During an annual summer trip to Italy, longtime chef Nancy Silverton invited a neighbor over for lunch. And then she got nervous. Little wonder since that neighbor was Jeremiah Tower, credited as one of the developers of California cuisine. So Silverton went to her local cheese market for fresh mozzarella and prepared several sides to go with it, such as basil pesto and salted nuts. She recalled her guest told her it was one of the greatest lunches he’d ever had. And that simple meal launched a culinary empire with several restaurants in California and Singapore, appropriately called Mozza.
It’s for her simple, fresh and inventive cooking that the James Beard Foundation awarded Los Angeles-based Silverton this year’s Outstanding Chef in the United States. Not only is it the first time that a West Coast chef has been named since 1998, but Silverton is only the fourth woman.
“I’ll tell you it’s wonderful to be recognized by one’s peers,” Silverton said. “And that is the most flattering. It also causes you to become more introspective. Did I really deserve that? … When a customer that I don’t recognize runs up and congratulates me and says ‘You got this award. I’m so proud of you. You deserve it,’ I kind of cringe just a little bit inside. I feel a little bit guilty.”
A feeling that belies her considerable achievements in the culinary world. Well before Mozza, Silverton was a pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills. Later, she co-founded La Brea Bakery which popularized artisanal bread and is now sold everywhere from grocery stores to airports. Silverton said her strengths are in pastry and bread, and it is now her pizza which has been described as not only the best in Los Angeles, but among the top in the country.
“I knew I wanted to kind of combine my love of some of the breads that I make and kind of turn that into the pizza dough that I wanted to make. It’s a very crispy dough that has a very sort of airy interior … When it bakes in the oven, it gets very puffy around the rim. But once you bite into it, or once you rip into it, it’s just full of air pockets.”
She continued: “Another really important part of making pizza and I think there wasn’t enough attention to this before, was that pizza makers either looked at the crust or they looked at the topping. And that’s a mistake because both have equal importance. So what goes on top and the quality of the ingredients, the freshness, the seasonality, the flavor, the visual is just as important as developing that crust. And I think that’s what was noticeable from the beginning, was that both parts were so well thought out.”
Silverton said she loves to cook for “anybody that’s an enthusiastic eater” but “for any chef, they’re far more nervous when a fellow chef comes in.”
She revealed: “When [Wolfgang Puck] comes in here to eat, and he’s been here half a dozen times, which is a lot for him in this city because he hardly ever goes out, yeah, I’m under pressure.”
ABC News' Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.