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Q&A: Chef Michael White, an American with the heart of an Italian

Perhaps no chef is better known in New York for Italian food than Michael White. The co-owner of Altamarea Group — which White runs with ex-Wall Street finance guru Ahmass Fakahany — presides over a growing dining empire that includes 15 restaurants worldwide, with seven acclaimed restaurants in New York City alone, from casual pizzerias to Michelin-starred fine-dining venues, as well as international outlets in London, Istanbul and Hong Kong. His flagship restaurant, Marea, holds two Michelin stars and a three-star rating from the New York Times, and is regarded as one of the city’s bastions of Italian fine dining.

Taste one of White’s supple tortellini or tuck into his famous octopus braised in a heady red wine sauce and you might immediately assume that the exuberant, six-foot-four-inches-tall chef comes from a large Italian family, where pasta and pizza fuel the dinner table. It’s quite the opposite — White is an American Midwesterner, born and bred in Beloit, Wisconsin to Norwegian-American parents. Nonetheless, few who have had the pleasure of meeting White or tasting his food would doubt that he embodies the Italian spirit — an ebullient, animated personality, whose habit to slip into Italian gustatory expressions when enthusiasm and emotion overtakes is infectious.

A background staging in top Italian kitchens and a seven-year culinary stint in Imola, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, formed the foundation for White’s path to culinary greatness, and his brilliant pastas and riffs on classic dishes have gained fans from singer Jessica Simpson to President Barack Obama. 

Fusilli with braised octopus is a signature dish at two-Michelin-starred Marea.

In 2011, White partnered with Dining Concepts to open his first Hong Kong outlet, Al Molo. Located in Harbour City, the pasta palace draws 120,000 mainland Chinese visitors a year, according to White, and has recently renewed its lease for another five years. But you’d be hard-pressed to find White in the kitchen at Al Molo more than once or twice a year. With a company raking in more than USD$50 million in revenue annually, White’s time these days is more pre-occupied by jet-setting around the world and signing deals for groundbreaking new projects in various dining capitals. In early 2018, White is set to launch his biggest overseas project yet — the first international outlet of Marea in Shanghai.

Under its cloak of Italian haute cuisine, Marea in Shanghai will stick closely to the original’s formula while catering to high spenders on the other side of the world in the confines of Plaza 66, the newly relaunched luxury shopping mall in the city’s Jing’An District. We recently popped into town for the celebrity-studded relaunch party of Plaza 66 (with honorary attendees including photographer David LaChapelle, designer Ilse Crawford, and Grammy-award-winning artist Alicia Keys) and took the opportunity to chat to chef White about his plans for replicating Marea’s success in Shanghai, why risotto is his favourite dish to make, and what he thinks about the next generation of young chefs in the business.

Marea is the crown of your growing restaurant empire. Why did you choose Shanghai for the first overseas branch?

Marea has been open in New York for eight years now. We haven’t done it elsewhere and we’ve been very much eyeing Shanghai and the things that are going on here. I have an outpost in Hong Kong as well but that’s a very casual restaurant, and Shanghai is just burgeoning right now with so many new restaurants and chefs that are coming here. Therefore, there’s a market and also product availability — being able to procure items now is so much easier than before. In Hong Kong, everything is available whether you want salami or Lardo di Colonnata even, and that’s really what’s happened here now, too. So being able to be in a city with 20 million-plus people that’s an international travel hub, then topping it off with being in Plaza 66, which is really the reference point for luxury, I couldn’t think of a better place.

Michael White
Chef Michael White is one of the most recognisable faces of Italian cooking in New York.
Tell us about the menu for the Shanghai flagship. What's new and what will stay the same?

I would say that each and every restaurant that we do, whether it’s in Istanbul or Hong Kong, there are slight nuances for palate, and we do make changes when it comes to salinity or acid, etc. But we will very much start with the core menu with products that reflect what we use at Marea and the more that we spend time here and learn and find out things, the menu will grow. You can get pretty much everything and, in some cases, better things here.

In Hong Kong for example, when we’re cooking Italian food and I order broccoli rabe, it’s coming from Italy because we order one week in advance, so it’s just coming direct from the market. Now when we order things in New York we have amazing broccoli rabe that comes from California or from upstate New York, but it’s not the same species. So there’s certain elements of Italian cooking that taste even more italiano than they do in America. 

Talk us through some of the dishes you prepared for the pre-opening.

There’s this poached lobster served with stracciatella, which is the milk product from Puglia, with pickled eggplant, so eggplant al funghetto. In this style with mushrooms in the south of Italy, you would poach them in vinegar and wring them out and put them in oil and garlic. We do the same thing with eggplant. It’s a twist to put cheese and fish together, but there’s lactic acid with lobster and lemon and white balsamic in the vinaigrette for a bit of sweetness, and then basil seeds — kind of like tapioca.

Poached octopus with stracciatella and basil seeds.

For the fusilli, we have live octopus that we’ve purchased, and it’s not everyday that we get live octopus. We went to the market here and we braised those with red wine. There’s a little bit of bone marrow as well to add richness, and then the pasta chords are all rolled by hand, made from durum wheat. Another dish we call mare e montagna (like the mountains and the sea), so we use black truffle and romanesco and scallops for sweetness. 

How would you describe your core cooking philosophy?

Flavour, flavour, flavour! It’s all about flavour. Obviously you eat with your eyes, but it’s all about taste, and soulfulness. I think we’ve been caught up as a food culture in the last seven to eight years and we’re finally coming out of it, out of this sense of apathy, “without soul” kind of cooking. And when you think of Marea and Osteria Morini, this is like cucina casalinga [home cooking].

