At L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade, a culinary event that raised over $530,000 for the fight against childhood cancer, 11 top chefs explained who inspire, guide and advise them.
Chris Bianco (Pane Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco + Trattoria Bianco)
I’ve been very blessed to have so many great friends and mentors. Sometimes just finding inspiration from somebody who’s working beside you, volunteering. I always try to listen to people’s journey, where they’re from, what they love to do, and what they’re into. At an event like this, where you have so many people, obviously Suzanne [Goin], Adam Perry Lang with his lunatic fringe meat of the gods…It’s very cliché, but the truth is my mom is a great inspiration, my family. People in my neighborhood growing up in New York inspired me, showed me that people could respond to things that were good, through food, that I couldn’t even articulate. Food was a great medium to bring people to the table. That’s the best thing about it. Food obviously feeds us in more ways than one. Kind of like in that movie with Billy Crystal, “City Slickers,” where he was sitting with his dad and had nothing to talk about but baseball. Food can not only be that common denominator at the dinner table in bringing people together, whether it’s a pot roast or a bowl of pasta or a Sunday chicken, it feeds us a lot of different ways.
I’m inspired by very obvious ones, like Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers and the California movement that helped me as a younger chef move away from technique being great. As old as I am, it was a lot of technique driven food, and you didn’t really ask too many other questions. You didn’t ask where it’s from. You just took it for granted that a chef had the finest ingredients. A beurre blanc was still a beurre blanc, but there wasn’t conversation about where the butter was from. Now the conversations are different. You want to know where the ingredients come from, so there’s a great transparency that happens now. We didn’t deserve all the blame, but we definitely didn’t deserve all the credit for food being where it is now…It takes a village, and there are some incredible people I look to for inspiration. There are farmers and artisans and people behind the scenes, and people that just bring the food to you, and deliver. Maybe they have a recipe for you, or a smile, or compassion on a day where I think, “Why the fuck do I do this?” Or, “Does anybody give a shit?”
It’s helped me to be older, going into my 50s now. I’m 51. People see the arc of work. Someday, if they look back, if they care to, it’s easy to be good for a day. It’s easy to suck for a day. If you look at your life in totality, if anybody gives a shit, I hope we suck less days than I was good. I know my intention was always something I could give.
I look to everybody. Anybody. It’s funny, we do these guest chef dinners in The Strand House. We did one with Jonathan Benno on Monday night. I would say really super simple food, but everything was delicious. It kind of always takes me back how something so simple, well presented, with good product, can be great. He did a crostini with really thinly sliced Persian cucumbers and albacore on top with sea salt and olive oil, and his best canapé / hors d’oeuvres was grilled zucchini with Pecorino and olive oil on a crostini…You always have to realize you don’t have to do as much as you think. Sometimes less is more.
We all talk. Everybody’s talking all the time. It’s a really healthy community. Everybody knows each other. It’s cool, because when you’re talking to other chefs, the whole TV cloak kind of disappears. Nobody cares if you’re a TV chef or you’re not. At some point, you just sort of get accepted by the community. It actually feels really good to not talk about television, but rather talk about what food you’re making.
Cindy Wolf at Charleston in Baltimore. I probably talk to her twice a month. It’s good because Cindy was my first fine dining chef. When I was working for her, I was a punkass college kid. It’s nice because she’s followed my career ever since and is obviously really proud and happy that she put me on the right path. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be cooking today. She made me want to deal with the abuse and the nonsense and just the ridiculous hours and the hellish conditions of professional kitchens. She made me want to do it. If I worked for somebody else, I’d probably be an accountant right now, but she really kind of put me on the path. The nice thing is, I get to talk to her, and her view – it’s like anybody in your life – they never stop being that person you knew when you knew them – she still sees me as this punkass kid who has no idea what he’s doing. Her expertise, the way she thinks about food and business and customers and keeping up on what’s important to be knowledgeable in the industry now, everything about her, she’s still my teacher, and she’s very comfortable doing that, because she knew me when I was a little punkass. She taught me how to make homemade biscuits. She’s the reason I became a baker. Cindy’s probably the one person I’ll go to if I’m ever really stymied. She knows that if she’s going to take the time to give advice, it’s not falling on deaf ears.
A couple of people. I happen to love Jonathan Waxman. He’s been in the business for so long and he just adds so much. He’s such an inspiration to me. Daniel Boulud is a mentor to me. Mario Batali’s unbelievable as well.