Q & A with Bibiana Executive Chef Nick Stefanelli

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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.

In the mean time, here’s a little more from my Q & A with Nick:

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)
A: Crickets.

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!





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17 Responses to Q & A with Bibiana Executive Chef Nick Stefanelli

  1. Tricia June 6, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Great interview, Dominica! The question of what we’d eat for the rest of our lives is so interesting and I definitely didn’t come up with that on my own. It’s been asked through the ages!

    • Domenica June 6, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

      Thanks, Tricia!

  2. anne burling June 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    I am so excited for the dinner on Tuesday night. Even more so now that I have read this interview. Love Adri’s question too!

    • Domenica June 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks, Anne! I think it’s going to be lots of fun, not to mention delicious. So glad you and John are able to come!

  3. Ethan June 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Great to meet Nick and get a behind the scenes look of your book preparation.
    Now you can add professional cook to your home-cook title 🙂
    Buon appetito tomorrow!

    • Domenica June 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

      Thanks Ethan. I am completely a fish out of water in a restaurant kitchen, that’s for sure! Tomorrow should be fun

  4. Melissa June 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Peanut Butter! Nice. It’s like the US Weekly feature “[Chefs] Are Just Like US!” Good luck at the dinner, I’ve asked Olga for a full report…I know it’s going to be delicious. I’m trying your cherry cake this week-they had cherries at the farmer’s market. Hooray!

    • Domenica June 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

      Thank you Melissa. Let me know what you think of the cherry pound cake. It’s definitely a crowd favorite when I make it. Cheers!

  5. Alicia Sokol June 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Oooh, I love this one. I think I could also live on fish, tomatoes and peanut butter alone if I had to. I’m so bummed I’m going to miss the wonderful dinner tomorrow night. Have so much fun…

    • Domenica June 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

      Thank you, Alicia. I know–those are 3 great choices, aren’t they. Except he left out…PASTA!

  6. Fr Peter Nassetta June 9, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    Thank YOU Domenica! I so wish I could have gone to the dinner! As soon as I read his 3 choices I was stunned one of them was not pasta!! Keep it up…your books and recipes have inspired many great meals and celebrations!

    • Domenica June 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

      I know–the irony! ; ) Thank you for your kind words. It makes me happy to know you are enjoying my books. I think we need to get together to cook one day soon…

      • Fr Peter Nassetta July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

        I would love that!! I just received your new book for my birthday and have been enjoying reading it….but the cooking must start soon 🙂 Summer never slows down quite as much as it is supposed to or so it seems 😛

  7. Jamie June 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Very very cool! Yay for you! And love the interview. You also made me realize how badly I need to start getting creative in the kitchen!

  8. Elisa January 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    I was reading this interview and I remember eating la pasta alla mugnaia in Abruzzo on top of la spianatoia. But then I looked at this video and I think this pasta is an orgie of pasta eating!!!!!!!!

  9. Elisa January 20, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    By the way this is the video I was refering to:

  10. Domenica January 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Fantastic video, Elisa. Thank you for sharing it!

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