No one subverts the ‘angry chef’ stereotype better than Nancy Silverton. Where television portrayals of rage-fuelled celebrity chefs imply that success in the kitchen comes at the expense of kindness, Silverton vehemently disagrees.
“Respect is number one,” Silverton says. “I know some bosses in the kitchen like to think that everyone else is dispensable. If you leave, they’ll hire someone else to take your place. But the key to cultivating a team is making people feel like they are important.”
Silverton shows her skill in doing just that a second later, when her phone buzzes in the middle of our interview. She looks horrified. Her hand flies to her pocket quickly to silence her device even as I ask if she needs to take the call, explaining that I’d be happy to wait. “Not at all,” she assures me apologetically, “let’s keep talking.” I can see in that moment that her first priority is showing me she cares about our time together.
“The beginning of my career was just luck—it was a gift that was handed to me”
Silverton has an empire of restaurants spread out across the globe, from London to Los Angeles. The latter is where the original Osteria Mozza, which holds one Michelin star, is situated. She has been awarded the highest honour given by the James Beard Foundation for ‘Outstanding Chef’, and has her own episode on Netflix’s wildly popular culinary documentary series Chef’s Table.
She and I are seated in Osteria Mozza’s Singaporean outpost of the same name, on the fifth floor of the Hilton Singapore Orchard. The Italian restaurant is warm and elegant, with furniture carved from luxurious mahogany and chestnut wood offset by plush leather and industrial lighting. A spacious open kitchen beckons diners to sit along the chef’s table to watch the team work, but Silverton ushers me into a beautifully-appointed private dining room for some insulation from the loud, banterous cacophony in the kitchen.
“The team here has my complete trust. It’s always tough to have a restaurant that’s not in your backyard and you can only visit three or four times a year. But they have kept standards up perfectly,” Silverton declares proudly. “What I especially like is that they’ve put a few new dishes on the menu on their own. They ran them by me verbally, but I haven’t been able to taste them. But they fit right into our sensibility and are on brand, which is really important.”
Silverton got her start in the culinary world after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 1982, when she was hired by Wolfgang Puck as the opening pastry chef for the world-famous Los Angeles restaurant Spago. “To sum that part of my career up, I would say that my beginnings were just luck,” she says, with a wistful glint in her eyes. “It was an incredible gift that was handed to me.” Her humility belies the fact that even early on, Silverton’s prowess in the kitchen was so unquestionable that food critics wrote that she had “virtually redefined what dessert [was].”
Four decades on, she is still credited with playing a major role in popularising sourdough and artisan breads in the United States. Here, the celebrity chef looks back on her illustrious career with a critical eye, and shares her best advice for budding chefs looking to make a mark in the culinary industry today.
What was it like to have your first restaurant job be at Spago, with Wolfgang Puck?
It was so instrumental. I didn’t have to struggle to get my name. I was with Wolfgang, and therefore people wanted to talk to me. Not everyone is so lucky—being given that gift meant three quarters of my work was done for me. That was also the beginning of the idea of a ‘celebrity chef’, where chefs and restaurants were beginning to get all sorts of attention and accolades, so once again, I was incredibly lucky.
You seem to attribute a lot of your success to luck. But it’s clear that you’ve taken the opportunities that have been given to you and transformed them completely.
I’m not saying there wasn’t a lot of hard work. But I am saying that being at the right place at the right time, no question, made a huge difference. I could have spent a huge amount of time in a place that didn’t have the same notoriety, and things would have likely turned out completely different. But I don’t sit back and rest on my accolades. There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially now that everyone’s struggling to find help in restaurants.
You’re talking about the labour shortage in the restaurant industry, which really ramped up when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. How are you dealing with that in your own restaurants?
First off, we didn’t jump right back into seven days a week. At one of our restaurants, we used to be open before the pandemic from 12 noon to 11pm. But we didn’t go back to that. We tried to keep our hours down so people didn’t feel like they were coming back and being completely overwhelmed, or being taken advantage of. I made sure nobody was working more than five days a week, and on the weekends, we took an extra hour away, to just give people a little bit more of a break.
We put on menus that were shorter than what we had before—we didn’t have the amount of prep people we would need for the original menus. The point is, you’ve got to make it happen with less people, without overworking the staff you do have. We were also very mindful of keeping wages competitive, not undercutting anyone, and also elevating some of the workers that were on a lower pay scale.
Is there also a psychological or emotional component to keeping morale up?
Absolutely. I think it’s about meeting people where they are at. It always goes back to respect and listening. For instance, if you see somebody in the team doing something not up to your standards, the approach you take to correcting them can be really important. There are tons of horror stories where chefs—particularly in the past—really lacked the skill to make somebody feel like they could do it better if they tried. I like the more encouraging approach of, ‘Don’t you think it would be better if you did it like this?’ or ‘Don’t you see that this looks better?’ I don’t think this is necessarily gender-specific, but I do think women have an easier time being nurturing.
Do you find mentorship important?
Incredibly so. There’s nothing I love more than when I look at the list of people who have left my present group of restaurants and gone on to have such successful careers. It really makes me proud—like a parent, you know. How could you not be proud of them, knowing that your parenting and your mentorship worked, because they went out and knew how to do it so well.
What kind of advice would you give to young people who are just starting their careers in the restaurant industry now?
The good thing is there is a lot of opportunity out there now, because everybody’s struggling to find help, more so than 10 years ago. I would advise anyone to really research a place before you join, so you can see if you match with the environment that they have created and the food that they make. If there is synergy between the food you’d like to eat and the food that’s being made, then the work is instantly that much easier.
My other piece of advice is to be patient when you’re starting. Don’t think that when you just start out at a restaurant, within the first six months, you’re going be promoted to a much higher position. When I first started cooking, I would see cooks staying at the same place for five years, eight years before they felt like they got everything. Only then would they move on. In today’s world—not only in the restaurants, but probably in a lot of fields—people get so anxious if they haven’t been able to move on. I don’t think it works that way. You’ve got to be patient. Get what you can, and give what you can.
“It’s the real cooks of the world who take it step by step—their goal tends to be becoming the best cook or the best mentor ever”
You’re right about people wanting to move on quickly now. This is partly because the goalpost for success has been raised so rapidly for younger generations, would you agree?
Yes, everything is so quick now! First of all, I don’t even know how to do anything on Instagram. With Instagram, YouTube and—what do you call it—tic-tac? It’s difficult for today’s generation having to see how quickly people can become successful on social media without really doing anything. The amount of wealth and all the branded stuff they get. But all that is just short-term gratification. Nobody sits back and looks at the long term.
How do you think people in the restaurant industry can develop patience and learn how to think long-term?
They really need to analyse why they’ve chosen this career. I chose this career very young. When I first got into it, my goal was to cook, and cook well. It ended there. But what a lot of young people don’t realise is that if they’re getting into it with the intended end result of becoming very successful television personalities, they may not be getting into the business for the right reasons.
It’s the real cooks of the world who take it step by step. Their goal tends to be becoming the best cook or the best mentor ever. If you were to talk to any of the cooks in our kitchen here, or in my restaurant in Los Angeles, and if you ask them why they’re doing it, they’re not going to say, ‘So that I can have a chain of restaurants’ or ‘So I can be Gordon Ramsay’. They’re doing it because they genuinely love it. They wouldn’t be able to put in the hours if they didn’t. They wouldn’t wear it on their faces—these are happy cooks here. So I think people should step back and just reflect on why they are doing what they are doing.
Read the other stories from our Career Files series here.