But then, of course you’re putting it on a Richard Ginori plate and you’re doing it with the very finest ingredients that you can procure, whether it be San Marzano tomatoes or beautiful turbot, and treating it in a very Italian way by looking at what you can take out of the dish rather than what you can put into it. Because in the end it’s all about product, isn’t it? When you’re a young person you feel like you have to put everything on the plate, you know? And you feel like you have to overdo it, in order to be worthy of, I don’t know, a cook in this era right now. 

What keeps you motivated and driven these days?

I’ve been in the kitchen for 27 years. I’m really a lucky guy because I have the pizzeria all the way to Marea and Vaucluse, and I don’t take any of it for granted. So if I really want to make a pizza I can go to Nicoletta and we can work on pizza, and I really, really enjoy cooking and teaching.

I’m looking so forward to learning you know, 25 words even so that I can really talk to these young people. For me that’s the most important thing, making a connection and showing somebody how to do something, teaching them. And you can tell just by the outpouring of people that wanted to be part of last night and help us… that’s really humbling. People came up to me last night and said, “Thank you! It’s so exciting you’re coming here, thank you!” And it’s like, this is what somebody did for me 27 years ago — really giving back is the most important thing for me. Because I’m going to be a little frank, because chefs right now think they’re so fucking cool, right? And they fold their apron up and they’re taking selfies. I just take pics of food, if you look at my Instagram. You know, we all have a part as being a citizen of the world to share and teach. 

Michael White
Preparing a meticulously plated dish at Marea.
What do you think of the evolution of dining culture both in Hong Kong and Shanghai?

Well, the customer that we’re cooking for is an international traveller. Now the other concept next door, which will be called Club W, will be more like a Ristorante Morini and that’ll be for everybody. That’s why I really wanted to have just one restaurant and that’s why I opened Al Molo, too, in Hong Kong, because I could be like my peers and cook for just 30 people but nobody’s going to see what we do. In Hong Kong, we cook for over 120,000 mainland Chinese people a year, 25% is expat, 25% is Hong Kong and the other 50% is mainland Chinese. So I would like to have an Osteria Morini in Shenzhen, in Guangzhou — you heard it here first! To be able to bring pasta like we do, whether it be Shanghai or Singapore. I’d love to have four or five outposts of Osteria Morini, and have someone that I’m cooking with in the area get really excited about it, one of the sous chefs, and say, “OK, you’re going to be in charge of building the Osteria Morini brand”. I mean, that’s really my vision. I don’t sleep very much because I’m thinking of all this stuff. 

So then do you still feel the need to tweak recipes for the local palate?

Oh, absolutely I do! Those who do not tweak recipes…well, you can name them off in Hong Kong: Those that came to your city that are no longer in your city. Because they cook brash, with lots of salt and oil. You know who I’m talking about, right? So if I did that I wouldn’t be cooking in Istanbul, I wouldn’t be cooking in Hong Kong. We just signed another lease in Harbour City for the restaurant, but they’ll say “see you later” in no time if you’re not doing it right.

When's the next time we can find you in Hong Kong?

That’s the beauty of having one more place that’s within a 2-hour flight to Hong Kong. I’ll be in Hong Kong a month from now so I’ll make another trip to Shanghai, too, and it’s great. I mean, for me, I will never put my name and my partners’ names on a product, like so many of our peers put it up and they don’t show up.

It’s all about passion. If you look at the chefs that cook a certain type of food at the top of their game, whether it be Thomas Keller with French food, or Enrique Olvera in New York with Mexican, I mean he takes his team to Mexico and they close the whole restaurant down, they take them there and show them the top-level cooking for those that did not grow up there. Like if you grew up eating tortellini en brodo, it’s kind of like having sautéed gai lan as a Chinese person. But me, I grew up in Wisconsin, I don’t take [Italian ingredients] for granted, whether it’s mortadella, prosciutto, Parmigiano, or skills such as folding handmade tortellini so it’s not too thin and not too thick and it’s just perfect. I really delve into all that. 

So you still find time to cook with your busy schedule?

Absolutely, cooking is very therapeutic but that’s kind of like asking a mailman to go for a walk after he gets home from work. I’m not cooking every night when I get home. I’ll do it for therapy with my daughter, but cooking at home is something I let my Italian wife do for me. And she gives me lots of credibility, too [laughs].

I’ll tell you one of my favourite things, besides making pasta, is making risotto. It’s extremely therapeutic, you can’t stop it once you start it, and you have to constantly nurture it, making sure it’s the right temperature and texture. And if you put too much liquid in the kernels of rice they don’t scratch together and therefore, the starch doesn’t release, or adding more butter and cheese to make it cremoso [creamy], it’s all these intuitive things you need to know. So making risotto is one of my passions. 

Risotto is a showstopper on the menu at Marea in New York City.
Any current trends in the New York dining scene that you're drawing inspiration from at the moment?

I really draw from wherever I travel. I’m like that cook who carries around sesame oil and sesame seeds, but of course New York is such an amazing food city, and one of the beautiful things is when I do take time to go out, maybe one of my own people have opened a restaurant and to see them take the cuisine we cooked and meld it with their own style, I think that’s really interesting for me. It’s really very gratifying as well, like a feather in my cap. And when I say it’s really interesting to me, it’s because I’m not a trendsetter at all, it’s all about product for me. 

I would definitely say we’re reverting back to no more bullshit, no more espumas [foams], stuff like that, it’s tapping out. Because when you leave a restaurant you want to feel satiated, you know, and eating that kind of food, you can’t drink red wine with it, you know? And there’s no substance. It kind of goes against everything that I was taught. 

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.
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