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Q & A With Michael White

It’s hard enough to succeed as executive chef in

one kitchen, but Michael White manages to produce superior Italian
dishes at two: Alto and L’Impero.  Marrying into a Southern Italian
family, his wife Giovanna was influential in his understanding of
homemade pastas and balancing bright and bold flavors.  And spending 7
years in Italy, he solidified his talents in Italian cuisine.  Now
residing in NYC, Michael maintains a consistent exploration of Italy,
enabling him to add a personal touch to the “haute cuisine” at both
restaurants.  At Alto, he takes ricotta-filled ravioli and gives it a
Northern Italian touch, using earthy truffle and hearty egg yolk,
spinach, asparagus ragu, and parmesan cheese to complete the dish. At
L’Impero, the food takes a Southern turn as saffron-flavored pasta is
paired with  meaty crab, sea urchin, and juicy tomatoes.

Single/Married/Divorced?

Married

What did you want to
be when you grew up?

I haven’t grown up
yet!

What was your first
job in food?

Spiaggia (Chicago, Illinois)

Alto serves
Northern Italian dishes, while L’Impero is decidedly more Southern. Do you have
a preference for one particular regional Italian cuisine?

No, they are both very
dear to my heart. My wife is from Southern Italy so I have spent a lot of time there, and
it’s a “genre” of Italian cooking that I am very comfortable with. I learned Northern Italian cooking when I
first went to Italy, but I feel really comfortable with both areas.

Through working with
Valentino Marcattilli at Italy’s Ristorante San Domenico, what was the best advice you took back to New York with you?
It’s not just about
cooking…it’s about culture, history and a way of life. It would be impossible to truly understand
Italian cooking if you have never had the opportunity to live in or spend a lot
of time in Italy.

How do you feel Alto
and L’Impero have changed since your arrival as executive chef?

I feel they are both a
good representation of the Italian kitchen.

What were some of the
challenges you faced working for such highly acclaimed restaurants as Fiamma
and Spiaggia in Chicago?…

When I came to NYC from Chicago to open
Fiamma, I was a relatively unknown commodity, so media and guests did not have
an immediate point of reference about my cooking style and philosophy.

The cuisine at Alto
is based off of Italian alta cucina. How do you balance the refined
elements while still making your dishes accessible?

At both Alto and
L’Impero, we strive to maintain the integrity of ingredients and the true
flavor of dishes… I think both menus are very accessible and even when dishes
at Alto are more “refined,” they are deeply rooted in rustic Italian cooking.

Is there one regional
Italian ingredient you regard as indispensable to your work?
Parmigiano-Reggiano! It’s the King of all Cheeses!

You’ve also worked in France with Roger Verge at Le Moulin de Mougins and Stephane Raimbault at L’Oasis.
How have these experiences influenced your work at both Alto or L’Impero?

Working in Italy, you learn ingredients and flavor profiles. In France your main focus is method and technique.

What is your favorite
dish on the menu at Alto?

See below.

What is your least
favorite dish on the menu at Alto?

I enjoy all of the
dishes on the menu at Alto… all of my creations are deeply personal, and if
they are not up to par, they do not make it on the menu!

Which culinary trends
do you embrace?

I am
not a trendy chef…I love to cook and it is a part of my daily life.

Which culinary trends
do you wish would just die already?

No comment, I’ll leave
that up to your discretion.

What’s your junk food
of choice?

Cheeseburgers at Veselka
(2nd and 9th)… while this is not exactly junk food, it’s what
I crave!

What’s next on the
horizon for you?

Traveling to Italy with my wife and daughter this summer.

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