A celebrated chef shares his inspirations and his aspirations
From the artisan salts on the tables at Sea Salt to opera nights at Barbatella, Fabrizio Aielli certainly knows how to engage Neapolitans with contemporary takes on everything from local seafood to Italian classics. In 1995, his Washington, D.C., restaurant, Teatro Goldoni, was hailed by magazines including Esquire and Gourmet as one of the best restaurants in the country.
Read on to find out how he built up his credibility on the national cuisine scene — and how lucky we are to have him wining and dining us at his two downtown establishments.
Q: What inspired you to pursue culinary arts?
A: My first inspiration was the pleasure of good food. When I saw a ripe, beautiful tomato, I wanted to create something from it. I grew up in Venice, where my mother and grandmother went to the market every day and bought fresh ingredients for the day’s meals. When my mother was cooking, family and friends were smiling and happy, and their joy also inspired me.
In the summer, we left the city and spent two months on my grandparents’ farm where we raised chickens, had a vegetable garden and fresh ingredients for every meal. I was surrounded by good food growing up.
I always wanted to cook. My mother allowed me to help her in the kitchen starting when I was about 8. I was cooking with her my first dishes such as egg frittatas, breads and cakes. Many chefs say their mothers and grandmothers were their inspiration, and it’s very true for me.
Q: What is your professional background?
A: I started working in restaurants when I was 14, during the summer when there was no school. My first job was doing prep. I wanted to learn, but the chef was very protective of his kitchen. I’d go to work at 9 a.m. and the sauces and everything were already made. He wanted no one to learn because they’d take his job. But I was always looking and learning, and I knew that I didn’t need to copy what he or anyone else was doing. I have followed my own path ever since.
Q: How do you describe your unique style?
A: All chefs are absolutely equal — Not better, just different. Who can judge the difference? The customer.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience cooking at the James Beard House in October 2015 with other Southwest Florida chefs?
A: The best thing about the experience last year was cooking with a group of great chefs and friends, including my executive chef, Jason Goddard; Todd Johnson from Rumrunners; chocolatier Norman Love; George Fistrovich of The Ritz-Carlton and Harold Balink of Harold’s. The Beard House has a small kitchen, so it felt like we were in a private home cooking for friends.
Q: How did it feel when your Teatro Goldoni in Washington, D.D., was named among the country’s best restaurants?
A: I was so grateful for the recognition of my hard work and that of my team. But when you gain the success, do not forget where you started. Go back to the stove and keep cooking.
Q: What do you consider your greatest culinary accomplishments?
A: The greatest accomplishment is to pass my experience to others and share my passion with young and talented chefs.
Q: Who have been your greatest culinary influences?
A: I’ve learned from a lot of people. I love to watch, to learn, to be around other cooks — but my mother and grandmother were my first and best mentors.
Q: What is your favorite culinary experience as a diner?
A: For me, when someone smiles at you and makes you feel that you are welcome, that is the most important thing. It’s a sentimental experience. I really like perfection, but with the art of simplicity. If you make a perfect plate, and when you serve it in a tower and the tower falls down, it is meant to be that way. It is a different perfection. It’s like the Pisa Tower. Everyone thought it was a mistake, and now it’s one of the most famous buildings in the world.
Q: What experiences have tested and improved your abilities as a chef?
A: To be in a working kitchen is how you improve your abilities as a chef. My experience has taught me that to be a good chef, you have to be consistent and control your food costs. And you need to be like an artist and plate your dishes as if they were paintings. And finally, you cannot forget your grandmother’s cooking.
Q: Can you share with us your plans for the future?
A: I am fortunate that my passion is my livelihood and I am very content with the present. I have a great business partner in my wife, Ingrid Aielli, and a team that is dedicated to helping me run my restaurants.
But like most people, I do have a dream. One day I would love to have a little restaurant and my own farm with free-range chickens, a vegetable garden and fruit trees. I would cook for a small group of diners, and every night there would be a different menu from what is fresh from the farm. And 100 percent of the proceeds would go to children’s charities.
I plan to devote my time and energy to educating children and their parents about the importance of healthy cooking and eating. I want to pass on to the next generation a love for the simplicity and perfection of nutritious ingredients, to inspire them the way I was inspired by good food when I was young. ¦