It’s a Monday afternoon, and Michael White is sitting on a chair at his downtown New York restaurant Osteria Moreni, taking a rare breather. In a half hour, he’ll be back on his feet, gliding through the kitchen down a staircase to a sub-kitchen and showing me all the fresh pasta that’s rolled, prepped, and ready for tonight’s dinner.
Yes, I said gliding. Michael White is a big man, but put him in his natural environment, the kitchen, and he takes on a certain grace. He throws a doughy-looking disc on a griddle and spreads lard and cheese and some herbs on it, rips it in half, mumbles some Italian word—rolling his R’s—and then hands half to me, pops the other half in his mouth and closes his eyes to savor it.
I could go through all Michael White’s accomplishments but it boils down to this: His three current NYC restaurants, Osteria Moreni, Ai Fiore, and the Italian seafood mecca Marea, are labors of love that also happen to be huge hits. He’s a 2011 James Beard Award nominee (up for Best Chef, New York City) who is about to open an Italian restaurant in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour called Al Molo, and he’s likely to have something up else his sleeves, maybe in New York, maybe Miami, maybe London.
As the Rolling Stones’ song “Emotional Rescue” played fittingly in the background, a typically animated White, wearing a thick Breitling watch and dressed in roughed-up chef’s whites, bounces around subjects as far afield as China’s domination as an emerging world power to sustainable seafood to his love of Formula One racing and cars—which he doesn’t have time for—”I’m just too busy!” he says. No doubt.
So you’ve been working hard these last couple of years. After opening Morini and then Ai Fiore, did you take a deep breath or what did you do?
There is no stopping right now.
What drives you?
I’m a restaurant junkie. A junkie. I love building something and seeing it come to fruition. My wife says that to me too: You have three really great things working in the city, why do you wanna keep going? We’re opening Hong Kong in two weeks. I leave May 11 after Beard. We open the 17th of May.
What’s it called?
It’s gonna be called Al Molo, which is my new Asian brand. Al Molo, which means at the wharf; it’s in Victoria’s Harbour, 7,000 square feet. In Hong Kong.
And it’s an Asian brand? But you’re not serving Asian food?
No, no, Italian. Italian food is the ethnic food of choice in Asia. In China. You see so much of it in Tokyo and all over. And I was contacted a year and a half ago, and we have a whole team. It’s in a place called Harbour City, which is 2 million square feet of retail, and there are no high-end Italian restaurants. There’s a Starbucks and all sorts of things and I’ll have a restaurant called Al Molo. I’ll show it to you. [He pulls up photos on his ever-present iPhone.] This is a really exciting time to be in restaurants.
Do you have something else coming already after that?
Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. [He’s back on his iPhone.] I just keep getting daily updates, but this is the bread-baking oven at Al Molo, the walk-in, it’s amazing.
Who designed it?
AvroKo did it. [AvroKo is one of the hottest restaurant design firms in the world, mostly known for establishing the vintage-chic look at various NYC hotspots.]
Avroko has an office in China.
It should be noted here that Chef White went off on a tangent here that led to him declaring that “Our time is over in the United States”; that China has 360 “Kentucky Chickens” opening this year; that Al Molo only took two months to complete from start to finish because there are “no problems” building in China; that you can get five pounds of shrimp there whenever you want it; that there’s a lot of red tape in New York City; that members of the community board who complain about a bench in front of his restaurant are “squatters”; that he has 588 employees and will soon have a lot more; that he owes it to these employees to “incubate” and keep growing; and then, after recanting his declaration that our time is over in the United States, that he is “rambling right now.” With that, we returned to the subject of design.
What about this place?
This is all from Italy. It’s all—the floor. The cabinets are out of my wife’s sister-in-law’s great grandfather’s house. We gutted his house. Took the beams, everything.
Why was that important to you? Is it spiritual in a way?
No, because I didn’t want Restoration Hardware. We have too many Restoration Hardware restaurants in New York City and I wanted to bring people the real deal. When you come in here and you shut your eyes, this is exactly what it feels like in an osteria in Italy, especially [the region] Emilia Romagna.
