Merrill Shindler - October 2000
Food Arts presents the October 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Laurence "Larry" Mindel, chairman of the board of the Il Fornaio restaurant chain and a restaurateur who's spent his life changing the iconic image of Italian food on the West Coast from Chef Boy-R-Dee to the mustachioed baker and chef of Il Fornaio. In the process, he's helped turn California into one of the regions of Italy—complete with a population obsessed with espresso and sweet bread for breakfast.
Theatrically handsome, with perfect silver hair and ties that never lack a dimple, Mindel entered the world of pasta in 1970 when, along with his partner Jerry Magnin, this former coffee merchant (Mindel acquired Caswell Coffee of San Francisco in 1964, five years after graduating from the University of Michigan) founded Spectrum, Foods and elegant yet populist restaurants like Chianti, Chianti Cucina, Harry's Bar & Grill (an exact replica of the Harry's Bar in Florence), Ciao, and Prego in Southern California. In a land of spaghetti and meatballs at that), Mindel combined a commitment to authenticity with a passion for fresh ingredients and created a culinary concept that dazzled Californians—real Italian food.
Mozzarella marinara was replaced with vitello tonnato, and ravioli in meat sauce with risotto with porcini. The response was ecstatic. Like children let loose in a toy store, Left Coasters drowned themselves in a sea of salad caprese. In 1984, Spectrum was sold to Saga, which was in turn sold to Marriott. Mindel tried to buy his restaurants back from Marriott and, failing to do so, purchased a small chain of bakeries called Il Fornaio ("The Baker").
Under Mindel, the Il Fornaio chain expanded in several directions. Following the tenets of the original Il Fornaio baking school in the Lombardy village of Barlassina, it made a commitment to bake its bread the "old way," taking an almost Luddite approach to the production of pane, panini, biscotti, and dolci. At the same time, what had formally been a chain of bakeries with adjacent caes turned into a chain of 22 full-service restaurants, in locations ranging from Seattle to San Francisco to Santa Monica to Scottsdale (with a singular fast-food Risottoria in Seattle and a Venetian concept called Canaletto in Las Vegas as well). Il Fornaio has also done much to move Italian food beyond the notion of "Northern" and "Southern" with its Festa Regionale—monthly special menus dedicated to the cooking of rich regions like Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, and poorer regions like Calabria and Puglia.
In the process, Mindel watched with pride as his head baker, Jan Schat, led the first American team ever to win the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie ("World Cup of Baking") in 1999 at Europain. And he's become the master of a chain with more than $100 million in annual revenue. But then, for Mindel, it's not about the money. It's about setting free his Inner Italian. "Italy has captured my mind," says Mindel, "as well as my heart and soul." And, dare we add, his stomach as well.