Midwesterner Michael White cooks with the soul of an Italian

Story highlights

  • Michael White is the latest to chef to appear in CNN's Culinary Journeys
  • Wisconsin-born White only encountered real Italian food as a young cook
  • But a plate of ravioli changed his life, inspiring him to pursue Italian cuisine

(CNN)This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. See more of the show here: cnn.com/journeys. Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.

Give credit to the potato and leek ravioli with a Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce and topped with a dollop of green pesto.
    Growing up on Americanized versions of Italian food, tasting that ravioli was chef Michael White's first experience eating real Italian food.
    "When cut open, the ravioli unleashed an intense aroma of garlic and herbs," wrote White in his cookbook, "Classico e Moderno."
    The year was 1991, and White was a young cook working at Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago, learning to cook and paying the bills while taking culinary classes at a nearby college.
    "There weren't more than a dozen ingredients on that plate, but like a great rock band that creates a signature sound with just three musicians, it felt perfect," he wrote.
    "It changed my life and set me on the course that I've been on ever since."
    The Beloit, Wisconsin-born son of Norwegian American parents, White was already a young adult when he had the ravioli epiphany that changed the course of his life.
    Chasing those flavors has definitely paid off.

    Growing up with good, fresh food

    One of the best chefs cooking Italian food anywhere, White is now chef and co-owner of the Altamarea Group, a multi-million dollar empire with 15 restaurants and 1,000 employees in four countries--and counting.
    With crown jewels Marea and Osteria Morini in Manhattan, White has collected a bushel of three-star New York Times reviews, Michelin stars and James Beard nominations (and one win).
    White did not get into the business like many fine chefs have traditionally done. They open elegant restaurants based on foods from their own cultures, which they learned to cook next to their beloved mothers or grandmothers.
    Growing up playing football while helping his father cooking in kitchen and tending their garden, both learned sound cooking technique from Mary Lou Conroy's "Great Chefs" television program.
    "Right off the bat, I was exposed to good, cooked food, whether it be from my Norwegian grandmother having salmon and those types of things, scallops and cream sauce with rice, Nordic cuisine."
    He already loved the U.S. versions of Italian food available at the time.
    Michael White: "There's something about Italian food that everybody loves"
    "There's something about Italian food that everybody loves," White told CNN.
    "Whether it's pasta, whether it's young people being able to play with their food. There are these very intense flavors, tomato sauce, cheese. It's these flavors and a feeling of flavors and smells that make Italian food what it is."
    After graduating from high school and cooking at a hometown restaurant, White headed to the Windy City to cook, lucking out with that entry-level job at Chicago's Spiaggia Restaurant.
    Italian food felt comfortable to him, and Spiaggia chef Paul Bartolotta was from his home state. White enrolled in culinary classes at nearby Kendall College, learning French technique by day and cooking fine Italian food by night.

    'A doctorate in Italian cuisine'

    Bartolotta advised him to travel to Italy to learn at the source, arranging for an unpaid internship where he had himself trained: at the two-Michelin star San Domenico, in the Emilia-Romagna town of Imola.
    While White was exposed to Italian technique and ingredients, he also learned about the Italian way of eating.
    "People often say, 'What did you learn when you went to Italy?'" White told CNN. "I said, 'Apart from the food, you learn the social fabric of being at the table.'"
    "Sharing around the table," he said. "That's really what Italian food (is about): being at the table."
    That year turned into a nearly eight-year stint in Europe, which included cooking in other Italian kitchens, a short stint to study technique in France and returning to San Domenico as chef de cuisine for another two years.
    He also met his wife Giovanna Cornacchione in Italy.
    "Having lived in Italy, being married to Italian ... I like to say that this is all bought and paid for," White tells CNN. "I did my doctorate in Italian cuisine over eight years."
    Shortly after he returned to the United States, he successfully tried out for the head chef job at Fiamma, a new Italian restaurant in New York.
    Fiamma is where he combined his Italian knowledge and French technique to serve classic and innovative Italian cuisine, wrote his first cookbook and earned a three-star New York Times review in 2002.
    White "stays firmly rooted in the core principles of Italian cooking, putting prime ingredients on a sparely designed stage and letting them speak with minimum interference," wrote reviewer William Grimes, sounding like White's manifesto for Italian cooking.
    "His natural impulse is to clear away clutter, to clarify rather than obscure, to nudge gently rather than to push."
    Real Italian cooking was hot in New York City, and White was leading the way.

    Collecting three-star reviews

    After Fiamma, White took over chef duties at New York's Alto and Convivio (formerly L'Impero) for restauranteur Chris Cannon, with each restaurant earning three-star New York Times reviews.
    His way with pasta became the stuff of legend.
    "Michael White cooks pasta and people go crazy," wrote the New York Times' Sam Sifton.
    New York magazine's Adam Platt called him "the great pasta savant from Wisconsin."
    Partnering with former Merrill Lynch executive Ahmass Fakahany to form a new company, Altamarea Group, White finally had the funds to create an elegant experience on Manhattan's Central Park South.
    Enter Marea, an dazzling ode to Italian seafood. It opened in 2009, when the city was in the depths of the recession.
    "This recession's over," wrote then-New York Times food critic Sam Sifton, giving Marea three stars in 2009. "At least that's the message the knights in white broadcloth are sending out at Marea, the elegant Italianate restaurant (then-business partner) Chris Cannon and Michael White opened this spring."
    White and his company keep opening restaurants, mostly variations on the Italian cooking he knows so well.
    "Mr. White does have a gift for turning Italian food, especially pasta, into a hedonistic tumble between silk sheets,' wrote New York Times critic Pete Wells in 2015, even as he gave White's French restaurant, Vaucluse, just one star.
    Can White keep going? Although there are murmurs from some critics that White's menu isn't quite as good when he's not personally supervising, he certainly seems poised to try.

    Bringing people to the table

    White still loves bringing people to the table, even rustling up food and drink for the CNN crew filming him for "Culinary Journeys."
    "Whenever I have a dinner party at home, I always like to convey that message of being able to roll your sleeves up and everybody around the table," he said.
    "Being at the table is really Italian," he said.
    "Coming into Marea, coming into Osteria, if I could give you an hour and a half of this Italian experience of being at the table, taking a minute to enjoy something seduto (sitting) ... This is good."
    A television show? No thanks, he says. He's currently engaged in a much more fierce competition.
    "I compete for market share on a daily basis in New York City," says White. "That's a lot more than a 30-minute or an hour segment doing a television program."