The pastry chef had made his bones at L’Ermitage on La Cienega, opened in 1975 by a Frenchman named Jean Bertranou. “They started this movement,” says Silverton. “When you walked in, there was a beautiful white-tablecloth-covered table with whole desserts on it. There wasn’t a pastry cart. All those desserts were composed, but they weren’t desserts that had familiar names. They were ones that were named after the ingredients. So you might say, Today, we have a lemon tart.” The style, so de rigueur today, was revolutionary during an era of chocolate mousse, bavarois, poire belle-hélène, or crepes suzette.
“Nancy was able to wrangle Jimmy Brinkley and get the best out of him,” Waxman says. “It was good for me, it was good for her, because she got to learn everything. He was a brilliant pastry chef. And she really got a whole education from him. She just inhaled it.”
Nancy’s trajectory at Michael’s is likely a non-replicable lesson in open-mindedness and work ethic: working as hard as you possibly can, being open to every possibility, taking things in stride, not being afraid to do the things that you are not qualified to do (“She has that ability to be confident even though she knew shit about anything,” says Waxman). Being easy to get along with and having supportive parents also helps.
As fate would have it, Michael’s also happened to be where she met Mark Peel, who would become her husband and business partner. Peel started at Michael’s as a line cook before moving to sous chef. He’d worked previously at Ma Maison, with a young Wolfgang Puck. In 1981, Puck was set to open Spago, which would become the defining Los Angeles restaurant of the decade, and he wanted Peel to be his executive chef. Peel took the job and asked Silverton to come along as pastry chef.
“I really did not want to leave Michael’s,” she says. “I was very comfortable there. But then Mark got to work on my mother.” Peel remembers talking with Nancy’s mom, at the Silvertons’ beach house, after Nancy had gone to bed: “I was saying, You know, there’s only so much money you can make working. You only make the better money for talent and responsibility. Right now she’s just working. It’s not her responsibility, and it’s Jimmy’s talent. If she wants to go further, she’s going to have to quit.”
Their romantic relationship started in a less straightforward fashion: when they met, Peel had been married to someone else. He eventually moved to an apartment across the street from Silverton. “Right before Spago opened, I had been visiting with Mark. A couple hours later I was in bed, and I saw this man coming through my window. I screamed, hit him in the face, and ran out into the street, yelling at the top of my lungs. Mark came over. I didn’t want to go home, so I stayed with him, and the rest was, you know, history.”
These days, we know Spago for a lot of reasons: Wolfgang Puck, its celebrity chef; the celebrities who eat there; the smoked-salmon pizza with caviar. But in January 1982, when the restaurant opened, Silverton says, “I’d look at Wolfgang every day and wonder, Is anybody gonna walk through the door?” People did—lots of people, lots of fancy people. “Very quickly, it became a place to see and be seen. And he started hosting Academy Awards parties. It was pretty great because all I had to do was say, I’m the pastry chef at Spago, and everybody knew Spago. I was the pastry chef and Wolfgang was the chef, and between him and I, we got so much press.”
Like L’Ermitage, Spago had a display table of desserts, with Nancy’s desserts mostly “slice, sauce, and serve” by necessity. Nancy recalls a marjolaine with a raspberry sauce on the menu every day, because that was the one dessert that Wolfgang Puck insisted on. It was his favorite. “I think that’s how I won him over,” Nancy says. She’d brought a lot of techniques back from Lenôtre, the pastry school in France where she’d spent six months training. There were individual pecan pies and apple pies, and a crème brûlée done the way that Jimmy had taught her—the custard cooked and whisked carefully.
That year, Puck’s cookbook agent approached Silverton to write a book (Desserts, her first of nine books, came out in 1986). She also got pregnant with Vanessa, her and Peel’s first child, who would be born in December. “I didn’t tell Wolfgang until I was five or six months pregnant, because I didn’t know what his reaction would be,” Silverton says. “He said, You bring her to work, and that’s what I did. I had Vanessa on my day off, it was a Thursday or Friday, and on Tuesday I was back to supervise, and she was there with me.”
