Looking for Tomatoes with Chef Michael White

A talk with the boss of three top New York Italian restaurants

Chef Michael White

Last week, Chef Michael White of Marea, Osteria Morini, and Ai Fiori fame launched a two-day pop-up dining experience in conjunction with Tupperware. The aptly-named TupperClub was held in the penthouses in The Setai Hotel in New York to bring back "the art of conversation," the theme of the evening.

Chef White prepared his signature fresh Italian cuisine, featuring Nova Scotia lobster with burrata and basil seeds, cavatelli with shrimp and calamari, and loin of veal with cipollinis and braised endive. After dinner, he was kind enough to do an interview in which he discussed when to expect a White-helmed restaurant in Italy, what he does in his folks' kitchen, and if you should expect to see him on his own TV show soon.

You've said you don't just fantasize about opening a restaurant in Italy — that you will open one. When?
It has always been a dream of mine to go back to Italy and do a restaurant, I lived there for eight years. I have so many people that I’ve worked with over there who I’d love to work with again. There’s the most unbelievable cooking going on right now because of the materie prime, or raw materials. Unbelievable fish, tomatoes, cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, beautiful Mediterranean langoustines. Italy did go through a period of nouvelle cuisine, which sort of phased out in the late '80s and early '90s, and cooking has really gotten back to the good stuff.

Of all the locally sourced or imported ingredients you get, what is the hardest to obtain?
When you’re working with fresh, live product all the time — like flipping turbot, which is still alive when we get it — things happen. Planes don’t arrive on time. But the hardest thing for an Italian chef to get throughout the year is tomatoes. You can get beautiful canned tomatoes, and in season we have great tomatoes from New Jersey and Long Island, but in the winter people still want to eat tomatoes and we just don’t have ones that are good enough to serve.

If you were to pick a cuisine that fuses well with Italian, what would it be?
Japanese. Not to say the ingredients, but the methodical preparation, the simplicity of ingredients, pausing before you cut a piece of fish — it’s highly refined cooking that I think is really cool. I see Japanese in the perfect piece of olive-oil poached John Dory with the perfect fava beans and a little picked basil. It’s very Italian, but very Japanese at the same time. The hallmark of Italian cuisine is simplicity. Fusion-wise, though, it’s hard to bridge the gap.

Which tools in your kitchen are indispensible? Which are totally useless?
All I need is a cutting board and a knife. Beyond that, it depends on what season it is, but I’ll use a truffle slicer for a lot of things. Radishes, bottarga, slicing asparagus, Parmigiano, black and white truffles, it has many uses. I couldn’t live without a truffle slicer in my kitchen. When I go home to Wisconsin for the holidays, I look around in the drawers and I ask my mom and dad, “What is this for?” They have more tools than I do at Marea and Ai Fiori together. There’s this plastic tube they have where you put a clove of garlic in and roll it on the counter that doesn’t seem very important.

Would you ever cook on TV professionally?
In the right way, I would. I turn down everything in TV because I have a responsibility to my partner and staff. If I did, I’d like to do something less commercial and teach on television. Great food shows are few and far between. I still think there’s room for a chef in a white jacket on TV, and if you think about it we don’t really have that right now.

We’re crazy for good sandwiches at The Daily Meal. What’s the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten?
[Laughs] Do you know how much good food I eat? The katsu sandwich at Morimoto is really great, but to me a gyro done really well is where it’s at. There’s a place in Chicago where they make their own meat cone, the guy has the pita in his hand, moves it along the meat, and slices it right into the pita, which gets gilded with lamb fat. The meat comes from between the bones in the lamb breast — it’s called intercostal meat — and when you mix it with lots of oregano and garlic you get a good crust with lots of fat on it. It’s just awesome.