Part Two of the conversation with Fabio Viviani:
Where are you from?
From Florence, Tuscany. The first and only true capital of Italy. Rome is capital right now because we didn’t care to be that. First historical capital of Italy was Florence. We decided that we were keeping the art and giving the glory to someone else so Rome stepped up and took it.
I haven’t been - yet. I’ve been to Milan many times for work but that’s about it for me.
It’s beautiful, and shame on me that I left my country. It’s good if you go there for hanging out, but if you have to work there, the government is screwed up. The economy is screwed up. The health system is screwed up. It’s all screwed up. It’s not a good place if you want to have a business; if you want to have a life. If you’re filthy rich, you go there you spend a good amount of money. You buy your villa on the Tuscan hill. That’s it. That’s the la dolce vita. It’s not so sweet for those who stay there for everyday living.
How long have you been here?
It’s been 3 ½ years. I love it. I have all my businesses. I’d be stupid if I did all this and didn’t love it. This is truly the land of opportunity. If I have done what I’ve done in 3 ½ years - I can’t even speak English yet, guys!
What would you say was the dish from Tuscany that would best represent your region?
Fresh pasta! Fresh pasta and steak!
You’re not saying that just because you are Italian?
Well, because I grew up with it. I want to tell you a little story. You know about how my mom doesn’t know what’s going on with me on television? Okay. She thought it was bad for me to be on TV, as a chef. If you are a chef and you are on on TV, you’ve done something really wrong. You’ve either killed somebody or robbed a bank. So, she was really worried. She’d say, “You know, we know people. We can get you out of there. We’ll bring you back to Italy.” I say, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, mama. It’s a good thing.” She say, “How could it be good? You’re a chef and you’re on TV, for Chrissakes!” How could I fix that?
So, I called my friend and I said, “Show my mom what’s going on.” So, there are like 2,000 pictures of me on Google. Links everywhere, interviews everywhere. So, he shows her, now she thinks Google is a TV show. How cool is that? That’s why I’m writing a book, “My Son is on Google.” And my mom starts the book in this way…the first phrase of the book, in the introduction is, “food has always been a big influence in our family, and Fabio loves it. And Fabio met food when he was very little. Not because of our passion, but because he set his grandma on fire.”
Now I did set my grandma on fire when I was five. It’s a very sad story. I was evil. I was the wrong kid to be staying at home, especially with a 60-year-old in a wheelchair. Wrong fucking kid. If you were looking for a nice cute Italian kid, you were lost with me. I was brutal. I was the Tasmanian Devil. And my family we were way below the low class income in Italy. I’m not kidding. When I was 10 years old, I was going out with cardboard shoes. I started to work when I was 12 because there was no money in the family. So I started to work my ass off.
My father and mother worked hard. Anything they could have done they did to get money in the house. There was no money to send me to kindergarten, or for a baby sitter when I was five, so I was locked in the house with my grandmother all day. I was hyper. Impossible to deal with. Climbing on furniture. I loved fireworks. One time, I was playing with fireworks and rubbing alcohol and one landed on my grandma’s lap and she caught fire. It was a big fucking mess. My dad beat me with a bat for like 2 hours. My ass was so sore, I still remember. My grandma she couldn’t handle me, and you can’t handcuff a 5 year old kid, not even in Italy. You can hit him with a bat, but you can’t handcuff him. So she and my mom had to figure something out.
Now my grandma was in a wheelchair since she was 50 so she couldn’t work. She used to stay home and make pasta and bread for everyone. So now I start making fresh pasta and bread with her when I’m 5. It takes a long time to make pasta and bread and stirring the polenta. So now I’m 5 and I’m quiet. I found my zen with food. It calmed me. And that’s how I started and my mom is very happy that she introduced me to food when I was very little. Thank God you set your grandma on fire. If you didn’t do that you might be a pediatrician by now or an astronaut, or a professional wrestler.
Or somewhere else.
Or somewhere else. Or dead probably. Or in some rehab center. So that’s how I started in food. It was an early love affair.
My mom, when I was 10, she got very sick and almost paralyzed, with a disease like carpal tunnel but much worse. She’s paralyzed. Every year, in order to do little things like wash her hair and brush her teeth, she needs surgery. $30-40,000 surgery every year. It’s a lot of money and my family couldn’t afford it. So I went to work, I went to public school. And I went to the culinary institute.
At 12, I started to work. I was underage, you have to be 16 to work in Italy. I worked almost 4 years underage. I started work in a bakery, at night, from 1:30 to 7:30 in the morning. And then I’d get my backpack and go to school. I wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the jar at school because I was very hyperactive. But I was working and they knew I was going through stuff at home so they let me alone.
I was a smart kid but not the best in school. History for me is…I know they’re all dead. I know that geography is something around my country but I don’t know capitals of countries, I have no clue. That’s why I am planning to retire by 35 so I can travel around and keep up.
How old are you now?
I’m 30. Almost 31. 10/10/78. I’m working very hard so I know I’ll be done in like 5 years. And I don’t talk about it because it sounds very cocky.
I think it’s good to have goals.
