New York chef's restaurant pays tribute to Butterfly in Beloit
NEW YORK—There's something familiar about this New York City restaurant and its Green Bay Packer-sized chef.
It could be the bratwurst sliders, or maybe the brandy cocktails and waitresses in frilly aprons that make it feel homey.
The guy in charge is Michael White, who grew up in Beloit and has become one of New York's hottest chefs and most ambitious restaurateurs.
White, 42, recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview at the Butterfly, the retro cocktail bar and Wisco-style supper club he opened this past summer in Lower Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood.
Butterfly on the East Coast is named after the Butterfly Club in Beloit, where White, just out of high school, had his first restaurant job. The smaller New York version—just one room—is a chic nod to the original.
It's the latest in White's lineup, but it's not typical of what he's known for, which is as one of the country's preeminent practitioners of Italian cooking.
His success is proof that your name doesn't have to be, say, Mario Batali, to be a hailed as a prince of pasta.
Just how big is White's empire?
“I'm going to count the restaurants in front of you because I have to remember, OK?” he said, holding up his hands and quickly running out of fingers.
There are six or seven restaurants in Manhattan, depending on whether you count Ristorante Morini, set to open in November on Manhattan's Upper East Side. And there are two in New Jersey.
Don't forget Al Molo in Hong Kong and Chop Shop in London. There's also a restaurant that was scheduled for October in Istanbul, as well as one on the docket for Los Angeles and a pair of places coming up in Washington, D.C.
Two of his most acclaimed spots in Manhattan are Marea, with its high-end Italian seafood, and Osteria Morini, which serves rustic fare from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region.
They are all part of the Altamarea Group, put together with financier Ahmass Fakahany, formerly of Merrill Lynch. Their first collaboration was Marea, which opened in 2009.
But White has a soft spot for the Butterfly, where he says people from back home “walk in, show me their licenses and say—'Listen, I'm from Wisconsin.'”
The fair-haired chef who stands 6 foot 4 inches and weighs 290 pounds—and played football for Beloit Memorial High School—traces much of his success to the Midwest.
“Wisconsin is an extremely grounding place to grow up, a great place to grow up, with a great work ethic,” he said. “And I have this very much Midwestern sensibility—just being nice, you know?”
He remembers cutting lawns and helping in the backyard garden with his brother Scott—“we were doing organic far before it was trendy.”
White always enjoyed cooking and would watch cooking shows on TV with his mother, Mary Ann, who died in 2012. His father, Gerry, is a retired banker and still lives in Beloit.
“I knew I wanted to take a shot at cooking, and I knew if I worked at a place like the Butterfly that I could learn about taking apart a grinder and making au gratin potatoes and fish fries—all that sort of stuff,” White said.
After Butterfly Club he made the leap to Chicago, where in 1991 he began working at Spiaggia under another Wisconsinite, Paul Bartolotta, whom White calls “a very big inspiration to me.”
Paul is the brother of Milwaukee restaurateur Joe Bartolotta.
And even though White's family roots are Norwegian, he knew he wanted to cook Italian.
As he recalls: “When I was growing up, Italian was the ethnic food of choice, really. Go to any Midwestern city, and we had fantastic Cantonese and Italian restaurants. So when I decided I wanted to be a chef, French wasn't even in my thought process.”
His yeoman work ethic already was evident when he first met Bartolotta.
“I had to be there at 3, and I got there at noon so I wouldn't be late. It was one of those kinds of things. I started helping with salads that night,” White said.
After two years at Spiaggia—during which time he took a nine-month course at Kendall College—he headed to Italy, where he would spend, on and off, the better part of eight years, much of it working at a Michelin-starred restaurant, San Domenico, in the town of Imola in Emilia-Romagna.
“Putting the time in allows you to have credibility,” he explained. “I've done my doctorate in Italy, if you will.”
It was in Italy that his met his future wife, Giovanna Cornachione, with whom he has a daughter.
And along the way, he became fluent in Italian. “We speak only Italian at home,” he said.
He returned to Spiaggia in 1999 and then ventured to New York, where he got gigs at some well-known places, including now-closed Fiamma; he wrote a cookbook by that name, published in 2006.
His trajectory got on the fast track when he joined forces with Fakahany.
“It's an amazing ride. I don't like to talk about it, but it's amazing,” White said.
Initially, his family was skeptical about his career choice.
“When I told my father I was going to be a chef, he was like, 'Wow, OK, but how do you expect to make a living?'”
And as his father recently joked in a phone interview: “Michael always liked cars. I thought he was on the way to becoming a wrecker—that's the way I thought things were going.”
It turns out making a living was not a problem.
By the end of this year, this chef from the heartland expects there will be more than 1,000 employees—“a fantastic talent pool”—at the various Altamarea Group restaurants.
But he's adamant that he will continue to cook, no matter the number of kitchens to his credit.
“I can't be tossing every pasta…but I will never allow myself to not be in the kitchen, to not cook,” he said. “I just cooked five days straight in London with my team, with the young people—it was fabulous.”
And he showed a pinch of pique: “A lot of times the people and the press want chefs to just be in the kitchen, but the economics of that just don't work. And I don't want to be scolded for being a businessperson.”
High energy is an understatement.
As he says, “I don't sleep—I'm thinking about all the things I can do. Do I work 12 hours a day? Oh, much, much more. But I haven't 'worked' a day in 23 years because I love what I do.”
One of his pet projects over the last three years has been to write a new cookbook, “Classico e Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking” (Ballantine Books, $50, on sale Nov. 5).
It was written with Andrew Friedman, an author known for chronicling the lives of chefs. It has a forward by renowned chef Thomas Keller.
It can be preordered, for $30, at Amazon.com.
In the first half of the book, there's a collection of his favorite dishes from Italy. In the second half, you'll find some of his more contemporary—and complicated—recipes.
So, it's Tagliatelle with Meat Sauce as a classic, and Lobster, Burrata and Tomatoes as a modern reverie.
The dessert recipes in the modern section are epic. His elaborate Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary Ice Cream, Pine Nut Praline Sabayon and Meringue, for example, calls for more than 30 ingredients with more than a full page's worth of directions.
You will find, however, simpler classic sweets such as Olive Oil Cake and Panna Cotta.
His idea is that “the front part of the book is more for home cooks, and the second part is for people who are a little more deft. They are recipes to inspire—and professionals will buy the book, as well.”
Alas, there's no restaurant in the offing for his home state.
“I have no plans right now—although I would love to open a place in Wisconsin,” he said. “But I tell you, I want everyone in the Midwest to come here.”