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Crossroads: Looking at 1997 and beyond with influential
figures in the worlds of art and entertainment | NANCY
SILVERTON

Matters of Taste

January 01, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

In the food world, where even today French pastries reign supreme, Nancy Silverton's switch of allegiance to down-to-earth American desserts was revolutionary in the late '80s. No one does shortcake or apple pie or banana splits better. Her pastries at Campanile, the restaurant she owns with her husband, chef Mark Peel, are often understated, the essence of simplicity: a domed gingerbread served warm with a dollop of cream, or lemon tart paired with an astonishing Champagne vinegar sauce. She has a touch with doughs that's extraordinary. And that extends to the breads she creates for La Brea Bakery and Campanile. Sure, there was bread in L.A. before the bakery opened its doors in 1989. But never bread like this. For everyone who cares about food in Los Angeles, Silverton is a hero of sorts. She recently sat down for a talk about a favorite subject: food.

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Question: There was bread before La Brea Bakery, but you've definitely made a difference to the quality of daily life--in Los Angeles, especially since you can now get many of your breads at local supermarkets. Nine years later it seems the entire country has become obsessed with bread, and the idea of a restaurant with attached bakery or vice versa is certainly in vogue. Two of the hottest new places in New York are Balthazar and Bouley Bakery. What trends do you see in the coming year?

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Answer: "Trend" for me is such a funny word, because it means something is going to be short-lived, and I feel anything that's really good should be around forever. That's always the paradox.

Magazine editors call me all the time to ask what the trend is right now. What they want to hear is the new flavors you could make that, for me, would only botch up bread.

My favorite breads are the plain ones, the ones made with the basic ingredients--just flour, water, salt and leavening. Playing with the way you make the bread changes it dramatically, and that's where I feel is the most interesting aspect of bread making. Sure, you can put chocolate or white truffle oil in it, and it's bound to taste like something, but it can still be a poorly crafted loaf of bread. Yet people are going to love it.

If I said to myself that I was only going to make my plain white breads, I would be sitting there with an empty shop. So you have to make small compromises. You have to make the chocolate bread. But you can also try to make a really good white bread.

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Q: Don't you think it's such an American thing to want to have 31 flavors?

A: Right. It's also American to go to a restaurant and assume there should be 15 specials on the menu. Think of all the restaurants in Europe where you go back to eat the same things year after year, because the restaurant is really known for a certain dish and they do it really well.

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Q: What do you see happening in desserts in the coming year?

A: It seems there are more and more pastry chefs who are going in a technical and visual direction that has very little to do with taste, which is how a lot of chefs have gone, too. Maybe, the pendulum is swinging back again. I'm not sure, but pastry always seems to follow wherever food leads. We've gone through a few years of architectural food, or showoff cuisine--whatever we want to call it, I think, basically because dramatic presentation leaves much more of an impression on the greater dining public.

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Q: It's like a park trick. A magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

A: Some of it, like Doug Rodriguez's food at Patria in New York, is very amusing and whimsical. I think if you can make it taste good, then it can be fun. I, unfortunately, can't make it look that way and at the same time taste good. Especially since so many of the component parts of those very complicated dishes are often made days, weeks, even months ahead. If I could do both, then maybe I would. It's not really what I prefer, but I can appreciate it. And I know a large percentage of the dining public still would rather see their food vertical than horizontal.

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Q: Chefs seem to be putting a lot of effort into making food look as little like food as possible.

A: They're working very, very hard to make a fish look like a duck. They just don't want to let it be. I also find it's almost easier to cook that way. Because when that dish comes to the table everyone oohs and aahs, but by the time they taste it, they may be deep in conversation. They're not even thinking about what they're eating, they were so impressed by the way it looked. So it's sort of safe.

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Q: Any other changes or impulses in the wind?

A: Years ago Alice Waters taught us all to be seasonal. And whenever any chef across the country was asked what kind of cooking they did, the reply was always, "seasonal cuisine." But if it was snowing in New York and all that was available was root vegetables (long before they were as popular as they are now), you'd see those boxes of produce from Chile sneaking into the kitchen.

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