Editor's note: This story was updated on Wednesday, March 6, at 11:40 a.m. with information about Silverton's new restaurant.
When Nancy Silverton was growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s, her mother, Doris, would send her to school with sandwiches on brown bread, wrapped in waxed paper. While her girlfriends feasted on Wonder Bread and bologna sandwiches with Tang out of their lunch boxes, Nancy hid behind her brown paper bag and ate her whole wheat bread. That was the seed that sprouted La Brea Bakery 30 years ago.
The '80s were a transformational time for L.A. restaurants and California dining with the dawn of Spago and Michael's, which introduced an amazing army of women chefs including Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Suzanne Tracht, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.
Then came Campanile, which set a whole new trend in L.A. dining.
Silverton and her then-husband, Mark Peel, opened the instantly popular and successful restaurant using quality farmers market ingredients at a time when there was just one major open-air farmers market. Quality ingredients in L.A. were hard to find — especially bread. The Pioneer Bakery in Venice was the only local bakery, providing French bread to the local restaurant community and grocery stores. And sourdough was just some funky thing coming out of San Francisco. Silverton was obsessed with grilled cheese sandwiches and was looking to get out of the bread box to explore the kind of crusty boules and baguettes found on European tables for centuries.
"People ask me what it was like, starting a business like Campanile and La Brea Bakery with small children and a newborn soon after that and a husband," Silverton says. "You just do it because you are immersed in it and don't stop to overthink it. I don't know how I did it, but I know I did because I have living proof of it. I've got three wonderful grown children and a grandchild, so something must have gone down right."
La Brea Bakery was an afterthought to supply bread for the restaurant, which in turn subsidized the bakery. So Silverton opened a bakery cafe, which was a unique concept in L.A. at the time. The idea of having a bakery and a place to eat on the same premises was not what she was aiming to do — it just happened that way; Silverton ended up paving the way for Panera Bread and others to pop up all over the country years later. The rest is whole-grain history.
"When I opened La Brea Bakery, I wanted to teach myself how to bake a loaf of bread, and then I became passionate about it," Silverton tells L.A. Weekly in the cozy dining room of Osteria Mozza, one of four restaurants at Melrose and Highland that she co-owns with partner Joe Bastianich and until recently Mario Batali (the others are Chi Spacca, Mozza2Go and, Pizzeria Mozza). "When we opened, I mixed, I shaped, I baked and even sold at the very beginning. As we got busier and made more bread and the actual baking increased, I had to give over some of those responsibilities to other people, and I hated it. I just wanted to do it all myself.
"After about two years of being open at La Brea Bakery we were busting at the seams, and because of the process of baking the bread and the long fermentations, there was only so much I could hold. It was about how much bread I could store for that overnight fermentation. I was at capacity. We would sell out of bread by 11 o'clock and it was hard for people to understand that that was all we could make."
Lines would form along La Brea as people waited for crusty loaves of artisanal bread filled with ingredients like olives and roasted red peppers, a mind-blower on the local food scene in 1989. Slowly, Silverton and Campanile pastry chef Jonathan Davis became unable to meet the demand, so she decided to move the baking to another location.
"It wasn't going to be on premises, where I could watch over it, and the amount we were baking was so much that I really needed to train people in all capacities ," the James Beard Award–winning chef says. "I had to step back. Something that I was so passionate about and wasn't doing anymore myself felt much more like a business."
After moving from the La Brea storefront into a larger production facility, and about to give birth to her third child, Silverton realized the operation had just gotten too big and was worth something. Her process of par-baking the bread first opened her eyes to the potential for something much bigger. She sold it in 2002 for $90 million to an Irish investment group now known as Aryzta, which has gobbled up bakeries across the globe. Aryzta wasn't interested in her little retail store; it was interested in her process.
"When everybody heard that La Brea Bakery had sold for $90 million, they all assumed I was pretty lucky," Silverton says. "What nobody considered was how much debt we incurred in building this par-baked facility, plus there were 40 limited partners at La Brea and four or five general partners, with me being one of them, so we all split a very small piece. So was I given a check for more money than I thought I'd ever have? Yes. But nowhere near 90 or 20 of those millions."
She put all of it in an account she already had with Bernie Madoff.
"I come from a family of optimistic people." Silverton reflects on the loss. "When I heard what he did, it was shocking. But immediately I was so happy I didn't retire with that money. The other thing is I know there was a lot of hard work and passion that went into developing La Brea Bakery, and it was hard work that I loved. My feeling was, I came easily onto that money and it went just as easily. I was just starting to build up Mozza, so it wasn't devastating."
Then came Mario Batali's #MeToo moment, which sent shockwaves through the culinary community.
"Even though he was a big influence, he was an influence at a distance –— he only came here once or twice a year," Silverton says of Batali. "He was caught up in his TV show, which he shot about four days a week. When he came out, he would host a dinner for his friends in one of the dining rooms and that was really all the relationship he had with the staff.