What about food politics? You’re into Italian food, how do you justify expanding all these restaurants in the face of the Slow Food philosophy?
Great question. Because people want it. The Slow Food movement is wonderful because it helps preserve what is inherently Italian… I think there are a lot of positive things that come out of it. Every little bit helps. I don’t think there’s one association that you can gravitate towards that fixes everything. It’s up to everybody to do their part to raise awareness. That’s the great part about being in NYC, is that you can have a restaurant such as Moreni that is so focused on Emilio Romagna—and this is Bologna and about 30 miles around, and this is the food we’re doing. We’re filling bellies here, with good food that’s from Emilio Romagna.
I’m not suggesting that you’re anti-Slow Food because you could be considered a chain—
I would argue against that vehemently. Look at my three websites and they’re completely different… It’s a different brand. It’s a vision or a thought process that comes from me and my team. So I would argue vehemently against the idea that we’re a chain. But we’re also in the business of making money. I’m not one of the big boys in that it’s all about making money. I have myself and one partner for all these restaurants.
Can you talk about the philosophy about making all your pasta fresh and why you spend so many resources on it?
We do all fresh pasta. I make every single thing we serve. And there are no doubles of anything we serve in the restaurants. I might serve garganelli in a different preparation within the restaurant but never the same sauce. You can go to all the restaurants and every single one of them is different. That’s why I don’t sleep at night.
Have you ever estimated how much you go through?
Thousands and thousands of pounds. I’m doing 7,500-80,00 customers a week in New York City, and about 80 percent of those customers eat pasta, so we put out 6,000 pastas a week in various forms, entrees or small courses. That’s like 300,000 plates a year.
Marea has become one of the top two seafood restaurants in New York City. Everyone has a responsibility with seafood because of the issues of overfishing and the environment. How do you deal with that?
I have a whole team. We don’t use Bluefin. We don’t use any farm-raised species whatsoever. There’s a tremendous problem with overfishing of certain species. But we’re doing such a better job, not just at Marea but in general because chefs [talk about it]; it’s promoted in the restaurant industry.
So your team is proactive in avoiding certain species?
Very proactive. People know now. The food awareness of the customer, people come in and they’re like, Where is this fish from? We’re getting that a lot now because of Japan.
I want you to know that black bass are open right now but only for two weeks in Rhode Island, so we couldn’t overfish because of quotas. Red snapper? In Florida, the first 15 days of the month in Florida are red snapper season, so if you’re eating red snapper and it’s the 20th of blank, that fish is either really fucking old or they’re just saying it’s Florida red snapper, because it’s illegal to fish there after the 15th of each month.
We’re highly aware that we have to do the right thing. I have a 20-year lease on my restaurant. I want to make sure that I have fish in it.
How much do you concern yourself with seasonality?
I do. We try to use vegetables from the market. This time of year there’s just apples and potatoes still. We’re finally getting a glimpse of fava beans and peas. It’s extremely important, but I want to say that locavore is great but it doesn’t mean that it’s always better, because I might get some really ratty swiss chard. It doesn’t mean that it’s all better.
If it’s not part of the DNA of your restaurant—
Everybody is ingredient-driven. That’s such a dumb word. It’s an ingredient-driven restaurant, as opposed to what, a rotten ingredient-driven restaurant? I don’t mean to be a smartass, but… it’s all about ingredients.
Tell me about some of the traveling you’ve been doing—
Travel is knowledge. And it will help, it’s part of developing your palate and your taste memory, and that’s what I do when I travel. That’s what I do when I go to Bangkok or Bali, I’m always eating, tasting.
What were some of the trips you took recently?
London and Paris. We were looking at London—
Oh so you weren’t traveling to travel. You were there as a businessman—
No, learning. But you’re right, I am a businessman. I’m learning the markets, when people eat. London is a great food city, but Italian in London is still carpaccio and Bellinis. It hasn’t evolved.
Last question, what’s Michael white’s go-to pasta?
I would say my go-to pasta dish is butter, parmigiana, and black pepper. That’s what I make for myself a lot.