By Micah Cheek
Halfway through my interview with Fabio Viviani, I had to interrupt the restaurateur, entrepreneur and Top Chef winner to catch up with the quote I was typing. He jumped at the chance to interrupt me back. “You can make it so much easier on yourself if you record everything, get a voice recognition program,” he said. “Get in the 21st century!” Viviani had just reiterated an attitude that has followed him through his restaurants, kitchenware collections and media outlets – keep it simple.
Viviani’s outlook is worth listening to, especially because of the media presence he commands. The “Fan Favorite” status he earned on his initial “Top Chef” appearance put the spotlight on the chef’s undeniable charisma, which he has leveraged into a variety of appearance and endorsements along with his restaurant interests. This media savvy has been placing him on everything from local newscasts to “The Rachael Ray Show,” and the videos just keep coming. Aside from the celebrity factor, the appeal is clear. Viviani is feeding the desires of consumers who want to cook more, cook healthier and do it all with a gentle learning curve.
Viviani’s history, growing up watching his grandmother cook and making his way up through the restaurants of Florence, made me expect to speak with a stickler for tradition. I was surprised to hear that three of his home kitchen essentials are appliances: a food processor, immersion blender and high speed blender, in addition to wooden spoons and a few good knives. And how good should those knives be? “A $30 knife is as good as a $300 one, as long as it’s kept sharp. A $1,000 dollar dull knife is not gonna work,” says Viviani. The chef’s standard fresh pasta recipe, a mainstay of his kitchen demonstrations and TV appearances, avoids the classic volcano of eggs in flour in favor of a minute or two in a food processor. When tradition comes up against practicality, practicality wins every time.
Viviani was raised with a bent toward this efficiency. “I grew up on food stamps. My grandmother was paralyzed from the waist down, and she was always cooking,” says Viviani. “I was witnessing her making a meal out of nothing.” Viviani’s family didn’t have the luxury of stringent preparation rules or of waste. This has informed the way Viviani’s recipes are crafted and executed. Viviani seems excited to encourage consumers to simplify cooking with fresh ingredients. The only time I heard him taking a serious tone was when we starting broaching the subject of home cooking. Viviani said he was expecting home cooking to continue to rise in prominence, and then things began to take a turn. “Eventually people will have to get back in the kitchen or else they’ll go to the cemetery,” said Viviani. “[If] people are lazy, then they get fat, and then they get sick and die.” Viviani has the same passionate outlook on food waste, recalling the times that his family could not even afford to throw away potato peelings. He says he often deals with people who think he can only advocate these changes because he has the expertise to cook in a healthy way. “People say, ‘For you, it’s easy,’” he said. But Viviani grew up watching someone with no formal training feeding a family in this way. “My grandmother was cooking for six people every day, and we didn’t even have food.”
I mention home entertaining, and just like that, Viviani’s usual cheer is back. “I think the best concept for home entertaining is tapas,” says Viviani. “As long as it’s not complicated and it’s easy to consume, everything is good.” Tapas are a good standby, because the format can be as formal as you like, and guests can easily get involved in the kitchen with simple room-temperature snacks. “Food is meant to bring people together. When you have a lot of people and everyone does their share, it’s fun.” Viviani recommends serving for parties on small wooden plates, because the style can be adopted for both formal and casual scenarios. The chef has lent his name to the Fabio Viviani Heritage Collection, a set of acacia wood tableware that fits the bill nicely.
When discussing wine pairings, Viviani said the words that every novice oenophile was hoping to hear. “Everything about wine is an opinion, and I don’t follow opinion much,” said Viviani. “When you think about food and wine, you can think too much.” For Viviani, a few general guidelines can point a consumer in the right direction more than worrying about tannin levels or jammy undertones. “You don’t want to drink a dry white wine with something spicy, or your face will be on fire,” says Viviani. “You want to drink a pinot noir with a lighter meat, while you can save a bolder wine for something heavier.” Viviani’s line of wines, first released last year, promotes this attitude. “The most important rule for us is to keep the wine easy for people to understand,” he says.
If Viviani’s continuously rising star is any indication, consumers are starting to heed the no-nonsense advice. Meanwhile, I’m headed back to the kitchen to sharpen my $30 knives.