When Los Angeles chef, baker, and cookbook author Nancy Silverton was named Outstanding Chef at the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards this past spring, it was an acknowledgment of her rich contributions to American culinary life. After a stint as head pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s legendary Spago, she cofounded La Brea Bakery in 1989, helping to spark the artisan-bread movement and launching a brand of crusty sourdough loaves that are now sold around the world. Then, in 2006, she teamed with revered restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to open L.A. culinary institutions Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, outposts of which are now also in Singapore, San Diego, and Newport Beach, California. Silverton’s rise to the top required a sharp eye for opportunity. Here’s what she’s learned about creating her own path.
Since opening her first restaurant, Campanile, in 1989, Silverton has managed to find holes in the dining landscape, whether it’s artisan bread or something as simple as the grilled-cheese nights she started doing on Thursdays at Campanile. “I have an intuitive ability to figure out what the public wants,” she says.
When she decided to open La Brea Bakery with partners Mark Peel and Manfred Krankl, Silverton had to learn bread making on the fly. “I had been playing with bread at Spago and realized what a wonderful asset it is to any restaurant to have great bread. So when we found a space where we could have a small bakery, we said, ‘Let’s go for it!’ And then I was like, ‘Wait a minute–I’d better learn how to make bread.’ I knew what good bread was, and I knew that what I was making in the beginning was not good bread. So I went to France and took a class, and then it was endless testing, endless attempts, and not giving up.”
At one point, Batali tried to hire Silverton to oversee baking at his New York restaurant Del Posto. She turned him down, but they kept in touch. “I said, ‘Why don’t you come to L.A. and help me open a restaurant?’ Initially, he wasn’t interested. That summer I went to Italy and was introduced to a new concept in Rome–a mozzarella bar. I came back and I told Mario, ‘I’m going to open a restaurant that’s focused around a mozzarella bar,’ and he was like, ‘Okay, I’m doing it with you.’ Two days later, Joe Bastianich came out and we looked for locations, and my little place that I was going to open myself became this mini empire.”
The team believed a big launch for both the pizzeria and osteria would help get attention. “We thought we were going to make a big splash, but there was way too much work to do at the osteria, so we decided to open the pizzeria first.” The pizzeria was immediately mobbed, and she now realizes that trying to open both at once would have been a disaster. “There’s no way we could have done them together. It never would have worked. I needed to work in the pizzeria for those nine months.”
Silverton and her partners had to wait more than a year to serve alcohol at the meat-driven Chi Spacca, next door to the osteria. “We didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to get a wine-and-beer license–forget a full liquor license. We had built up this space, but the wine component was going to be a large part of its profitability. So we had to come up with all different creative ways to sustain the business until we got the license. We turned it into a cooking school and started teaching classes. On Friday and Saturday nights, we did family-style dinners with no alcohol. It couldn’t really sustain us long-term, but at least it was something.”
It’s tempting to say yes when you get the chance to grow your business, but that’s not always the right move. “You never want to diminish your brand. For instance, we’ve had a lot of interest in opening Mozzas in certain countries, but they’re areas we don’t feel comfortable supporting. We don’t let financial temptation overpower our social morals.” And don’t look for, say, Sushi Mozza anytime soon. “I think of us as an Italian restaurant group. I understand these ingredients and how to use them. You’ll never see me open a Japanese or Indian or Moroccan restaurant. Those flavors are very foreign to me. When someone has a menu and puts a wide range of flavors in there, I’m always very suspicious of how that food will taste.”
Most new restaurants fail. Silverton talks about how to avoid that fate.
It sounds obvious, but so many places don’t create dishes people actually crave. “Every restaurant, whatever the type of cuisine, will pride itself on its food. Whether or not the restaurant delivers is another question.”
“Your server is the concierge of your meal, guiding you to the best food experience you can have. How you order your wine and course out your food–that takes guidance.”
Anyone who thinks mere culinary genius is enough to keep the doors open is headed for trouble. “Operating a restaurant is not a hobby–it’s a business. You need to monitor operational costs relentlessly. It’s an advantage to have [a partner] saying, ‘Why did this price go up this much? It has to reflect on your menu.’ I’m someone who has a tendency to keep things status quo, but you have to be tough.”