Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Michael White

Michael White grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin. While studying culinary arts at Kendall College, he started his restaurant career at Spiaggia, in Chicago. He worked and studied in Italy for seven years, at restaurants including San Domenico, in Imola. After returning to the U.S., he quickly earned the executive chef position at Fiamma Osteria in New York City in 2002.

He opened two restaurants in New Jersey with Ahmass Fakahany in 2007. The duo then formed the Altamarea Group and opened Marea in 2008, which received a three-star rating from The New York Times and two Michelin stars, as well as receiving the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2010.

The Altamarea Group next opened Osteria Morini in downtown Manhattan and Ai Fiori in midtown, which received three stars from The New York Times and a Michelin star.
 In 2011, Chef White opened Al Molo in Hong Kong, followed by Nicoletta Pizzeria in New York City’s East Village in 2012.

In 2013, he opened Chop Shop, his first London location, as well as his first Istanbul location, Morini—not to mention Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C., and Ristorante Morini on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Among other recent openings, the Altamarea Group launched Vaucluse, a modern French brasserie, on Park Avenue, NYC, in late 2015.

Chef White has been nominated four times for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York. He has released two cookbooks: Fiamma: The Essence of Contemporary Italian Cooking, and Classico e Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking.

Where did you grow up?
I’m from Wisconsin. It’s very cold, so cooking and baking was very much a pastime for me, as well for my parents. We were always in the kitchen. It can be 20 below with windchill, and obviously, there's a tremendous amount of snow in the winter. Although we were not on a farm, I did gardening and picking weeds and learning how to grow vegetables at an after-school park and during summer camp.

Also, as a young person, I didn’t eat frozen vegetables. My grandparents were from Norway, so we were always eating good food. I was a big kid; I was always hungry. So I knew that if I was going to get into the kitchen, the fastest way would be if I got passionate about it. When I got into the kitchen, you got in for sheer passion because there was nothing to pull you in, other than reading Gourmet magazine or my mother’s huge stacks of Bon Appétit issues as a kid.

You left college for Kendall College’s culinary program?
I had a football injury in college and I was prepared to say, “I'm going to be a banker.” My father was a banker. And I said, “You know what, I'm going to take my chances and think about being a cook, a chef.” In that day and age, it was not very fashionable to do that, not like it is today. But it was something that I was passionate about and wanted to do. So one semester I just said, “I'm going to go to Chicago, to Evanston, where Kendall is.” And I did my first semester and just fell in love with it from there.

Then I was working at Spiaggia, in Chicago, at the same time, so I was getting lots of information and lots of training. So I was going to school in the morning, and in the evening I was working at the restaurant, so it was the best of both worlds—having school and on-the-job training at the same time.

That was 18 months total?
Yes. Then I went away to Italy in 1993 with the idea of staying for a bit and just getting my feet wet in Europe. So I did that, and six months turned into 11 months, and then, seven years later, I came back to America, in 1999, to be a chef de cuisine at Spiaggia.

Were you expecting to stay in Europe that long?
No, not at all. But being there, and working with the products, and learning a new language, and being part of that culture are really impressionable for a kid from the Midwest. Just being in another country, learning a whole new set of rules...I mean, you’re tasting fresh ricotta and cheeses—it’s just amazing, if you’re passionate about what you do.

That was a long period of time, working in the South of France. But then I got to New York. We opened up Fiamma in 2002, and since then I’ve been in New York City, pumping right along. And now we have 17 restaurants, but prior to that I did Convivio, and L'Impero, and Alto.

Had you had a French restaurant before Vaucluse?
No. Only at Ai Fiori had I delved into a bit of the South of France, and kind of Cannes, Nice, Liguria. It’s all very much homogenized.

What had attracted you specifically to Italy and Mediterranean cooking?
Italian is the ethnic food of choice for all of us in America, cooking what you grew up with. But Italian-American is very far from what, really, Italian food is about. Something like roasted chicken with porcini mushrooms, pancetta, and cabbage is extremely Italian—although it doesn’t sound very Italian because we all have garlic butter and cheese and those kinds of things. When the Italian immigrants came to America in the 1890s, the teens, the '20s, the '30s, they came here and there was no olive oil. There was no rustic bread that had a thick crust on it that was grilled on the grill. They were using hoagie buns. You couldn’t scratch garlic on a hoagie bun, so you would put garlic powder on it. There was no olive oil, so you put on butter or margarine, but if you wanted to look like it was abbrustolito, or grilled, you'd put paprika on it.

