Shop Smarter, Eat Better: An Interview with Chef Fabio Viviani
His charming demeanor and thick Italian accent on Top Chef: New York Season 5 earned Chef Fabio Viviani a solid following in America. While he didn’t win the competition, he was voted “Fan Favorite” and returned to compete on Top Chef All-Stars Season Eight and Life After Top Chef. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker, and the owner of a dozen restaurants.
Chef Viviani was driven to succeed from an early age. At age 11, to help with family finances, Viviani worked nights at a local bakery (since he was too young to officially join the staff) in his native Florence, Italy. At 14, he began working at the very busy Il Pallaio restaurant and became sous chef by age 16. By the time he was 27, Viviani owned and operated seven restaurants in Florence, a farmhouse and two nightclubs.
In 2005, he moved to Ventura County, CA, opening Café Firenze in Moorpark and, soon after, Firenze Osteria in North Hollywood. Now 36, Viviani is the owner and executive chef of nine restaurants (with two more opening soon), and offers free cooking and kitchen tips blogs and videos on his website. He also makes frequent appearances at global food festivals, on American morning talk shows, and at charity events.
The Home Story spoke with Fabio while he was home in Chicago to ask for his tips on meal prep, kitchen organization, and smart food shopping.
The Home Story: On your website you describe “Grandma-style” cooking. What do you mean by that?
FV: Grandmas plan to feed a lot of people so they keep it simple—whether it’s home-style food, Italian food, or comfort food.
The more complicated your food is, the more time you’ll spend and the more chances are that people won’t understand it. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m craving a tofu kaffir lime pot pie?” No. It’s “I crave pizza, or pasta, or gelato, or doughnuts.”
My philosophy in all my restaurants, and in my life, is to keep things simple. But with that said, you’ve got to add your own twist to it, your own personality. But people need to be able to recognize what it is.
THS: Giving in to cravings like pizza or pasta doesn’t sound very healthy.
FV: I grew up eating pasta, bread, red meat — things that are homemade from scratch and healthy. My cholesterol is 123, I’m in the best shape of my life, and I eat a pound of pasta a day. It’s not about substitution; it’s about moderation. You need to understand your body and balance your intake of calories with how much you exercise.
I don’t advise low-calorie diets because calories are fat, and fat is flavor. When you take away the fat, you remove the flavor. The reality is if you want to keep your body clean you have to get your hands dirty, just like grandma. Cook at home. Eat pasta, homemade gelatos, and steak. Just make sure you’re in balance with your lifestyle.
THS: What are some pantry basics?
FV: Olive oil, eggs, flour and some protein. If you like fish, have it on hand. If you like meat, have some cutlets, something you can freeze and keep there for a week or longer. You’ve got to be smart about how you shop and prep.
Everything starts with time management and the way that you balance your life. If you have a crazy life and you’re never at home, why would you buy things with a short shelf life? You need to shop for things that will last longer like grains, beans, root vegetables.
THS: How about if you have a small kitchen, what tips can you share?
FV: If you have a small kitchen, you want to do batch cooking. Go shopping, batch cook three to four things like soups or braised beef or beans, and put everything into the freezer. It’s all about knowing your limits and organizing your day. Know your limits and don’t be an emotional shopper.
THS: Should you plan meals for an entire week?
FV: I think you should plan meals based on how often you can shop. I shop on Saturday mornings for enough groceries to feed me, my wife and the dog through Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon I stop by the grocery store again for meals that last through Saturday.
THS: Where do you shop for food – grocery stores? Small stores?
FV: I shop at Safeway, but also Whole Foods, Costco, and Fresh & Easy. When there’s a farmer’s market, I’ll shop there. The problem with farmer’s markets is that they’re not there when I have time to shop, say on Wednesday nights.
THS: How often do you cook at home and do you have a signature meal?
FV: I cook at home at least twice a week. I love to make soups and stews for winter because they’re easy to reheat. I love to make fresh pasta. Yes, I can teach anyone how to make fresh pasta (egg pasta, whole wheat pasta, gluten free, and flour and egg) from scratch in 3 minutes using a food processor.
In September we’re starting a series of online cooking classes where people cook with me in real time. So in 180 seconds you’ll go from having raw eggs and flour on your counter to having fresh pasta dough made in front of you with no mess.
THS: Lunches in places like LA and New York can get pretty costly. What are some creative options if you’re tired of tuna sandwiches but have a limited budget?
FV: Food trucks offer a lot of variety, and there are apps to track them. Plus you can plan a mid-morning snack like an apple, a protein bar, homemade natural beef jerky, or celery with peanut butter, so you don’t get too hungry. Then if you go out, you can order just an appetizer. It’s better than a tuna sandwich but won’t cost you as much as an entrée. That’s what I do normally.
THS: How do you find the best ingredients without overspending?
FV: In Italy, we say, “if you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys,” meaning good ingredients come at a price. There is a reason organic foods cost more. They’re better for you. I always suggest to buy the best quality you can afford, and watch for deals. There are certain times of day, or days of the week, that stores like Safeway or Costco will mark down items. You’ll need to plan ahead to get those deals.
THS: You’re a businessman and a creative. Which is your dominant side?
FV: I’m an alpha male in everything I do. I don’t do it if I’m not sure I can kill it. I am a true entrepreneur. I take chances all day long, every day. To me the regret in not having tried something is going to be more painful than having something go wrong. “You can’t lose until you quit” is my motto.
I came to this country nine years ago. I didn’t speak English. Now I train Fortune 500 companies on many subjects and keynote at conferences. We have almost a dozen restaurants, over a thousand employees, a few cookbooks, TV shows, and I speak English. Everything’s achievable if you really want it. This is America.
THS: You started working at a very young age. What was your motivation?
FV: My mom got sick when I was 11 years old and we needed the money. We had eight people living in a 300-square-foot house. I was the baby so I slept on a recliner since I was the smallest. I had to bake pies at night because I was too young to be employed during the day. I did that for three years.
THS: On your website you talk about treating people who wait on you or cook for you at restaurants with respect. Do you think that message is resonating?
FV: Some people associate what you do with how they’ll treat you. I grew up with food stamps. I’m not from this country. I can’t vote because I’m not a citizen yet. The reality is I’m no different than millions of other immigrants who came to America and became entrepreneurs. So I’m grateful for everyone’s contribution. Whether you’re a janitor or one of my business partners, I’ll thank you the same and treat you the same. It’s important to me that everyone is valued for who they are and what their contribution is. I’ve fired people who weren’t treating colleagues with respect.
THS: What’s next for Fabio Viviani?
FV: Besides opening a couple of new restaurants and the online cooking classes, I am launching the Know-How Leadership Academy website, probably in January, which will have a lot of free and some subscription content to help young entrepreneurs. The academy will share knowledge that’s been tested by myself or my partners and proven to work—not the trendy stuff. The idea is to make this knowledge available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.