Wasn’t it hard, I ask? She doesn’t flinch. “I didn’t know how to be a mom, but I knew how to be a pastry cook. So I brought her. I was there and I worked. If I needed to just carry her around, I could at least taste what everyone was doing. I stayed a part of it.”
When a well-paid opportunity arose in 1985 to redefine the menu at New York’s legendary but flailing Maxwell’s Plum, Peel and Silverton made the decision to leave Spago. “This was a big opportunity for Mark to make a name for himself,” Silverton says. But it didn’t work out. They were in New York for about a year when they realized it was time to open their own restaurant.
The couple wound their way back to Los Angeles. And even though Puck had been hurt when they left, he offered Silverton a job at Spago while they looked for their own space. During this time, he also asked Silverton to help him start a bread program. They made two simple breads at Spago, an olive bread and a German brown bread. But that experience, along with the bread she’d tasted in New York, Europe, and the Bay Area, sparked an idea: What if she opened a bakery, too?
They found an art deco building on La Brea, which was, in those days, mostly car lots. What appealed to Silverton was the fact that La Brea wasn’t trendy like Melrose—businesses opened and stuck around. The building was perfect save for one thing: it was too small to house a bakery along with a restaurant. “But I figured, Well, we’ll take the space,” she says. “It was a beautiful building. Maybe a neighbor will go out of business and we’ll take it. So we were all ready to sign this deal on a space that wouldn’t have had a bakery.”
The owner was Julie Newmar, the actress who played Catwoman in the Adam West–era Batman. At the time, Mercury was into going retrograde and Newmar wanted to wait to sign any contracts (Astrologists will instruct you to avoid paperwork while Mercury is in retrograde). The delay proved fateful. During the wait, Silverton’s parents, driving around La Brea, found a 1920s Spanish-style building big enough to house both a restaurant and bakery. The couple signed a lease, and as they started designing it, it became evident that the restaurant and bakery would be divided into separate projects. And though the idea for the restaurant had come first, the bakery would be simpler to open, so the timeline got swapped.
These days in Los Angeles, you can’t throw an avocado without hitting a slice of artisanal toast. But when La Brea Bakery opened in January of 1989, there was nothing like it. There were six breads on Silverton’s opening menu, all excruciatingly hard won. “In those days—I keep saying those days—there weren’t the bakeries and the books. Now anybody can open a bakery. There are so many bakeries out there.” Though she knew the kind of bread she wanted to make, there was no precedent for it in LA. What existed at that time was commercial bread. There was “sourdough,” in the loosest sense. But Silverton had tasted the bread at Steven Sullivan’s Acme Bread Company in the Bay Area, and at Lenôtre in France. The problem was that she didn’t quite know how to bake anything like it. They were set to open a bakery, but looking back, Silverton readily admits, “I committed myself to that project with very little knowledge.”
She headed back to Lenôtre to learn bread-making, though the language barrier was a problem. While she’d had a familiarity with pastry and could understand the basics of what was being taught, the bread lessons were less comprehensible. In the months before opening, she tested, tweaking day in and day out, making the smallest of changes. “The bread that I was doing required an overnight fermentation, a minimum of eighteen hours. A lot of time was invested. So it was pretty trying.”
Silverton was experimenting with the flour, too, and figuring out how to make her own sourdough from the natural yeast that exists on grapes. “I got there, finally,” she says. This laser focus, this pursuit of perfection, is a recurring theme. Russ Parsons remembers a La Brea Bakery focaccia recipe that ran in the Los Angeles Times. Noelle Carter, their test kitchen director, and Silverton tested it over fifty times to get right. “The amount of yeast Nancy was using, when reduced to a home-cook scale… we didn’t have a scale small enough to measure it,” he recalls. “I have this vivid picture of Noelle standing over a cutting board, using a credit card like we might have used back in the ’80s for something very different, separating out the individual grains of yeast.”
