Nibble+squeak loves to get to know the people behind a restaurant, so we’re putting the spotlight on an industry parent each month:
Michael White is a Midwestern-raised chef who can school most Italians on how to cook delicious pasta. As co-owner of the Altamarea Group, he has 15 restaurants around the globe, including Marea in Manhattan, which won best new restaurant at the 2010 James Beard Awards.
Chef White took time from his busy schedule opening a second Marea (in Shanghai) to speak with N+S about the joy of having kids visit his upscale dining rooms and exploring NYC's culinary scene with his daughter, Francesca, 13.
Interview by Liza Hamm
Did you cook a lot as a kid?
I certainly did. I'm of Norwegian descent and Norwegians are always eating good food. I grew up in Wisconsin making bread with my dad. Wisconsin was so cold so we started with bread and soups. My dad was an avid cook. He still is. That's how I got the bug.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from your dad in the kitchen?
Make sure you make enough, right!? Especially when you’re cooking in the midwest. Just spending time with my father and watching his passion….whether it was refurbishing wooden boats or cooking...was so important.
Nibble+squeak focuses on kid-friendly dining experiences. What is your definition of a kid-friendly restaurant?
I always thank parents for bringing their son or daughter in because it’s such a cool experience. I love having them. From a business standpoint, it perpetuates your business. It also gets kids excited about cooking. I bring kids into the kitchen at Marea, Ai Fiori, Due Mari. People come to a restaurant like Marea for a birthday or other special occasion…..I want these kids to have their prom at Marea.
Do you take kids to the kitchen for special events or just regular nights?
Oh no, when I see them in the dining room, I ask if they want to see the kitchen. Then, they send me notes saying 'this pasta was so much better than Mr. Batali’s.' I absolutely love that. I get letters with designs and pictures of spaghetti. It's humbling.
Sounds like all your restaurants are kid-friendly but are there any you specifically recommend to families?
I’ll say Nicoletta and Osteria Morini the ones that hit home for casual fun pizza and pasta, all the things that young people like, but I also have kids come here and want to eat crudo and more.
I think many kid have more sophisticated palates than we give them credit for….do you agree?
Definitely. They taste nuances, especially when you start them out young. They have what I call taste memories. That’s so important. Each and everyone of us have taste memories. I love what I do and to be able to spread the good word about food.
So tell me about taking Francesca out to dinner when she was younger. What are some of your favorite memories from then?
She has no idea how lucky she is. Whether it was being in a high-chair at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in the South of France or having a chef hat on in the kitchen at Ducasse, she was a lucky kid. She’s been to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bali. She has had food experiences all over the world. So she’s very food savvy but my wife doesn’t want her to be a chef.
She knows the hours that I work. It’s a tough business.
Do you and Francesca have favorite places to dine together?
You bet. We love to eat ethnic food, whether we go to eat at Won Jo in Korea Town or Thai food in Queens. We’re very adventuresome. Or it could just be grabbing cheeseburgers at Joe Juniors. My restaurants aren't as fun for her anymore. It’s cooler to go to different restaurants.
I assume she has VIP status at your restaurants?
Listen, she better behave herself when she brings her friends.
Does she have a favorite dish you make?
Like all kids, it’s pasta. The fusilli with octopus and bone marrow here at Marea or the Epaulettes (rabbit and cheese ravioli, with black truffle jus) at Vaucluse. She loves pasta.
Are you teaching her to cook?
Just by osmosis, I would say. If [my wife] Giovanna and I aren’t at home, she can fend for herself.
Why do you think it’s important for her to know how to cook, even if she doesn’t pursue it professionally?
We want her to know that you take time out to sit, eat and talk about what transpired during the day. It can also set the tone for the rest of kids' lives. They can take the initiative to eat healthy, to eat in moderation.
I’ve read about your regular Sunday family dinners in the press before. How often do you try and get the family together for a meal with everyone’s busy schedules?
We always sit down on Sundays but I also try to get home at least once a week for a meal. There is too much stuff going on...tutoring and tennis for her...the rest of the time.
What does Francesca cook for you? What are her specific strengths in the kitchen?
She's very resourceful. She can do a plate of pasta if she has to. She loves making omelettes and oatmeal.
What is your favorite dish she makes?
She makes a really good mortadella sandwich nowadays. On whole wheat with arugula.
So if she doesn’t follow in your culinary footsteps, what would you like to see Francesca do?
Whatever makes her happy. I want her to feel fulfilled. If that’s with food, that’s awesome. If not, I’ll be happy to see her do something else.