Michael White’s soulful, refined interpretations of Italian cuisine might have you thinking he’s a boot-country native, but the Midwestern-born, Wisconsin-raised chef is just an ardent, and expert, convert. For White, cooking had only been an enjoyable family pastime (and the stove a welcome escape from bitter winter Midwestern cold). But a whim brought him to the Kendall Culinary Institute in 1989, and from there a career in cuisine was born.
Only a year after school, White secured a position prepping in Chicago’s illustrious Italian Spiaggia, learning from Chef Paul Bartolotta for a year and a half. Wanting to find the origin of his mentor’s awe-inspiring recipes, White followed Bartolotta’s footsteps to Italy, where he trained with the venerated Italian chef Valentino Marcattilii at Ristorante San Domenico in Imola. It was there, learning to cook in the Old World-style kitchen, that he began his Italian transformation, learning everything about the kitchen, visiting the markets to choose the best produce, making pasta by hand, creating fragrant sauces, scaling and filleting Mediterranean fish, and butchering lamb and poultry.
The next seven years found White studying the hands-on, ingredient-driven cooking style of the Italians, working with Marcattilii and traveling across the country for informal, but equally important, cooking lessons with friends (during this time White met his Southern Italian wife). White returned to the US in 2001, his technique firmly rooted in respect for Italy’s culinary traditions and a desire to share them—and promptly earned a Chicago Tribune four-star review as chef de cuisine for Spiaggia. A year later, White made the move to New York, his current culinary home, first as executive chef of Fiamma Osteria (which earned three New York Times stars and provided inspiration for a cookbook).
In 2007, White partnered with New York restaurateur Chris Cannon at the helm of the James Beard Award winning L’Impero and Alto (the latter of which earned three stars and a Michelin star in 2009). In July 2008, the duo transformed L’Impero into Southern Italian Convivio—another three-star restaurant and one of Esquire magazine’s Best New Restaurants of 2008. In May 2009, the two opened Marea, a restaurant devoted to the bounty of the sea. And in 2011 White opened rustic Italian Osteria Morini, celebrating the Emilia-Romagna region, and the upscale Ai Fiori, with refined dishes based on the Italian Riviera.