How does a third-generation Norwegian raised in the Midwestern United States become a renowned Italian chef and pasta master? It just evolved from the food that he was familiar with while growing up, says chef Michael White, who was in Hong Kong to promote Al Molo, his first venture outside the US.
“My dad loved to cook. He was always making things like soup and breads.” This, plus the fact that the food of choice in Wisconsin, where White grew up, was Italian shaped his career. The fresh vegetables from the family garden that he and his brother tended to, led to a love of good simple food made with fresh ingredients.
When White told his father that he wanted to study at a culinary school, his father’s response was: “How are you going to make a living from that?”
“Back in those days, working in a kitchen was considered low-paid work,” says White, adding: “My dad was a banker.”
But he did attend culinary school and later landed a job at Spiaggia, one of Chicago’s most famous Italian restaurants. There, White tasted pesto for the first time in his life. “I had never tasted pesto before I worked at Spiaggia. Sure, I had eaten basil and knew what it was, but not pesto,” he confesses.
While at Spiaggia, White decided he needed to learn more about Italian cooking by spending some time in Italy, where he learned everything about Italian kitchen, including shopping for fresh produce and making pasta by hand. And Italy is where he became a true Italian chef.
He says the hallmark of Italian food is simplicity. A good dish is made up of 70 to 75 percent good, fresh ingredients.
White comes alive and gestures with his hands when he talks about the amazing ingredients and techniques he learned in Italy. It was not only White’s love for Italian cooking that developed during his time in Italy, he met his Italian wife there, too.
He says jokingly: “At home we have lots of fresh vegetables and healthy food. We don’t have any fun food in the cupboards because my wife is Italian.” The couple have a young daughter who is growing up knowing what good Italian food really is.
Asked about his expertise in pasta, for which he is known, he says that it comes from his enjoyment of the experience of taking a bunch of ingredients and turning them into something completely different. White enjoys transforming a few simple ingredients into something delicious.
Al Molo, his new Hong Kong enterprise, occupies a large space on the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. It is also the first White-managed restaurant to serve pizza. Asked why, he says he felt that Al Molo was a good place to start including pasta and pizza on the menu, for “… pizza the world over is considered a must for an Italian restaurant”.
Also, people in Hong Kong love pizza, so it’s wise to have it on the menu in this market. For White, the experience of making pizza is much like that of making pasta. “Actually, with pizza you can be even more creative. I love putting the ingredients for the dough together and working them with my hands. Then you get to choose what to put on top,” White says.
His next venture in New York will be a pizzeria. “It’ll be in the East Village near NYU (New York University). Should open by mid-December or January.”
But why did he choose Hong Kong to open his first restaurant outside the United States? “I was very fortunate to be approached by a group in Hong Kong to open a restaurant here. Hong Kong is a global city and a gateway to Asia. At least 25 percent of our customer base in New York is Asian.” He says that just the other day, a family was dining at Al Molo and the daughter showed him photographs on her mobile phone of her meal at Ai Fiori, one of his restaurants in New York. White oversees six restaurants in New York and New Jersey.
“People move around a lot more today. Here we are thousands of miles away and I meet someone who has photographs on her phone of a visit to one of my restaurants in New York. It’s incredible!” he exclaims.
It’s obvious that he loves being in Hong Kong. And when he is away he makes sure Al Molo executive chef Jimmy Everett maintains the food guidelines that he has set.
“Everything is method- and technique-driven. The chefs in all our restaurants stay within stringent guidelines. That doesn’t mean they can’t put their own personality into the restaurant, but they have to maintain the standards and guidelines that I’ve set.”
For White, Al Molo is a representation of all his New York and New Jersey restaurants put together. Dishes from all the other restaurants are served here. “I’m very fortunate to be able to show our craft outside New York,” he says.
When in the New York, White moves between his restaurants, trying to focus on a particular one each day. Since Al Molo opened in May this year, White has been in Hong Kong twice, and during both visits he spent every day at the restaurant working with the chefs in the kitchen and greeting guests. He remains hands-on and shows a great love for his work.
He is now “thoughtfully learning” about different markets such as Singapore and Istanbul, with the Chinese mainland a near future possibly. It will be interesting to see how things develop for chef Michael White and his passion of bringing his Italian food to Asia.