The bakery’s first customers were in for something completely foreign to the city. “People were so surprised that this was ‘La Brea Bakery’ and there was nothing sweet— it was only bread. They were very confused,” Silverton remembers. (The pastries—and they were amazing pastries—came later on.) “They saw the bread with the our markings on it and thought it was dirty; people complained that the hole structure was too open, yet it was something I tried very hard to achieve.” But there was also revelation, and appreciation: “There was something about the way people came in and the way that they were so thankful. You saw it in their eyes and expressions. When they talked about how much they loved the bread, there was so much emotion.”
Silverton remembers working nonstop and running upstairs—they were living above the bakery—to spend time with her two kids and, occasionally, to sleep: “At the very, very beginning, I started at two or three in the morning; I was baking so few loaves, trucks could go out at seven in the morning. As the weeks went by, we got more popular and we were selling more bread, so I had to back up those times. I’d work midnight to eight. I’d go upstairs just as my kids were getting ready to go to school, and fall asleep. I never knew what day it was. It was not an easy time.” That went on for six months. Then she started developing the pastries for the restaurant, “because I hadn’t done that yet.”
For Campanile, their new restaurant, Silverton knew she wanted to do composed, plated desserts rather than the slice-and-serve cakes she’d made at Michael’s and Spago. As in all things, she was attentive to each individual component—thoughtful, stylish, yet unpretentious. She tells me about the rice an on the opening menu: “I never liked rice pudding. It’s too soft, no texture.” So she caramelized the top, like a flan, then added more textural components: sweet lime sauce, and a crisp sheet of caramel candy.
“We opened with a huge bang,” she remembers. “We were incredibly busy.” The subtitle of a Los Angeles Times review by Charles Perry, on September 3, 1989: “Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton have a ringing hit in Campanile.” Perry calls out Nancy’s “striking” desserts: sautéed strawberries “in a slightly buttery red wine sauce with strawberry reduction and a dash of cinnamon… are treated like some sort of stewed meat,” he writes. “And the macaroons that come with them are even a little like the vegetable on the side.”
“What Nancy did was to take American vernacular desserts and give them the same high-level of finish that you would expect from a classical French dessert,” says Russ Parsons. “And some people didn’t get that right away. People would look at what was on the menu and say, Well, strawberry shortcake, how special can that be? And then when you taste it, it’s like, Holy crap.”
Meanwhile, the bakery was going gangbusters. Flipping through Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery cookbook, which came out in 1996, it’s obvious how times have changed. It is printed on textured beige paper, with twenty-five mostly black-and-white photographs, and there’s a recipe for white bread that’s thirty pages long. Her latest book, Mozza at Home, has a carrot and grain dish on the cover, the pages are glossy and gorgeous and full color— standard for cookbooks these days. What hasn’t changed is Silverton’s devotion to detail and her voice, which comes through loud and clear, along with her charm and humor. You can feel her enthusiasm. What you don’t feel with Mozza at Home is the mercenary push of a celebrity-chef cookbook, put out to boost the brand.