I have very big ones.
Where is the first place you’ll go?
Italy. Back there. I go once in a while but I can’t get the Italy that I want because it would take more than ten days. Then I want to go to Africa, someplace like that. I’m really into helping people a lot. I don’t need to be filthy rich. Once I have the money to do anything I want, who cares about the rest? What’s the deal if you die tomorrow with 10 million in the bank? You could have done so much to make people happier. That’s why I’m putting 80% of what I’m getting in charity. I have my kidshealthcafe.com and I’m working with kids who have nutrition problems in the United States, I’m trying to change the school lunches. I do all kinds of things. Money is not a goal. Money can help you get to your goals.
And it makes you feel good when you give back.
I am working now with a kid and writing a book with him. He’s had leukemia since he was 2. He’s 8 now and it’s over. And he’s cooking, he’s a kid chef. He wants to be a chef. He went through shit, lost hair, lost teeth, and the thing that keeps him together is his love of food. When I first met him, he was 4, and I swear I was crying like a little girl. Now we’re working together. And I’m really into helping kids. You’ve got kids who are 10 years old with diabetes and heart disease. That’s fucked up! You get married, buy a house, plan to have kids. The first think you look up is for sex offenders in the area. The way kids eat, they won’t live long enough to meet the pedaphiles. Dude, you’re killing your kids! Processed food, crap. Don’t get me wrong, once in a while they have to have a burger, drink a soda.
But I’m doing this Website, Cook With Fabio…it’s not open yet. I will teach families that in 10-12 minutes, the same time it takes to heat up a processed meal, they can cook great food for the family. I will change the food program in the United States. I’m just not big enough, not important enough, and people don’t know me well enough to meet the people who can do that. Whoever decided what kids should be eating in school doesn’t have his kids eating there.
In the first 15 years of my life, I’d been to the doctor three times. I cracked my head, fell of the bike, twisted my knee playing softball, or I got punched in the face and my nose was bleeding. I grew up eating 1 ½ lbs of pasta and bread every day, gelato by the mouthful, red meat – rare, not cooked well done, raw fish, eggs. I eat 1 – 2 eggs every day. And my cholesterol is 127.
In Italy you don’t have health system, you don’t have health care. If you have enough money to fix something, good for you. Otherwise you’re in trouble. In the United States, thank God there is insurance. You pay a little money, they pay for most of things. I had blood tests, and Blue Cross said that in 50 years, they have never seen such a healthy person. I drink two tablespoons of olive oil every day. I’m not a big fan of fruit and vegetables, but…
If you live in a Mediterranean country…
Yes! My grandpa is 96, completely blind, but rides his bike every day. Four months ago, he had a heart attack. Because he’s 96! So we brought him to the hospital and two days later, the doctor called my mom and said, “Signora, your father is gone.” My mom is crying, “grandpa is dead!” “No,” the doctor said, “he’s gone. He got up and left. We don’t know where the fuck he is. He got up and left the hospital two days after a heart attack. And my mom says what? He’s blind, he can barely walk! So they find him and take him back. So I get him on the phone and say “Grandpa, you can’t do that. Why did you leave” He said “the food is crap at the hospital.” He didn’t like the food so he decided to leave!
So how can I think “I’m going to get my meal out of this box?” I have 20 acres here and I grow every single vegetable I have in the restaurant. There is a farmer doing it for us. I am organizing the Moor Park Farmer’s Market, starting in May. In the hundred year history of this community, this is the first farmer’s market. It took an Italian who doesn’t even speak English to build something healthy around here.
So I don’t sleep at night. I’m like a vampire.
How did you decide to come to the United States?
I had, In Italy, at the end of 2005, 6-7 restaurants, a farmhouse bed and breakfast. But like I said, the economy is bad. We were making good money for Italy, but the liability was too big. It doesn’t matter if you make $20 – $30,000 a month, if one month goes wrong, you’re out for a couple million dollars, and it’s not worth it. So I decided to move. My partner in crime was already here, another Italian, Jacopo, who runs the front of the house. He was running this little medium quality restaurant in downtown Ventura. I got there and we improve the service we improved the food, but the management wanted to make money with lower quality food for higher profit. I’m not like that. I import expensive ingredients from Italy. I make my own mozzarella. I import seeds from Italy and plant them here. I do 1500 lbs of fresh pasta every week.
How many people work here?
Seventy-five people work here. It’s a 260-seat restaurant.
So when you do have time, what will you do?
When I have time, I go make sure the vegetables are growing right. I hang out with my wife a little bit. I play with my dog a lot. I ride motorcycles. I’m a big fan of Ducati. I go on one wheel, do all the shit that’s illegal in this country but it’s so fun. I like to go fishing. I enjoy my life. When I have time off, which I never have, I lay back and relax. I eat a lot. I travel – I go to NY once a month, San Diego, I travel a lot. If you don’t travel, you don’t know what’s going on around you. And if you don’t know what’s going on around you, you don’t know if you’re on top of your game or not. And I plan to be on top of my game for a very long time.
Thank you, Fabio. We hope so too!
Click here for part one of the interview.