Chef Fabio Viviani Talks Thanksgiving, Bauli and His New Restaurant

11/26/2014 at 12:15 PM ET

Spend 30 seconds with chef Fabio Viviani and you’ll realize why he’s gotten so far. (For starters, he insisted that I continue drinking my glass of wine throughout our interview.) Viviani’s knowledge and enthusiasm for food is infectious and a little intimidating. It’s no wonder that iconic Italian food brand Bauli has partnered with Viviani to make him their new brand ambassador. We caught up with Bauli Celebrity Chef Ambassador Viviani (as his full title now reads) at an event Monday to talk about Thanksgiving food, Bauli and his newest restaurant opening.

So how did you get involved with Bauli?
When I met with Bauli, and they said, “Fabio, what do you think of our product?” I thought that they were just asking me for an opinion, and so I said, “Well, I grew up with it,” and so for me this is what Oreos and peanut butter is for Americans.

The other thing I like about it is — I said to Mr. Bauli — “Your family does the same things I do.” I do everything from scratch in my restaurants. I’m known for doing things the right way, no shortcuts, nothing processed, nothing frozen, everything is organic, everything is local. Bauli works this way also: They’re old school. It takes 40 hours for them to do a simple cake.

So when they asked me to team up them, I said, “Yeah!” And then when I told my mom, she was very happy about it — now she gets free Bauli cakes.

And I love the story of Bauli, what I call “the reverse American dream.” Pastry guy from Italy struggles in Italy after the war, leaves Italy, makes it, then returns to Italy to continue business back in Italy. For me, a product or a brand without passion, it’s not fun.

You just opened a new restaurant in Miami, right?
South Beach, yes. This is … number 10 or 11 for us now. We have six in Chicago now, we’re opening three more, and then we have Miami and L.A. We’re going to be opening more in L.A. and more in Chicago.

Talk a little about how the menus in each area differs.
It’s totally different! The way you eat anything, from appetizers to desert, differs due to the climate. The behavior of somebody sitting at a table in below 20 degrees is different from the behavior of somebody eating in 90 percent humidity, so you have to take that into account as a restauranteur.

You’ve said you like all kinds of food, American comfort food and holiday food. What do you like for a good Thanksgiving dish?
I just released a cookbook, Fabio’s American Home Kitchen. And I decided to go American, because the reality is that I’ve been in this country for a decade, and … how much Italian food do you want to eat? How many more Italian cookbooks do you really need? And my cookbook is an homage. What I like to do is tweak the aspects of American food a little bit and fit them into Italian cooking.

So you wanna use butternut squash or sweet potatoes? We’ll make gnocchi with it.

The reality is that for me, Thanksgiving for me didn’t exist until I moved to the U.S., so I tweak the traditions I grew up with and the ones that I live now. Last year, I did a sweet potato mascarpone cream, and a sweet potato tiramasu using the Bauli pandoro. And my family was like, “… What?” But I said, “Just eat it. Try it.”

How adventurous is your family when it comes to your recipes?
Well, my family right now here is just me and my wife, and she’s American, so it’s more me being like, “All right do I try that? What’s that green fluffy thing? Why do I have to eat that?” “That’s a side for your turkey, Fabio.” And then I try it and I like it. I’m a very faithful eater — if I like something, I’ll go back to it.

The Italian part of my family is from Calabria, and my mom wants to do this Feast of Seven Fishes for Christmas, and I’m lost. One of them is baccalà — what can I do with that?
That’s a very Southern tradition. Comes from the idea of fasting — in parts of Italy, La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) is a half-fast: You can eat, but no meat. I grew up in Tuscany, and we didn’t do that, but if you want a good way to prepare baccalà for holiday, just get it, pat it dry, and brush it with balsamic glaze — by reducing balsamic vinegar with a tad of molasses — just put it in the oven and bake it, serve with some sweet potatoes. And there you have your Italian tradition with your Thanksgiving dinner.

What’s your last advice about cooking during the holidays?
For me, it’s not about reinventing the classics, but always adding a spin to it. And it’s about quality and moderation: We grew up eating pasta, bread, sweets like Bauli pandoro. We grew up eating good stuff, eating treats — and I never heard problems in my childhood like obesity, diabetes. The quality of the ingredients, the effort that you put into doing your own food, that’s what matters. The key for health is not substitution — “sugar away, butter away” — but moderation. Eat everything, just don’t overdo it.

— Alex Heigl

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