Basically, what we eat as Italian food has nothing to do with Italian food, just because it was a bastardization of it. You could travel throughout Italy and you would never see a lemon peel in espresso; it doesn’t exist. There was no such thing as espresso in America, so they would take Folgers crystals, or Maxwell House, and they would put it in a sauté pan and toast it, but it would become bitter. So when they would make their mocha, they would put a little spritz of lemon oil on it from the zest to calm it down, the acrid qualities.

So Italian food is what we grew up with; you’re growing up with the flavor-profile taste memory of garlic and oregano and tomato—but there’s so much more to Italian cooking than that. That’s what really got me excited about it.

So after you went back to Spiaggia, you eventually moved to New York.
I was at Spiaggia in Chicago, and I always wanted to get up to New York. I had worked as a stagiaire at Daniel, back in the early '90s—that’s how I got to New York. Steve Hanson was doing an Italian restaurant on Spring and Sixth Avenue. There was no name yet, but that was Fiamma Osteria, and that’s what I did with him. I came out and did a tasting and we made a deal on the spot.

That was was February 2001. I couldn’t acquire good cooks; nobody knew who I was. It’s very difficult for all chefs that come to New York City. If you’ve never been part of the fabric of the city, we are not the warmest people when it comes to an outsider coming in.

We obviously got through it. We got three stars at Fiamma, and that’s really what set the tone for my career. I got a Michelin star there the first year the Michelin book came out. It’s been a fantastic run.

What do you credit with how your food was received right from the start? Was it your training in Italy?
Yes, but also having the sensibility to know what people need to eat, what they want to eat, to impact flavors. You can't cook the way we cook in Italy or the way one used to cook in Europe or Italy with heaviness, because New Yorkers eat out every day. And if you eat one time in a restaurant and you eat very, very heavy, you’re not apt to come back there for a couple of weeks.

So I can't do that. I have people that come to my restaurants every other day for lunch—or every day, for that matter. So the customer needs to be able to navigate a menu and not have the fear of being too full. They always want to know that they can get their service the right way, that they can get in and out.

A simple approach to Italian food is so important. You let the ingredients speak for themselves without adding so many things that don’t need to be there, as well.

Do you have any specific examples of dishes that were new at the time when you were working at Fiamma Osteria?

Whether it would be garganelli with prosciutto and cream— something like that is now happenstance around New York City. We made the quills one by one, prosciutto, cream, truffle butter. People make risotto at home now, but in 1990, when I started at Spiaggia, nobody knew what that was. Homemakers now say, “We do a soffritto with mushrooms and onions,” because Ina Garten is on television, or someone else is on television. So what’s happened is crazy.

Could you speak a little about your foray into Hong Kong, with Al Molo?
The Altamarea Group is a brand that obviously is fixed in New York City. At the same time, our customer clientele is on the move, traveling, and it’s a global city that we live in and a global world that we live in. But there are 5,000 people that work at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, and thousands of expats that live in Hong Kong. Then there is the business traveler. There's the mainland Chinese customer that we’re trying to capture as well, because there’s 1.4 billion. So Al Molo is in Harbour City, a shopping center with 2.5 million square feet of retail, and a quarter-million unique visitors a day. It's a destination spot to go shopping for people from mainland China and for travelers from around the world. So the ability to be in that area and to have that much exposure is something that my partner and I were really looking for, because it can lead to bigger and better things.

Why do you think you and your business partner, Ahmass Fakahany, work so well together? 
What does an Egyptian-born businessman from Cairo have in common with a kid from Wisconsin?
Everything. Because we’re passionate about food, we love hotels. He wanted to be a restaurateur/hotelier, but his father encouraged him to go to business school first. Thank god he did. He was the chief financial officer and co-president of Merrill Lynch until he got into restaurants. We’ve been together since ’07, and he works with me every single day. He has a passion for food and a passion for wine.

So when both parties are in a business together and we both have the same kind of scope and process, it works well. He doesn’t cook, and I don’t do what he does. We complement each other really, really well.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of something great. Being into restaurants is a team sport and it’s not a “me, me, me, me.” People get into restaurants for so many other reasons, too: People want to hang out or they want to be cool, they want to invest money so they can hang out at the bar and impress their friends and things like that.