“I think a lot of people go into this business now and immediately think about having an empire or how they will strike it rich,” Silverton says. “In my day, we opened restaurants to open restaurants. That was our chosen work, you know? I was just opening a restaurant so that I could cook, so people could pay me to do what I like to do.” As La Brea Bakery continued to grow, Silverton became more hands on. “My desire to have a bakery came from wanting to be baking,” she says. “Once it became so big that I couldn’t bake all the loaves myself, it wasn’t as personal to me.” In 1993, pregnant with her third child, she decided to step back. “I made a decision that I was going to be home at night and not work as hard and as long hours as I did with my other two kids,” she says. The bakery expanded to a commercial kitchen, then expanded again in 1998 to an even larger facility that produced par-baked loaves for selling nationwide. In 2001, Silverton, Peel, and their partners sold the bakery to the Irish investment group IAWS, for what’s been reported as between $55 and $79 million. Campanile remained open for another decade, and cooks passing through the kitchen continued to do good work, many going on to open their own places in Los Angeles and elsewhere. “It is hard to overstate Campanile’s contributions to American cooking,” the critic Jonathan Gold wrote upon its closing in 2012. “It wasn’t the first fine restaurant in the country to operate with a grill at its heart, but it codified the style, as well as the practice of reinterpreting simple dishes—steak and beans, Greek salad, fish soup—with first- rate ingredients and chefly virtuosity.” As for Silverton’s desserts? “Her rustically complex, generously salted pastries set the benchmark in America for decades— rustic pies, luxurious panna cotta, and huckleberry shortcake barely existed in fancy kitchens before she put them there.” In 2005, after over twenty years of marriage, Peel and Silverton separated, divorcing two years later. It was, according to Peel, her decision. “Having a business, having kids, and having a marriage—these things are all very stressful,” she tells me. I ask if being busy made it easy to ignore the problems that existed. “If we look back and ask, Were we ever really compatible? I’m not positive we were. It came down to having very different ways we wanted to manage the kitchen. And that is what got in the way.” Silverton left Campanile soon after. When an interviewer asked her whether, given the windfall from the sale of La Brea, she’d be opening another restaurant, Silverton didn’t miss a beat: “Owning, operating, cooking in a restaurant is my life!” she responded. “There was no question.”
True to her word, in 2007, she teamed up with Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Matt Molina, then the chef de cuisine at Campanile, to open Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. The idea had been planted three years earlier, after she sold her active partnership in Campanile. During a summer at her home in Panicale, Umbria, she invited Jeremiah Tower, who was living in the nearby town of Todi, over for lunch. What do you serve Jeremiah Tower? In the end, she prepared a simple lunch: cheese from her favorite cheese-maker, along with some cured meats, roasted onions, olives, and grilled bread. Tower, who loved the meal, told her about a restaurant he’d recently been to in Rome called Obicà, which was like a sushi bar but for mozzarella. After visiting herself, it occurred to Nancy that she could do it better. What she wanted was a little mozzarella bar where she could work nightly as a sort of sushi chef, but for cheese: preparing room- temperature dishes for patrons at a counter.
Nancy had dipped her toe into savory preparations before: during her last few years at Campanile, she’d hosted Grilled Cheese Nights, a sort of proto-pop-up, on Thursdays. Mozza happened the way the bakery did: they’d found a perfect building for the mozzarella bar, which was also a pizzeria. Nancy had always wanted to learn to make pizza; this, she thought, was her chance.
The restaurants were immediate hits. But a year into the success of her new enterprise, Silverton got some bad news: her La Brea Bakery windfall, a reported $6 million, was gone. “It wasn’t the number that people assume,” she says, “but I did end up with a nice chunk that I could invest, and I invested it poorly.” She’d invested it with Bernie Madoff. Quoted in a Time magazine piece that year, Silverton sounded devastated. “My entire retirement, my kids’ college funds, trust funds, were all invested in this. All I have is my restaurant now.”
“It could have been much worse,” she tells me, when I seem unconvinced. Had she not jumped immediately into opening Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, she would have had nothing. True, I’m thinking as she says it, but also, Holy shit.
Somewhere along the way, amid the openings and closings, the children and the divorce, the loss of a small fortune, those days became these. “I think there were people wondering whether Nancy had a second act after that, and I guess she answered that, didn’t she?” Russ Parsons says. “She is the kind of person that the phrase ‘force of nature’ was invented for. It’s said about a lot of people. It really applies to her.”
