They Say "Don't Ever Meet Your Heroes" ( Unless She's Nancy); 13 Young Cooks On Working With Silverton

"The youngest, aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment, and turned away. feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women," - Lousia May Alcott, from "Jo's Boys", 1885

They say don’t ever meet your heroes. You just might be crushed. My sister Jeanine, who has been in love with James Bond ever since we saw “Dr. No” at the Vermont Drive-In 55 years ago, always said she never wanted to meet Sean Connery for fear of a let down.

This past week,  presiding the (belated) celebration for the 10th Anniversary of Mozza, that notion was knocked down when I spoke to 13 cooks at the Mozza Corner about what it was like to meet - work with - Nancy Silverton.

I had three questions. What were you doing 10 years ago? When did you first hear of Nancy? What’s it like to work with her?

The first was Anna Nguyen, Osteria’s so called Garde Manger ( French for ‘Keeper of the food”) who is also known as Anna Abdul Jabbar because she is 7-feet-2 inches tall and sky hooks smoked mozzarella balls.   

“Nearly. 10 years ago, I was working through a bunch of recipes from Pastries from La Brea Bakery. I worked at this bakery in Colorado where I had a lot of creative freedom, so I loved to try Nancy’s recipes.

"I would be in the kitchen exclaiming things like, "Only Nancy would think of this!" Like combining lemon zest with cranberries. Nancy always takes it beyond the obvious, to absolutely delicious. I was bound and determined to find her address, so I could write her a letter, asking how in the world she came up with a Fennel Ricotta Muffin, one of the best things I'd ever eaten.”

A few years later Anna’s husband was asked to write a little blurb describing her.  He wrote "She loves drinking beer on a patio, and is obsessed with perfectly laminated croissants, and Nancy Silverton."

Years later, Anna applied for work in pastry, but Liz “Go Go” Hong, the executive chef, hired her for the MozzarellaBar   

“I was so excited that I would get to be right by Nancy. I figured even if I got fired after a week, at least it would be a week working with Nancy.”

Anna then reveals the theme of this story.

“They always say don't meet your heroes. That the disappointment could hurt so bad. That it's just better to hold them on a pedestal. I'm so glad I met mine.

“Nancy has taught me about flavor, balance, layers, and how to make gorgeous dishes. She’s taught us that good is never good enough. It has to be great. She has showed us the value in working on a dish for weeks, trying 16 variations, going back and forth with different flavors until it's perfect. She's taught us how to be demanding, and insistent, while being kind, and genuinely caring for the people who work for you.”

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Yes, that’s a hard – and classy -  opening act to top. So, we move on to the jazzy, dirty opposite. It’s time to for chi Spacca’s Cameron ‘Miles” Tollehaug.

“Ten years ago I was picking up dog shit for a living. And cat crap. And bird shit. I really was.” say Cameron, the tall – and wackiest - Spacca line cook. He was working for veterinarian in Berkeley.  

Later, Cameron was doing an internship at Oliveto in Oakland when he heard word of Nancy Silverton and Mozza. “Nancy taught me how to look at salads. She taught me even if a dish is good, we can make it better by looking at all aspects of it. Like maybe we could use a different cutting technique. Or how one particular herb might make a good dish great.”

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Ten years ago, Marisa “2 Kitchens” Takenake was a junior at UC Riverside and living with four other students. Somehow, she became “the girl that cooked and baked for everybody.”

So she bought cookbooks. One of the first was by Julia Child. “Funny enough,” she says, “Nancy’s face was on the inside cover.”

Roughly six years later, she was working at the Water Grill downtown and began looking to work with a big time L.A. female chef. There were three she considered; Suzanne Tracht, Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton.

“I got a stage at Osteria Mozza and my first night in I worked right next to Nancy and Celeste. The rest, they all seem to say, is history.”

“To work with Nancy means that I have something to strive for. A constant reminder that a female chef with personality and femininity can still be a tough bitch in the kitchen and a successful one. She is the personification that hard work pays off and that there is a way to blend both passions of savory and pastry into one career.”

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Some start cooking at the Water Grill, some a little lower on the restaurant hierarchy. Ten years ago, Adonayy Fernandez, chef at Pizzeria, was a shift manager at Wienerschnitzel.

Three years ago, he landed a job at what would become his “second home”, Pizzeria Mozza.
“Everyone was so welcoming, but I was anxious to meet the chef who had brought this all together,” Adonayy says. “I was really nervous the first time I saw her.”

That would soon change.

“The first time I actually met her she gave me a warm smile, and she gave me an explanation about how our salads represented Mozza and that I had to do my best to make sure we kept the standard that our guests expected.”

Nancy encouraged him.  After a year and half, he was promoted to sous chef for Pizzeria Mozza.

“I was so happy because I going to get to work so close to Nancy,” he says. “Only a few people have the privilege to treat Chef Nancy on a close basis. Her story has been an inspiration to me, to never lose confidence on yourself and always achieve your goals. I want to thank Chef Nancy for the opportunity of being part of this family.”

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Ten years ago, Francis Chua, 28, was in a culinary school in Manila. The Philippines.  Five years ago, he started working at Pizzeria Mozza in Singapore.

“I went to work at Mozza because I thought it was a Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich place," Francis says. "Now I know it’s a Nancy Silverton place.”

Francis was enamored with the simplicity of Mozza’s food.  “Nancy Focus is in the simplicity and the food products,” he says. “And as a baker, too. I admire her dough at the pizzeria.”

He doesn’t go on to use superlatives, as the only accurate way to describe the dough at the pizzeria is to call it “the dough at the pizzeria.”

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Telling his own story in the kitchen of Mozza2Go is Luis Cendejas who – it should be noted - is 21 years old.

