Nancy Silverton, the celebrated Mozza and La Bakery founder, gets her very own episode of Chef’s Table, out today via streaming on Netflix. It’s a celebration of Silverton’s amazing career, but also her unique approach to California cuisine, which she helped establish while at Campanile.
The episode lingers on her obsession with baking, and especially bread. It’s what brought her fame and notoriety over twenty years ago; while Silverton won the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award in 2014, she also received some James Beard hardware for Best Pastry Chef back in 1990. Primarily, it seems throughout the episode, Silverton wants to be known as a great baker, and the legacy of La Brea Bakery is a testament to that.
Jonathan Gold is the first talking head, framing Silverton’s career as one where she masterfully incorporated Italian cuisine with California ingredients. Mario Batali unabashedly speaks about Silverton, her amazing palate memory, and praises Silverton’s three restaurants, Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and Chi Spacca, without really mentioning that he’s also a partner in those ventures.
According to Batali, “Her obsession is her mantra. She works so much on something. By repetition, a thousand and a thousand and a thousand times, over and over again. That level is very craftsmanship, not necessarily artistic. And that distinguishes her from a lot of fancy Michelin star chefs.”
He goes onto the say that chefs want to eat on a proverbial Sunday at Nancy’s house because it’s “food that nourishes not only your palate, but your soul.”
The episode then delves into Silverton’s take on pizza, which Batali calls “almost anti-Italian,” whereupon the episode goes into what might be the most glorious pizza food porn ever shot. Then the story gives way to Silverton’s upbringing in Los Angeles, about how she never aspired to be a chef. She learned to cook in her college dorm, where she realized she loved to work with her hands.
Like any good Chef’s Table episode, you get a glimpse into Silverton’s ordinary life, and when she walks into Osteria Mozza during service, she’s quick to chide staff for letting the meatball sauce go the wrong way. It’s not quite the Dan Barber-level of anger, but it’s reflective of her standards.
Her foray into the world of pastry actually started after she completed cooking school and went to work at Michael’s in Santa Monica, where Jonathan Waxman was chef at the time. Her back story meanders into her run at Spago, where she helped open the restaurant with Wolfgang Puck and her boyfriend at the time, Mark Peel. She calls her time there a “gamechanger.” Touching briefly on marriage and the birth of her daughter, both Silverton and Peel realized they needed a break from the brutal hours of the kitchen.
They made their escape to Italy, where Silverton learned to appreciate the use of fresh ingredients. The story slides right into Campanile, which Jonathan Gold says, “was almost a shock through the food system of LA.” And while the desserts dazzled, it was Silverton’s Thursday night Grilled Cheese sessions where she became, according to Batali, a cult figure.
There’s an endearing moment with Nancy’s out with a produce purveyor, tasting fruits and vegetables straight out of boxes, right off the truck. She’s asking about particular ingredients, taking bites out of spinach leaves — all while donning sunglasses, perhaps her most famous mark of apparel. She bargains with the purveyor: “How much for the haricots verts?,” “$5 a pound,” “$4 a pound, you were late today,” says Silverton, walking away from the truck.
The conversation goes back to bread, with slow motion shots of Silverton working dough again. After perfecting her baguette, the camera shifts to vintage Julia Child, where Silverton’s showing the famous TV cook how to make a creme fraiche brioche torte. It’s a segment you need to watch just for Child’s reaction.
The episode takes a bit of turn when La Brea Bakery’s operations went mega in a new Van Nuys factory, whereupon she had to give up quite a bit of control on the baking process. “That was difficult for me,” says Silverton, and it makes sense considering her obsessive and perfectionist nature.
It’s fairly obvious that selling off the brand came at a kind of reluctance, that Silverton’s true joy wasn’t from the dollars the operation made, but from the daily mixing, proofing, and baking of glorious bread shaped by hand.
As with any great episode of Chef’s Table, the real guts of the stories are toward the end, when each chef reflects on their life, their career, their sense of meaning. When she shares the credit of her work with the kitchen staff, such as Liz Hong, the executive chef of Osteria Mozza, she feels embarrassed to receive compliments from diners who think she makes everything herself. It’s interesting to see that juxtaposed with her reasoning for selling off La Brea Bakery (because it didn’t feel like her work anymore).
From here, you see Silverton’s remorse for losing her work at Campanile after she left the restaurant, and how that inspired her to come back with Mozza. It all comes together when she realizes that working a mozzarella bar brought her the same joy as when she was baking bread at La Brea. It’s all connected to her Grilled Cheese nights at Campanile’s bar.
In the parade of signature dishes, typical of the Netflix show, whereupon world-class chefs will build elaborate, beautiful menu items, it’s pretty freaking badass to see a lone baguette, half sliced, sitting gloriously on a cutting board.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the episode, aside from a near perfect reflection of Silverton’s culinary life, is a celebration of Los Angeles as a food epicenter, as a place that allowed Silverton’s career to flourish. And what one takes away, especially as a food lover and fan in LA, is that Silverton’s enduring work, her obsession with food, and her steady commitment to excellence, has made everyone in this city a better eater.