The list of Los Angeles chefs who’ve been mentored or influenced by Silverton is endless. There’s Suzanne Goin of Lucques, Suzanne Tracht of Jar, Sumi Chang of Euro Pane, Annie Miler of Clementine, Randy Clement and George Cossette of Silverlake Wine, Matt Molina of Everson Royce Bar, Elizabeth Belkind of Cake Monkey Bakery, Bryant Ng of Cassia. It goes on and on.
“Nancy is someone who really wants to give back the stuff that she’s learned,” says Jonathan Waxman. “She is incredibly liberal in terms of giving up all her little notes and secrets, that little extra something that makes a dish perfect. Nancy’s a very good professor in that respect.”
Says Parsons: “It wasn’t necessarily teaching in the classical sense of, This is how you do something. I mean, it was that. But, I think, more important was the teaching of an attitude and an approach. The teaching of a sense of rigor. You don’t have an idea and throw a dish together. You think it through.”
This notion of respect for the people in her kitchen comes up again and again. Silverton is not a yeller. She doesn’t throw tantrums. She communicates her opinions and vision but maintains an open mind. And, especially rare in high-pressure kitchens these days, she isn’t competitive with or threatened by others. She is utterly confident in her strengths. “I respect and I depend upon the people that I work with,” she says. “I know when to step in and when to step back. Micromanaging doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Nancy Silverton’s rules for how to be a good boss go something this:
1. Give credit where it’s due—both good and bad. Matt Molina, the opening chef at Mozza, tells me, “She would look at the rack where we kept all the prepared foods, and there would be braised leeks. She would ask, Who made these leeks? And everyone would just kind of stiffen up. I would say, I did, thinking I was in trouble. Then she would say, These are the best leeks I have seen braised here. Or she might say, Oh, who cooked these eggs? And someone will reply, Oh, I did, Nancy. And she’ll go, Well, they’re not exactly how we need them to be. She has a way of making people own up to whatever it is that they do.”
Bryant Ng continues: “We would all have our opinions about something, and she was very open to that. And I think, in terms of running a kitchen, that’s the best thing. She has a collective spirit to her. Like, Oh, taste it, let’s all taste it, let’s figure it out.”
2. Get stuff done. Suzanne Goin tells me over e-mail about working with Nancy at Campanile: “I would come up with menu ideas, and if there was one she was particularly excited about, she would nag and badger me from the moment I mentioned it until we got it to the menu. I remember a duck pot au feu that I wanted to do. As soon as I told her about it, she wanted to know where the duck was (I needed to order it), when I was going to start testing (I still needed the duck!). When I finally got it in the oven, I had to hold her back from peeking and poking at it to get the first whiff or taste of it. This was all done in a super playful, enthusiastic, and passionate way, but I knew I better get rolling ASAP!”
3. Work as hard as your employees, or harder. “She is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met or worked with,” says Ng. “When we opened Mozza, all of us were there from early morning to two a.m. for three months straight. She was right next to us, on the line. That respect that I felt for her, Oh my God, like, we’re in the weeds and she’s in the weeds with us, and she gets it. She’s so hands-on. And now that’s the way I try to conduct myself. I try to think, What would Nancy do?”
Later that night, after our conversation, I’m at Osteria Mozza with friends, watching Nancy in action. Though she’s leaving for New Zealand the next day, she’s nonetheless working the mozzarella bar, still in her seashell shorts, plating dishes alongside two new employees—one large and teddy bearish, the other diminutive. She is looking over their shoulders, adjusting this and that, offering quiet guidance, from time to time leaning over the bar to greet the many friends who stop by. It’s after midnight, but the restaurant is in full swing. The space, so quiet and foreboding when empty, makes perfect sense now. It’s a matter of timing.
I ask her when she ever takes a break. “You know, there’s nothing to take a break from,” she says. “When I go to Italy, I cook more than ever. That’s what I do there. I love it, and I especially love it there because I’m by myself and it’s quiet and I can make everything just the way I want to make it. That’s what so special for anybody who loves what they do—they don’t have to take a break from it.”