"The person I feel the worst about is April, who really suffered," Silverton continues, referring to April Bloomfield, co-owner with Ken Friedman of New York's Spotted Pig; Bloomfield's Hollywood restaurant, the Hearth & Hound, closed in January. "All the business she's lost," Silverton continues. "People really weren't understanding about the fact that she was in an abusive relationship and felt her hands to be tied. I wasn't in that relationship with Mario, but she was with Ken. She didn't handle it the way she did because she didn't care or [because] she approved of his behavior.
"What people don't understand is that when you have a partner, you can't just buy them out overnight, which is what people wanted. Some restaurants have suffered more than others. I have all sorts of emotional baggage I carry around from it, but I didn't have to step in and stop any type of behavior I thought was inappropriate," says Silverton, who takes an hourlong power walk every morning to sort things out for the day.
Silverton says the success of so many women chefs in California has to do with the role models here and how a nurturing nature helps stave off abusive behavior and empower employees. "Growing up in California, we had a lot of role models in this business," she says. "If you were doing an interview with me 15 years ago and asked me who my role models were, certainly I would say Wolfgang [Puck]. But then I would say Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, Judy Rodgers. Without consciously knowing, they were the people I admired the most, and I wasn't thinking gender. They happened to be cooking the food and running the businesses that were admirable and to my taste. It just felt natural to step into those shoes. I think women more so than men, and I feel fine saying this, are more nurturers. That's something that I do, and I feel by nurturing I keep my core people. I let them know how important they are to the success of these places and this corner. I respect them."
Campanile closed its doors in 2012, making way for République, but the little brick bakery lives on.
Davis stayed on with La Brea Bakery and is now senior vice president of research and development; he's thrilled that Silverton will help commemorate this year's 30th anniversary by collaborating with La Brea Bakery to develop new, special-edition breads that will launch around April. Even though she sold the business, she has worked on and off for the company for years. The new portfolio will include items featuring ingredients such as sprouted grains, alternative flours and, as always, Silverton's original sourdough starter.
"I started at Campanile and the original La Brea Bakery right out of culinary school as part of an internship program, and they offered me a job. I became a pastry assistant and worked from midnight to noon," Davis tells L.A. Weekly on the phone from the Van Nuys facility, which is responsible for half of the company's national distribution (there's another plant in New Jersey.) "I was so lucky to work with the amazing chefs like Suzanne Goin and Suzanne Tracht that came in and out of Campanile."
Those bakeries produce the par-baked bread that gets sent out to various outlets, so when you go to Ralph's and get La Brea Bakery bread, the store has baked off the par-baked product itself; that's completely different from the freshly baked loaves at the original bakery.
When La Brea Bakery first opened in its little brick storefront in 1989, it was producing 2,000 loaves a day. Now that's what the company produces in an hour in one location. Davis says little has changed from the original process. He helped Silverton with the pizza dough at Mozza and still calls her if he needs advice. "My relationship with her never changed over these 30 years," he says.
"Nancy's incredible work ethic and eye for detail are what has made her so successful," Davis says. "She will stand at the counter of her restaurant and make sure the scallions are all cut at the right angle. This is a hard business, it never stops, and our partnership over the years has been great. I'm so happy to work with her again. She looks at every single nuance, so it will take some trial and error for me. Flavor, texture, bake color, seed combinations. Plus we're working on an alternative flour, kind of a wheat-rye combination."
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And Silverton's work doesn't stop there. In addition to her corner stable of restaurants, she will be opening up Pizzette in the Culver Citizen News food court, featuring sandwiches and stuffed pizzas, as well as the Barish, a steakhouse in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel that has her as an integral part of the design process. "I've never been part of the designing process before, apart from picking colors," she says. "There's a whole new vocabulary I don't even understand, like talking about storyboards. I get overwhelmed by too many choices."
Silverton says that since her life moved to the Mozza corner, she's been given a lot of opportunity over the past several years and is fortunate enough to choose what suits her. "I didn't want to buy myself another restaurant, but when the opportunity came up to open a small version in a food court–type situation, where I don't have to worry about a front of the house and I could just focus on the pizza element, I wanted to do it," she says. "It's shared spaces — they can get their drinks and salads somewhere else. What I didn't want to do is just open another Mozza2Go, for lack of a better word. I wanted a new element, so we brought in a stuffed pizzette. That will be new and the perfect solution to what's wanted in a food court."
The current La Brea Bakery Cafe, down the street from its original brick storefront, will come full circle and start baking on-site again. Silverton is finishing her ninth cookbook, on Chi Spacca, and looks forward to the next one on salads and finding time to spend with her grandchild. The years have taught this Angelena to let go and pass along her own confidence to the next generation.
"Those first few years when I started out in 1989, I felt like I had to do everything myself," she recently told a crowd of 200 women at the Visionary Women Salon in Beverly Hills. "Doing it all yourself is just not realistic — you have to let go, and the best way to have things the way you want them is by encouraging those around you. Let them know when you're proud of them and you'll get the results you want."