Nancy Silverton is one of the world’s great chefs and for three nights in August, she took over a restaurant in Wellington. Simon Day was there.
The first thing legendary Californian chef Nancy Silverton does after she greets the bright-eyed dining room that’s gathered at Wellington restaurant Shepherd to see her in the flesh and eat her famous food is explain the concept of “scarpetta”. “Fare la scarpetta” is the delightfully Italian ritual of saving a nugget of bread to mop up the leftover sauce on one’s plate once the dish itself is devoured.
“Get a glass of wine, I’ve got mine. And make sure you save a piece of bread,” she says with her prolonged Californian vowels. She’s 65 but looks much younger, she’s petite and her style is bright and bold. A consummate host, she floats between the kitchen and the tables, making time for anyone who wants to chat. She cares if we are having fun. She’s having fun too, because she loves cooking for people.
As Silverton introduces us to the idea of scarpetta, the Shepherd team serves the first course – “mozzarella di bufala with condimenti”. The condiments are a bright green basil pesto shiny with olive oil, a rich and sweet salsa romesco, a black olive tapenade and a caperberry relish. After tasting each with a slice of bouncy Italian mozzarella, I sweep the remnants of the four sauces together with my scarpetta for a final mouthful of salty, oily freshness that defines Silverton’s modern approach to Italian food. The room is in awe.
When Silverton visits our table to check how the food is, I ask if it’s OK to curse. Sure, she says. “It’s fucking delicious.”
Silverton was in the capital as a guest of Visa Wellington On a Plate. For three nights, and six sittings, she took over the Shepherd kitchen with her executive chef Liz Hong and executive pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez. For more than 30 years Silverton has been one of the most influential chefs in the United States. Her stone fruit brioche tart famously made Julia Child cry with joy on TV. Now she’s cooking in Wellington as part of the annual festival’s chef collaboration series.
Silverton’s cooking career began as a pastry chef under the guidance of LA icons Jonathan Waxman then Wolfgang Puck. Then in the 80s she pioneered the artisanal baking movement, opening La Brea Bakery in 1989, and her first restaurant, Campanile, with her then husband, chef Mark Peel, next door to the bakery. It quickly became a pillar of Californian cuisine. Her marriage ended and with it her stake in Campanile. In 2009 she lost her fortune, built on the back of her bread empire, in Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent Ponzi scheme. She rebuilt it on the back of her trio of Italian-influenced restaurants – Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and Chi Spacca – that sit on the same block in Hollywood.
Silverton’s food is inspired by her love for Italy. Before opening Campanile, her family took a break there, renting a house and spending weeks living as part of the local community. On Sunday morning, after her final Shepherd “takeover”, Silverton led me around the Harbourside Market on a cold, clear, windy Wellington day, tasting fennel fronds and celery leaves. She explained that it was this experience in Italy – the discovery that her role as a cook was to enhance the natural glory of great ingredients with only the lightest intervention – that has shaped her cooking.
“Although I recognised then how important seasonal produce was and how much it added to a meal then, I didn’t know that I knew that,” she said. “Living in Italy, renting that house, cooking at home, shopping at the really small outdoor market and coming home and making absolutely delicious food with not a whole lot of effort because the ingredients were outstanding, it was then I came to terms with what kind of cook I was and what kind of cook I wanted to be.”
In LA, her cooking celebrates California’s diverse and bountiful agricultural pedigree. Each day her staff visit farmers markets around the city to search for unique ingredients. Her restaurants are serviced by a supplier who takes his truck from LA to San Francisco and stops at all the farmers markets on his way back, giving Silverton access to the unique micro-climates of California’s long coast.
“And that is really who I am. It is about respect for the ingredients. It’s about understanding how important those ingredients are, and trying to not over-manipulate them and transform them into anything but what they are.”
Her dedication to exquisite simplicity defined her success at a time when food was trending towards the complicated and ornate. This is captured in Silverton’s episode in season three of Netflix series Chef’s Table, a show that explores the lives, minds and kitchens of the world’s most prominent chefs. In the episode, the late, great LA Times food writer Jonathan Gold (the only food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize) explains what makes Silverton special. She doesn’t do fancy, she doesn’t cook “towers of foie gras, and eel, and elderflower blossom”. When asked what she does do, he replies with a laugh “pizza, pasta and salad” .
It was in fact Gold who initiated Silverton’s appearance at Visa Wellington On a Plate. A guest of the festival in 2017, Gold returned the favour and hosted event director Sarah Meikle and chef Shepherd Elliot (the restaurant’s namesake), who were in LA on a research trip. The group mentioned how eager they were to dine at Osteria Mozza but had a limited amount of time. The famously hospitable and equally influential Gold said “leave it to me”. The next thing they knew, they’re seated at the Mozza bar.
