Q&A with Fabio Viviani: A top chef with a national portfolio falls in love with the Finger Lakes
It’s easy to remember why Chef Fabio Viviani earned the “Fan Favorite” title on Bravo’s Top Chef. His charismatic, unaffected manner draws people to him. That quality, matched with his culinary talents, has propelled him to celebrity chefdom. He owns and is in the process of opening more than fifteen restaurants in the United States. His diverse portfolio includes a Maine-based seafood delivery service and a winery in Sonoma, as well as many investments outside of the food industry. Given his passion for locally sourced ingredients, Viviani had an exciting adventure exploring the Finger Lakes region for the opening of a recent venture, Portico at del Lago Resort & Casino in Waterloo. He urges Buffalonians to visit the area and take advantage of all it has to offer: the lakes, fishing, hiking, over 100 wineries, farmers and growers, cheesemongers, and more. He compares it to living a short drive away from Sonoma, California, but with all the seasons. Viviani makes a compelling argument with the menu and concept of Portico.
Name: Fabio Viviani; 39
Current Title: Chef/culinary personality/restaurateur/cookbook author
How many years behind the stove: 28
Osteria (Los Angeles; Tampa, opening spring 2018; Oklahoma, opening fall 2018); Café Firenze (Moorpark, California); Mercato by Fabio Viviani (2 locations in San Diego, plus Minnesota, Arizona, Pennsylvania); Siena Tavern (Chicago); Bar Siena (Chicago); Prime & Provisions (Chicago); Bombobar (Chicago); Portico by Fabio Viviani (Waterloo); Chuck Lager’s Tavern (Delaware, opening spring 2018); and opening in late 2018/early 2019: restaurants in Detroit (2), Washington (2), Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Las Vegas
My first official job: Pasticceria Vittoria in Florence (at 11)
First restaurant: Il Pallaio in Florence, a small trattoria with 35-40 seats (at 18)
Greatest source of culinary inspiration growing up: We didn’t have food. My mom, grandma, dad worked three jobs each. I literally got stuck in the food business. I found myself a job when I was 11, liked the money I was making and bringing home, and got stuck before I realized what I was doing.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?
I always wanted to do something badass like be a part of a SWAT team or handle heavy artillery.
Ingredient you’ll never tire of and why:
Pork belly. I love it and never get sick of it. I never get sick of eggs. I use eggs everywhere. Everything I use is always from scratch. I import a lot of things from Italy, but everything I can buy within seventy-five miles of the community, I do. The Finger Lakes region, all the produce, the breeders, the cheesemongers, etc., are available.
The one culinary trend you find ridiculous:
Molecular gastronomy: let’s get over it. I don’t want to sip on something I should chew. I don’t want foam and dust on my food. I’m not diminishing the craft and skills needed to perform it, because I believe that people who perform it are at the top of their game, but my grandfather wouldn’t eat it. That shit ain’t food. With all due respect, some of my greatest friends are molecular gastronomy chefs. It takes an amazing level of quality and skill, but it’s not for me.
Chefs whose style you really appreciate:
I appreciate Gordon Ramsay when he does comfort rustic food—best execution I’ve ever had. He’s very high-end, but he knows how to produce grab food. Jamie Oliver and Tyler Florence are doing a fantastic job. Michael Chiarello fell off the map a bit, but his restaurant Bottega is still amazing. Scott Conant is doing phenomenal, approachable food. If we go in a different direction, Richard Blais.
Your go-to food reference cookbook:
A French book that I translated into English, La cuisine familiale et pratique, by Henri-Paul Pellaprat—a 1940 or 1950 cookbook. I do not like French cooking, because it’s unnecessarily long and complicated (so much time and so many ingredients, for what result?), but the sauces, the techniques, etc., are perfect. If God wrote a cookbook instead of a Bible, it would be this book.
Moscow Mule with house made ginger beer or red wine.
I build relationships; I don’t build restaurants. The relationship with the Lago is personal; a good friend of mine works there. The head of operations is one of my dearest friends. I was intrigued when I found out they were opening a restaurant there. We wanted it to resemble Tuscany and I thought they were all good people involved, so I wanted to work with them. I wanted to be able to work with local purveyors. For places like hotels or casinos, food is a secondary thing; I liked that it was front and center there. The sourcing of the ingredients was important to me because about seventy-five percent of the ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible.
Before opening Portico, you visited with a number of farmers, wineries, cheesemakers, and markets to get a sense of the area’s local purveyors. Why was this important and who stuck out to you?
I hung out with over 100 different families to get to know what they were doing. Every purveyor you see on the menu, it’s someone who gave me something that was truly outstanding. Muranda Cheese Company (3075 State Route 96 South, Waterloo; murandacheese.com) was one of my highlights. This family’s cheese is featured in our menu and the way they care for their animals and build their community is outstanding. They have this blue cheese that’s very limited edition—arguably the best blue cheese I’ve ever had in my life. They named a cheese after me too. Cheddar cheese, aged, that’s phenomenal. It’s like parmesan and cheddar had a baby.
What WNY’s food scene really needs/is missing:
It’s very seasonal in the region due to the snow and the weather. The only challenge is availability due to the climate. We’re always saying, “We’re out of [name local ingredient] again?” As a chef, I wish everything was California, but that also makes it very interesting. You can change things on the menu with the weather.
The most exciting thing about the restaurant scene is:
Basic good food is back. It makes me very happy when a fancy restaurant has fancy people in it and they do well, but it makes me extremely happy when a chicken shack or doughnut shop or breakfast spot that’s family owned is packed because it’s back to basic, old school delicious. Some of my best friends run a brunch/lunch place in Canandaigua called Simply Crepes. Get the oatmeal crème brulee. It’s grandma’s cooking. Those are the things that are coming back. Good people making good food to please the crowd. Not to get the stars.
If you were to eat at Portico, what would you order and why?
The Coccoli Platter beignet-style bread balls—prosciutto di parma, stracchino cheese, truffle honey, herb oil—the lightest bread you’ve ever had. Stracchino is what French Brie wants to be when it dies and goes to heaven. Also, whole roasted boneless chicken, gnocchi, and ’njuda mac and cheese. I would definitely eat the wedge salad, with pork belly and a Kobe meatball. I’m hungry!
What do you wish people knew about you or your approach?
We have sixteen restaurants now, and, this year, we’re opening a noodle bar, a chicken and waffle concept, a beef sandwich place, and we can do Spanish, Mexican, Greek, Italian, etc. I am more versatile when it comes to Mediterranean cooking because that’s what I grew up with, but my hospitality group has hands and venues in all areas. I am also a hospitality group owner and I am a very avid investor: tech, real estate, finance, whatever is interesting and makes me money.