We are deep in the bowels of Michael White's sumptuous Marea restaurant on Central Park South, far from the sleek dining room upstairs with its bar of carved onyx and its rosewood walls rubbed, according to the proud chef and owner, with seven coats of lacquer. We've passed through the bustling main kitchen into a labyrinth-like basement area, which White has dubbed the Catacombs.
We arrive at a tiny closet, filled with endless varieties of raw fish, flown in daily from around the world.
The 6-foot-4, beefy White — he looks exactly like the junior college football player he once was — can't contain his enthusiasm. "Look at those halibuts!" he crows. "Iridescent!" He shows off tiny sardines from Greece, then slaps a huge slab of swordfish. "No smell!" he confirms proudly. He insists upon proffering a taste of orange sea urchin roe. "Isn't that just RIDICULOUS?"
To top it all off, he takes an entire cornet fish — that long, eel-like creature — and drapes it gleefully around his neck, like a garland.
White is so enthusiastic as he roams his kitchens, greeting workers and admiring produce, that it's easy to believe him when he says he feels like he hasn't actually been working for the last 20 years. But it's also clear that the man is hugely ambitious. And the jacket to his new cookbook indicates just what he's aiming for: "Hailed by food critics as the next great hero of Italian gastronomy," it says.
Marea, which specializes in seafood, (marea means 'tide' in Italian) is just one of six Manhattan restaurants owned by White's Altamarea Group. He also has two in New Jersey, and is opening one this month in Washington, D.C. And White has gone global, too: he has restaurants in Hong Kong and London, and just opened one in Istanbul.
To cap off a busy year, earlier this month his new cookbook came out, "Classico e Moderno (Classic and Modern)," a glossy 400-page volume divided between classic and what he calls his "interpretive cuisine," modern creations based on traditional flavors.
Of course, there's lots and lots of pasta. Because it is pasta, in all its possibilities, that defines White as a chef.
"Michael White makes pasta, and people go crazy," wrote New York Times food critic Sam Sifton, when Osteria Morini, his more casual SoHo restaurant, opened. It features rich creations like a garganelli with cream, radicchio, truffle butter and prosciutto.
So how DID a Wisconsin boy who grew up on Fritos and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese get to this point? Part of the answer lies in timing. "Boy, I started at the right time!" White says. "You can no longer say that America is not the country of great food. The progress we've made in 10 years is incredible."
Food writer Colman Andrews notes that White is one of a number of rising chefs here who aren't Italian but have felt the freedom to refresh the concept of Italian food. "Maybe the Italians are too close to a certain way of cooking, so focused on what they grew up with, that it takes an outsider to reimagine it," Andrews says.
White's speedy expansion has also come with warnings; The Times review of Osteria Morini noted that expansion "can stretch a chef too thin," and that on nights when White wasn't present, the restaurant "shows that danger plain."
White though, is not stopping. He even, when asked, won't dismiss the idea of an outpost in his favorite country, Italy.
"I think we'd be embraced," he says.
White is clearly proud of his Italian "roots." He writes about leaving his family home of Beloit, Wis. — "a small town in the vast green pastures of the American heartland" — in 1991 to work at Spiagga, in Chicago, and eventually realized he needed to travel to the source of Italian cuisine.
He arrived in Italy with a duffel bag and hardly a word of Italian, for an internship in the kitchen of the famed San Domenico in the town of Imola, in Emilia-Romagna. He stayed in Italy for much of the next eight years.
In New York, he started as the chef at Fiamma before heading to L'Alto and L'Impero, which later became Convivio. In 2009, he opened Marea and joined with business partners to form the fast-growing Altamarea Group, which now has close to 1,000 employees.
Some 50 of them were working a recent lunch service at Marea. As White walked through the kitchen, he stopped to wipe a tiny errant squirt of tonnato sauce from a dish about to be served. Nearby, a cook was making homemade garganelli by wrapping rectangles of dough around a dowel, then creating ridges with a reed comb.
With all his confidence, you'd think White would be perfect for TV, but he insists that's not what he's looking for. "Listen," he says of the celebrity chef phenomenon, "I didn't do this to be famous. I didn't do this to have 25,000 followers on Twitter (in fact, he has 23,644.) I hardly ever tweet!"
And then he remembers another thing he has to do.
"Oh yes. Now I have to get on Instagram."