Bibiana Osteria Enoteca
1100 New York Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20005
Chef Nick Stefanelli was headed towards a career in the fashion industry in Milan when he caught the food bug. Food had always been a part of Stefanelli’s upbringing (his grandparents grew their own vegetables) but he never saw it as a profession until he experienced the food culture of Italy.
Excited to pursue his new career, Stefanelli enrolled in L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. After graduating in 2001, he externed at Galileo restaurant in Washington, DC. He quickly rose to chef de partie, and shortly after, the chef de partie of Laboratorio del Galileo, the dining room with an open kitchen in the back of the restaurant, where he was responsible for creating the tasting menus.
In 2003, he accepted a position as chef de partie at Maestro, the elegant Italian restaurant located inside The Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia. He would spend the next four years there, moving up to the position of sous chef. Working under Maestro's James Beard Award-winning chef Fabio Trabocchi, Stefanelli developed a deeply felt respect for regional Italian cuisine.
When Trabocchi moved to New York for the modern Italian, French-influenced restaurant, Fiamma, Stefanelli followed as chef de cuisine. Fiamma earned a three-star rating from the New York Times. Stefanelli returned to the Capital City after a year to work at Mio Restaurant. In 2009, Ashok Bajaj hired him as the opening chef for Bibiana. Stefanelli’s sophisticated manipulation of regional Italian cuisine through a modern lens is evident in the elegant offerings on the menu, though the young chef continues to serve copious amounts of pizza and pasta to an eager public.
Interview with Chef Nick Stefanelli of Bibiana – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nick Stefanelli: I was looking to go to fashion design school in Milan. I saw the love for food in Italy and changed my direction. Food had always been a part of my life, my grandparents grew their own vegetables, but I never viewed it as a profession until I saw the food culture in Italy.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NS: First and foremost food is nourishment. But there are artists and craftsmen in the country who take it one step forward and turn it into a beautiful product. We create new techniques. As for what dining should be there are multiple facets. Sometimes you want something very quick, sometimes you are looking for the joy of the table, you might also want something that has well-polished service. It really depends on what that person is looking for, and these things could vary from day to day. We give people the opportunity, if they want, to sit down and enjoy a long evening with us. But if you want to have one course and go you have that opportunity as well. Sometimes people who eat out aren’t looking for a five course meal. They want to get something quick. As chefs being able to do that and let the guest tailor the experience is important.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
NS: A lot of it’s driven by ingredients and by the season. You also want to have interesting flavors that balance and work with each other. I try to do new things that inspire thought. We’ll start to cook a dish in a certain way and as it evolves we’ll add some things and take others away. A lot of dishes begin with a rustic food that gets refined. We’ll take something very simple, even peasant, and by developing its flavors and presentation take it into modern times.
AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
NS: We’re a very tight-knit group of people. We try to get together once a month and see what everyone is doing. It’s hard for us to go eat in everyone else’s restaurant because there are only so many days in the week, and only so many days off. Getting together after service is one way of hanging out and staying in touch. We also do events outside in the community, whether at the farmers market or local charities, we cook together.
AB: What do you think of the food scene in DC?
NS: From when I started to right now it’s blown up exponentially. There used to be four or five chefs you could work under. But now their old sous chefs have opened their own places plus the talent that has come in from the outside. So there are more good restaurants and a better workforce. All these guys are striving to get better products. So it helps the entire food scene, not just the restaurants themselves. It gives DC diners a lot of variety. Advances in technology, not just molecular gastronomy but basic equipment, have really helped the food scene to evolve. It gives us more precision in the work we do, not necessarily making it easier to cook, but to create.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
NS: You always try to keep up on latest information and the current events in the industry. You monitor websites, read books and newspapers. Sometimes you’ll watch a chef cook or try something he’s made. Then you take the techniques you’ve seen and try some yourself. When you have really good competition it makes you want to drive yourself more. It’s how we help each other develop.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
NS: I’d probably be doing something in fashion right now. What aspect of fashion I don’t know. There are so many options but I’d definitely be in some part of the fashion industry.
AB: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
NS: I’m very happy with where I've gone. Looking back maybe I would’ve spent more time traveling before I went into cooking. I concentrated on my career, so everything else came second. Now I’m a chef and it’s harder to get away from the restaurant and travel.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
NS: I’m very happy with everything that’s come about. When I set out I just put my head down and really strived to become the best. Everything else that comes with it is a bonus. Winning the [StarChefs.com] Rising Star title and the RAMMY this year has been more than I could ask for. Being recognized shows me that people are appreciative of the hard work that goes into running a restaurant.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
NS: I could be in Las Vegas. Now it’s time to make slow and calculated decisions. I love DC and I plan on staying here and trying to develop another restaurant or two maybe but what comes of that, I don’t know. Another concept or two will be in the works. The whole world is open, it’s just where you want to put your efforts.