“Ten years ago, when I was 10,” Luis begins.   (Right then, I say to myself “This guy was never much at math’). “I was in grammar school in Highland Park.”

For some reason, I guess because he – like many people – calls me “Chapo”, he brags, “I have never been in jail.” (I think of the Chris Rock routine where he says “Fool, you ain’t supposed to be in jail, so don’t go bragging about it.”)

But, Luis tells of a high school science teacher who learned of his interest in cooking and extolled the wonders of Nancy Silverton. “I started as a polisher and now I’m a line cook,” he says with understandable pride. 

Like all, he raves about Nancy. But, his raves are not about the tweaking of a recipe or the wonders of the pizza dough. It’s something down to earth, somethingjust plain right.

“Every day, when she sees us, she doesn’t just walk right by, She says “Hi” to everyone and asks how we are doing. That don’t sound like a whole lot, but believe me, to someone like me, it really does mean a whole lot .”

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Benjamin Giron, 28,  first heard about Nancy and Mozza right about the time Mozza was opening. He was working at BLT and chef Laurent Tourondel was raving  about Nancy.

“The thing I love about Mozza,” Ben says, “is I am always learning because Nancy is always learning.”

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Ten years ago, Herbert “Herby” Yuen, sous at Pizzeria, was a junior in high school. 

“Coming from the east coast, I had actually never heard of Nancy Silverton until I staged at the Mozza Bar,” he says. “Nancy has taught me so much regarding the balance of food, flavor profiles, and plating techniques. Not only is Nancy an influence in the development of my palate, but she also assists me in becoming a better leader.”

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Ten years ago, Kirby Shaw was 13, in 8th grade and full of dreams to hit the Gibson homerun that would lead the Dodgers to a World Series Championship.  He is not on the Dodger lineup, but rather finding glory on the line at Osteria Mozza.

“I first heard about Nancy from my Aunt Kelly who was kinda obsessed with her,” says Kirby, who had his high school graduation lunch at Mozza. .

“Nancy is the first chef, along with really the whole Mozza family, that has made me feel I can truly be myself and enjoy my job.

(Editor’s note – It should be noted that at any other restaurant, I Kirby was really “himself”, he would like be committed to a mental facility.)

“I have never worked for any person/ company longer than I have now for Mozza and I credit it to the atmosphere Nancy has created.” 

As for Aunty Kelly?  You bet your bottom raviolo she brags about her nephew. And his boss.

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“When Mozza was just opening, I was a junior in high school in Houston, Texas with Christine Larraucou!,” says Kirsten Mayall, line cook at Osteria Mozza. “I had a passion and aptitude for cooking, but no intention of pursuing it professionally.”

After college, Kirsten found her "professional" jobs to be uninspiring, and so she “followed a rabbit hole that led me back to cooking.”

At her first restaurant kitchen, in New York, she heard about Nancy Silverton.

“One of my coworkers in that kitchen was a former line cook at Osteria Mozza, and he waxed poetic about Nancy - the only chef he knew that still worked the line in her restaurant after so many years, and who did so wearing Marni.”

Listening to that friend's advice to work at Mozza upon moving to LA was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

“Working under (and side-by-side with) Nancy Silverton has made me a stronger, more creative cook. I have learned that perfection in this craft is never too lofty a goal; that working on an idea for weeks on end is a worthwhile exercise in persistence, not a sign of ineptitude; and that creative work is like a puzzle, requiring ingenuity and playful curiosity to find the solution.”

"Above all, Nancy has been a role model in leadership for me. She demonstrates every day how to lead: by showing kindness and genuine interest to every individual on her team. I remind myself daily to follow in her (very cool, probably Marni) footsteps.

“I could go on for hours about how important Nancy has been in my life.

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Ten years ago, Arthur Grigoryan was 11 years old. (When she hears that, Anna says “The should be the lede of your story.”

Arthur realized in high school he wanted to be a cook. “Being from LA, I was really interested to know who the legends were in the game from this city and the first names that I came across on the internet were Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Silverton.”

After spending some time studying and working in France, he came home and landed his first paying gig at Osteria.

“Working for Nancy over the past year at both Pizzeria and Osteria has been an incredible experience,” says Arthur. “ One thing I admire about Nancy is her high attention to detail about the food being perfect. If one thing does not seem right, she will always stop and teach us so that we don't make the same mistakes again.

“Working at Mozza has been great not only because I get to stand two feet from a living legend every day, but also because I get to work with a group of humble, talented, individuals who I know will reach great heights someday.”

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Ten years ago, Jess Ziman was at Crossroads High School, one of the toughest in Los Angeles.

When she was 17 she had a meal that. Thought she didn’t know it for years later, would change her life.

“I went to Osteria Mozza and sat at the Mozzarella Bar,” Jess, says. “Nancy was in full view. I never said a word to her, but just stared. It was a bit awkward. I didn’t even know I wanted to be a cook.

Then though a series of what she calls “a combination of serendipity and unfortunate events” she found herself looking for a job as a cook. 

But she imposed one strict rule. She would only work at the Mozza Corner.  She got the gig.

"The environment at Mozza is so different than any other place I have worked and it all come from the top. There is this wonderful sense of community that Nancy has created”.

“She, somehow without being critical, she honesty tell you about a dish that is not just right. But, she wants you to keep coming back to that dish to make it just right. She’s willing to get on your level, but in a cool way.”

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Few have worked with Nancy longer than Raul Ramirez, 38, the morning prep sous chef. He been with her 17 years ( even longer than me.) Raul worked with Nancy at Campanile starting around 2000.

There’s been a lot of raves about Nancy Silverton in this story, but the ending belongs to Raul.

“All the time she comes in asking me how I’m doing. I don’t have any complaints about Nancy. She’s a nice person.”

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