Merrill Shindler / October 2010
Food Arts presents the October 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Nancy Silverton, a master baker who brought the Gospel of Good Bread to Los Angeles (and to America after that). And who, as a second act, turned L.A. into a destination for that culinary object of desire—a truly great pizza.
Ironically, Silverton grew up disliking bread—or at least bread that had texture and taste. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she says she was embarrassed by her mother's insistence on making her school lunch sandwiches on whole wheat bread. "Everyone else had sandwiches on white bread—some even with the crust cut off. I wanted that so much. I was so ashamed of my whole wheat bread, I'd put my face into my brown paper bag to eat my lunch so no one could see."
It wasn't until Silverton was an 18 year old undergraduate at Sonoma State University, studying liberal arts, that she discovered the joy of cooking. She took a job as a vegetarian cook in her dormitory kitchen, where she found herself in the illiberal art of cuisine. Her growing passion led Silverton to Le Cordon Bleu in London, and then, back to Southern California, where she found a job as assistant pastry chef at Michael's in Santa Monica. Her growing love of baking led Silverton to France, to the Culinary Institute LeNôtre in Plaisir. And then, like a proverbial "rubber biscuit," she bounced back to Los Angeles, where she was hired as head pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck's Spago.
Silverton made plans with her then-husband, chef Mark Peel, to open a Cal-Mediterranean restaurant called Campanile. And while the structure was being retrofitted, she built a bakery on the side of the building's towering atrium. She called it La Brea Bakery. When it opened on January 1, 1989, it gave birth to what many have called the "American Bread Revolution." Silverton says, "It was the most difficult thing I've ever done. There weren't a lot of people to turn to for advice on baking back then. I had to do most of it on my own."
She did it well, teaching herself the fine art of sourdough bread bakery. The woman who longed for crust-free white bread became a master of bread that seems, at times, to be all crust. In 1990, Silverton was named Pastry Chef of the Year by The James Beard Foundation. In 2001, she sold her La Brea Bakery to the Irish food conglomerate IAWS. And she's continued to show a lot of crust—joining with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to open Pizzeria Mozza, arguably the best pizzeria in Los Angeles.
She's also working on specialty breads at the new Eataly Italian food hall in New York City. And at the moment, she has yet another well-baked obsession. "You've got to drop by Mozza2Go to try my new focaccia. I do it Mondays only. I went to Italy to find the best focaccia. There's great focaccia in Basilicata. There's great focaccia in Recco in Liguria. I think we can have the best focaccia in America at Mozza. I'm working on it."