This is all about business. You can't say, “Oh, we’re going to make a Michelin-starred restaurant.” It’s just not like that. It’s me being years in Italy, years in Europe. Having a multimillion-dollar pressure on your shoulders to succeed, you have to really like what you’re doing. You have to have internal drive.

Would you ever host a TV show?
I turn all that stuff down. Not that I don’t like it, but I have a fiduciary responsibility to myself and my team members. We’re 1,100 strong in the company now. I compete for market share on a daily basis in New York City. People ask, “Chef, why aren’t you on TV on ‘Iron Chef’?” Because I “Iron Chef” every day, whether it’s with my lease, with my people, with the $15-an-hour wage issue. I “Iron Chef” when I sleep.

Can you talk about the differences between when you started in this business and now, when you’re an owner and you oversee 1,100 people?

Tenfold. Before, it was The New York Times and The New York Post reviewing restaurants and that was it. The massive amount of content that needs to be filled on the web every day now is insane. It has changed completely. People have that much more ability to say things that they like, that they dislike. Before, there were just three or four outlets, right? Well, there are a gazillion now.

But when there are 275 people in this restaurant, that's because of 15 years of hard work, shaking hands, knowing the people, knowing their son, going to their bar mitzvahs, their birthday parties. It doesn’t happen overnight. And that is why I will be here 20 years from now.

Do you ever reminisce about the earlier days?
No, because I’m a working chef. I hear young people that come into the restaurant ask, “Chef, why do you work?” And I say, “This is why we got into the business.” Many chefs, they just give you a recipe and they expect you to make it and they send it back to you if it’s not right. If you don’t show somebody and lead by example, how are you going to do your job? That’s why I have 17 restaurants.

What would you say to someone who’s thinking about entering the hospitality business?

I think one of the most important things is that they get into it knowing that there is a distinct difference between cooking socially and cooking professionally. They’re both beautiful, but they’re different things. I also think it’s really important that he or she gets into a kitchen and hangs out a little bit. I think we’d be doing people a disservice if they didn’t feel what it’s like to be inside of a kitchen in July, when it’s 90 degrees. It’s sweaty, it’s hot, people are screaming. It doesn’t bother me.

What is the difference between you making a meal in one of your restaurants versus making a meal at home?

It's totally relaxed, totally different. Very simple Italian-packed tuna, whole wheat toast. When I'm out of the restaurant, it’s my down time. I know how to turn down a little bit. But my wife is from Italy and she’s a very good home cook, so there’s always good food at home. That’s never a problem. But I’ll cook and hang out with my daughter and my wife.

What are some traits that you think are required to succeed in this business?

You’re standing on your feet all day, it’s hot, people are yelling. So you have to really like what you’re doing. I have worked for 25 years because I love what I do. It’s not a stress to come to work, even though we do lots of numbers and there’s lots of business.

You have to like to eat. There’s so many chefs that are involved in the process of creating, but they really don’t like to eat. That’s the old adage, “Never trust a skinny chef.” And I have people that say, “Oh, I want to be on TV.” TV and stardom and all of that is a byproduct of doing a good job, first. We’re very much committed to that, to teaching people how to do things, so when they leave here, they can go off and be somebody as well—because it’s a feather in my cap. Promoting great food, keeping it going.

Do you have a philosophy about choosing employees?
I can teach anybody how to cook, if your mind is open to learning. If you can accept constructive criticism and you have this passion, those are really the major attributes of being a chef.

Because you think it’s about you, it’s personal—but it’s about the business. It’s not about Michael White. It’s about you sitting down here, you’re having a good experience, we’re creating memories. It’s because we’re cooking great food. That’s why I want people to be in my restaurants—great service, great atmosphere.

What's next?
I don’t want to let restaurants go. Meaning that many restaurants are becoming six appetizers, a couple of mid-courses, and six entrées. Because the weather and the atmosphere we’re navigating right now is so difficult—leases; young people are going into Brooklyn; people are leaving the city because it’s too expensive to live here. But people still want to get dressed up and have a really nice time in a nice space.

I want people to still be able to taste lobster with potato puree and truffles and a beautiful sauce. I don’t want to let fine dining go by the wayside. At Marea we plate in a certain way, like an abstract plating, modern Italian, kind of as it falls. But at Vaucluse we’re still thinking very round, center of the plate, pork chop with bone. It’s very classique. When you come here to eat, you will know what I am talking about.