Q&A with Fabio Viviani

Fabio Viviani is known as a chef from his appearances on Top Chef, but the man is much more. An author and entrepreneur, Fabio regularly works 130 hour weeks (which, by my math, works out to 18 hours a day!), has two restaurants opening in Chicago and recently released his own wine collection. The secret to Fabio's success? Simplicity. You won't find Fabio cooking the kind of food only the elite can afford. Instead, you'll find him making great value food and recipes for simple dishes that please the masses. We talked to Fabio about his business philosophy, the chefs he admires, and his favorite things. 

-Adam Downer


GGM: Fabio, you have a new wine collection out. Can you talk about the Fabio Viviani Wine Collection brand? What is it for, and why did you want to go into the winemaking business?

FV: I’ve been in the wine business my whole life, making it and selling it to my restaurant. What we tried to do is bring the Italian principle of drinking good quality wine without an expensive cost to America. We started with California wine, a Cabernet and Chardonnay, but now we’re expanding into Red blend, White blend, and expanding on Italian wine. It’s the right time in history for this. The market is having a great response.

GGM: The impression I get is that you’re focused on making your food affordable—a quote I read is that you “don’t cook for food critics.” Why is that important to you?

FV: I think food needs to be kept simple. I cook for everyday people, everyday scenarios. I don’t cook for someone coming in and reviewing my food. I always say I’m not planning to be the best chef in the country. I want to be everybody’s grandmother. I serve food that people love to eat. It’s pretty, but not the prettiest. It’s skilled, but not elaborate. It is complicated, but it doesn’t require a degree in engineering to pull it off. That’s a waste of time. I respect and admire chefs that put chemistry and other forms of intelligence into food, but all you need to cook food is a pan, fire, knife, and spoon. Anything else is superficial and not necessary for creating good food. I come from a land where creating good food doesn’t need a lot of ingredients and hours to do.

GGM: You mentioned you admire chefs that can do that sort of thing. Can you tell me a few chefs that you particularly admire?

FV: I mean, Thomas Keller, all the chefs that put chemistry and high technique into food, I admire them but it’s just not my way of doing business. I think food can be kept simple and ingredients don’t need to be overthought. There has to be a value on the plate. For me, unless you’re eating a rare caviar or some sort of truffle where supply and demand dictate the price, it’s very hard for me to go into a restaurant and justify a 3-400 dollar meal, when I know the value of the food is not that far away from the restaurant that’s serving the same thing for forty or fifty dollars. All you’re paying for is the experience and to be very decadent. That gets far away from food, for me. The reality is that I look at places like these and learn from them, but I apply the techniques they teach me to every day food.

GGM: Segueing into favorite things, what’s your favorite restaurant in New York City?

FV: I love anything Mario Batali does. He’s one of my favorites. I love Locanda Verde. I love Buddakan. If you want to go a little farther away from Manhattan, go to TALDE in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

GGM: You got a lot of attention on Top Chef. Do you have any reality cooking shows that you watch?

FV: I don’t have spare time! So I don’t watch much television.

GGM: Is that also the case for movies? Or do you have a favorite film?

FV: The good news is I travel a lot, so on planes, I see shows like Mad Men, Walking Dead, and others. As far as movies, I only like really stupid movies like Dumb and Dumber, Step Brothers, Get Hard. Anything else is a waste of time because it won’t make me laugh.

GGM: How about music?

FV: I’m very musically challenged. I can’t sing to save my life, and I don’t walk around with an iPod. But when I’m home, I either am listening to mellow classical or hardcore, heavy metal. Old school Poison and Black Sabbath.

GGM: After Italy and the US, what country makes your favorite cuisine?

FV: Spain, Mexico, and I would say the Mediterranean region of Africa like Morocco, Nigeria, and Algiers.

GGM: Do you have any favorite cookbooks of your own?

FV: Anything Jimmy Oliver does is a home run for me. I have shy of five-thousand cookbooks. The reality is I buy everything, from unknown cookbooks to famous bestsellers.

GGM: You do a bit of everything: cookbooks, restaurants, wines, TV shows. What would you say is your goal as an individual?

FV: I think it’s all about building a good brand. I want to build a good brand and an honest legacy. The path is not set yet. The restaurants are a big component of my career, but creating a good product and a fast-forward thinking company are important too. Fifty days a year I spend training corporate America and doing keynote speaking for other companies. I would like to expand that. I like the business aspect of everything. So I see myself as a food entrepreneur more than just a chef.

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