“At the end of the night, Nancy comes out and says hello,” Elliot said. “Jonathan had told her we were coming along, and we introduced ourselves and said we were from Wellington and we had this awesome festival and we would love for her to come over.”
Meikle then brokered her appearance at Visa Wellington on a Plate with Silverton’s team. Attracting these big names relies on the reputation of New Zealand’s food and beverage, and the word-of-mouth endorsement – from people like Gold – of the festival.
“New Zealand is known for many export products and has the reputation of producing fantastic ingredients. Chefs love the chance to come to New Zealand to try the ingredients at the source but also to interact with our chefs. Most leave here with lifelong friends,” said Meikle.
Then the pressure fell on Elliot. You know the feeling when you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen and you can’t find the colander, or the rolling pin, or the stock pot? It was his job to make sure Silverton and her team felt like they were working in their own kitchen, and that it was stocked with everything they needed. He had to source the special equipment and the hard-to-find ingredients they needed, and introduce them to the local produce.
“For me it was a very special week that I will never forget. To be able to be given that opportunity to have people like those three come and work with us is incredibly special,” said Elliot.
“I really believe that what they’re doing with Wellington On a Plate, bringing these people over, is going to have a profound change to Wellington’s hospitality scene over the next 10 years. You’re going to see a real lift in the quality of food, but also recognition of what we are doing here.”
And that’s the point, said Meikle. More than just giving New Zealanders a chance to eat food cooked by famous chefs, the collaboration series is about making a long term investment in Wellington food culture. During her stay, Silverton visited restaurants around the city, meeting and a number of local chefs and producers. Many of the chefs stay connected and often work together again. They leave an influence on the local ecosystem and take Wellington away with them too.
“Ultimately we want the visiting chefs to learn something about the New Zealand and Wellington restaurant culture and for the Wellington chef, and whole restaurant team, to have the experience of a world-class chef work in their kitchen for a week. That’s the real legacy of this part of the festival,” said Meikle.
On that cold, wet, windy August night in Wellington, Silverton served us five courses: a grissini smeared in truffle butter and wrapped in Italian prosciutto as we arrived; then the mozzarella, paired with a fennel and endive salad, and garlic bread (sourdough soaked in olive oil and then fried on the grill, served hot); two pastas – a creamy, cheesy cappelletti with crispy fried prosciutto, and a spicy, smoky tomato torchio; the protein was skewers of kingfish, blackened on the outside and rare in the centre, and lamb chops tender and fatty, accompanied by eggplant and cabbage cooked in the neighbouring Leed St Bakery’s oven; finally a “torta della nonna” and butterscotch budino, a thick, rich caramel custard finished with local honey. Did I mention it was fucking delicious?
We were seated at long tables and the food was presented on platters. Silverton advised us to get to know our neighbours because this was family-style dining. My wife and I were soon enamoured with our neighbours Frith and Kath, two old friends, one local, one who had travelled to eat with Silverton. By the end of the evening they’d seen our wedding photos and I’d forced them to subscribe to The Spinoff’s food podcast. This sharing of food and experience is again Italy’s influence on Silverton’s approach to dining.
“It is the spirit of the table, and the spirit of the table usually involves a whole family or a collection of friends. I prefer that style of eating because it is less fussy and I just love the way it brings people together,” she said.
Even after cooking all her life, Silverton’s love for food is still immensely strong. She’s one of the few top chefs who own restaurants who still loves to get her hands dirty in the kitchen. On the night her glass of red wine was covered in greasy fingerprints, as she pottered between the kitchen, tasting everything before it was served, and entertaining her guests.
On the Sunday at the farmers market she was shopping for a cooking demonstration she was giving for a group of high school students. She filled her tote bag with iceberg lettuces, fennel, radishes, celery, lemons, mint and dill. Her plan was to show them the power of a simple salad, and to teach them about seasonality and the people who produce their food.
Her favourite place to cook is at her home in Umbria in Italy.
“When I go to Italy in the summers and spend so much time in the kitchen and I’m cooking for so many people, I’ll be questioned, “What are you doing, you’re on vacation?” This is what I do, this is my life’s calling.”
At 65, does she have energy left for food? Will she still be cooking in another 10 years?
“I’m full of it. I think more than that,” she says with confidence. “In any profession when you’re lucky enough to discover what is your inner drive then there’s nothing to retire from. That just doesn’t exist.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Visa Wellington On a Plate. Learn more about our partnerships here.