The other day I gave a pasta-making lesson to Nick Stefanelli.
If you are not laughing uproariously at the previous sentence it is probably because you don’t know Nick. And you should. I’ll introduce you.
Nick is the executive chef at Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca in Washington, D.C., where he creates beautiful, nuanced Italian food. He’s a local kid (I say kid because compared to me he is one!) from Maryland who’s already racked up an impressive resume: His first job after graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine, was working for Roberto Donna at Galileo and Laboratorio del Galileo. He went on to work for Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro, in McLean, and at Fiamma, in New York; and he worked a stage for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
I met Nick in 2009, shortly after Bibiana opened. I liked him immediately because he seemed so even-keeled, the un-Gordon Ramsay. Also, he has the same name as my son. And, I fell in love with his pasta. I brought my daughter to Bibiana for a celebration lunch one day, and ordered the Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (cuttlefish-ink pasta) with Crab Ragu. I was immediately hooked on the glossy black noodles tossed, simply, with lump crab, garlic, and peperoncino. To me, the dish honored the spirit of traditional Italian cooking but at the same time was completely new and delightful. I happened to be working on The Glorious Pasta of Italy, and asked Nick if would consider sharing the recipe for the book. Very graciously, he did.
When I received the first author’s copies of the book in the mail, I stopped by Bibiana to give one to Nick. And then I (rather audaciously) asked him another, even bigger favor. Would he consider doing a special Glorious Pasta dinner at the restaurant to celebrate the publication of the book? He graciously said yes to that, too. Hence, the pasta lesson. One of the dishes Nick wanted to make for the dinner is Maccheroni alla Molinara, a fat, long, loopy noodle from Abruzzo. So the other day I went into the kitchen at Bibiana and gave Nick and his pasta chef, Rene, a quick demo. It took them all of five seconds to get the technique down. And now I—finally!—get to say I’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen.
The Glorious Pasta dinner is on for tomorrow, June 7. Nick has devised a six-course menu—from appetizers to dessert—from the book, including Maccheroni alla Molinara, and including wine pairings. I’ll talk (briefly!) about the book and the recipes. Last I heard there were only a couple of spots left (seating is limited). If you’d like more information, call the restaurant at 202.216.9550.
Q: When did you begin to think seriously about cooking as a career?
A: I took a trip to Italy when I was around 18. I was actually looking at a school for fashion design in Milan, but on the way I stopped in Rome, Florence, Assisi, and Venice. Every city had its own food culture, and they all had a love and respect for food. It was completely different from what was going on in the U.S.
Q: What was the food like in your house when you were growing up, and what were some of your favorite meals?
A: Both my parents are good cooks. I very rarely ate at friends’ houses because my parents made such good food. My mom is Greek and my dad is Italian. My dad made ragu every Sunday. One of my favorite dishes of my mom’s is stuffed peppers and tomatoes.
Q: Do you remember the first thing you ever cooked?
A: Spaghetti with tomato and basil from our garden.
Q: Besides your parents, who were your biggest influences in the kitchen?
A: When I started getting into food, I watched a lot of Mario Batali on TV. My mentors were Roberto Donna and Fabio Trabocchi.
Q: Is there a single important lesson that you’ve learned from them?
A: Not one thing. It was more like a lot of things that come together as a whole. When I started working, I worked. I didn’t take take days off, I didn’t take vacation. I did what was asked of me. I came to understand the philosophy of food, things like seasonality and how things evolve and change.
Q: What’s your favorite dish to make for yourself when you’re at home?
A: Whole fish.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever cooked? (This question came from my daughter, Adriana)
What do you like to do to escape the kitchen?
A: Eat dinner with my wife and dogs, and ride my bike. (Nick is in the process of joining a competitive cycling team in D.C.)
Q: If you had to eat three things for the rest of your life, what would they be? (Note: I blatantly stole this question from my friend Tricia, who recently did a Q & A with an artist on her blog, Eating is Art.)
A: Fish, tomatoes, and peanut butter.
Q: What do you think about our culture’s celebrity chef fixation?
A: It gets a little crazy sometimes, but as long as it keeps us, as a society, pushing and demanding better food, then everyone wins!