Chef Fabio Viviani’s New Dining Digs

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Celebrity chef Fabio Viviani has partnered up with Chicago’s DineAmic Group to open Siena Tavern in River North, slated to open early this year.

“We’re bringing the best of Italy – everything homemade,” says Celebrity Chef Fabio Viviani. “We’re trying to blend this old, in your face, Italian style casually in a very polished environment. Rustic, heavy wood, in a cool steel building in the middle of the busiest area of Chicago.

Mr. Viviani began cooking in Florence when he was 11 years old, and he won over millions of Americans while competing on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef, where he was rightfully voted “fan favorite.” He’s humble, intelligent, hilarious, and carries with him many a wise word from his grandfather.

Where did you get the idea for Siena Tavern? I met Luke Stoioff and David Rekhson DineAmic Groupabout two years ago when they opened Public House. I’m an Italian guy. Most of my food has Italian influence, and they were looking to do an Italian concept for a long time. So we became friends over a beer atPublic House and we just started to talk. And it went from an idea to a concept.

Now why Siena? I said to them, the Italy that I will show you is not the Italy that anyone else will. So I said, “Let’s go to Italy, we’ll take my grandpa (87) with us.” We’re driving around in this little car, eating in backyards. After about four days, we sat down for lunch in this ‘taverna’ in Siena city. You know, a hole in the wall, it’s the Italian word for little petite bistro. And the name of the restaurant was La Taverna. So we were sitting there in mismatched chairs and mismatched furniture. I mean, nothing made sense. It looked like the owner, who was the chef and the server and the cashier at the same time, was in somebody’s garage making this pizza and mozzarella, It wasn’t not even a kitchen, but a wooden counter where people were drinking wine….and the cool part about it was he didn’t even know it was so cool. He was trying to be cheap, in a welcoming way. So when we returned to the U.S. we were talking about Taverna in Sienawe loved it!

Why open Siena Tavern in Chicago? I didn’t choose Chicago; I fell in love with it. It’s like, you don’t choose your friend, you’re just there and you don’t remember how you met them. I was working with several companies in Chicago for restaurant consulting. So in the past three years I’ve been in Chicago every other week. I mean, if you can give me your winter with 15 more degrees and 15 miles per hour less wind, I’d live here. I love Los Angeles – best weather in the country – but Chicago is a clean city; people are great. The Midwest is full of very friendly people, but Chicago is just ‘East enough’ so these people smart and with it.

Name some restaurants you must visit when you’re in town. I always go to Public House and see the boys. I’m in business with them, so it comes with the territory, but they have some great barbecue smoked meat. And, I have a lot of friends in Chicago. All of the guys in Boka Group are great, so I do like smaller places Gilt Bar. I’m rustic. I’m a renaissance man, so too polished doesn’t work for me. I mean it does work, don’t get me wrong. I’ll ask you to marry me at Spiaggia, but then I’ll take you to Gilt Bar and Public House every other day of the week. I love Tony Mantuamo’s Bar Toma. I can’t think of a chef in Chicago oing a poor job. There’s so much to learn in this city. As a chef, I go out to dinner, have great food, think about it, and go, “Oh, I wish I would have done that.” Now if I want to do it I have to tweak something. But then if it’s perfect, there’s nothing to tweak, that pisses me off.

In a good way, I hope! What about new restaurants? Anything else besides Siena Tavern in mind? Yes, with DineAmic Group. We have a couple of other ideas in town for some other spots, and we have something in mind for Miami and Los Angeles, the Newport area. But like in any smart business, 99 percent of the ideas thrown out there will never follow through. So it’s too early to talk about it so now we’re all about Siena Tavern, and making it happen.

Food trend you wish would disappear. Molecular gastronomy is overrated. Why would I want to eat a line of powder that tastes like a cheeseburger and (makes slurp sound) suck on smoke that tastes like a duck confit or eat a menu? I want to read a menu, I don’t want to eat the menu.

Any tips for chefs who are thinking about competing on a reality TV show? Just be yourself. Camera, no camera, who gives a crap? But you have to remember what you say and stick to it. You can’t lie. Chefs are very passionate about their craft, but they’re not liars. And because of their temper, national television can be a little tricky. Meaning, I was a bit scared when I had the chance to appear on national television because I’m the kind of guy who’s nice to everyone. I will bend over backwards to help someone even when a person will never do anything for me. It doesn’t matter; that’s character. Character to me is how you treat the people who can’t do anything for you.

What about Top Chef surprised you? I consider myself fairly young. I’m only 35, but I’ve been in this business since I was 11. I’ve seen a lot of stuff most people haven’t seen yet. I don’t get surprised any more, but in both the restaurant and television business, when you think you’ve seen it all, somebody is going to do something that will make you say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming. That’s amazing.” You take it and learn from it. I don’t get surprised. I don’t get scared. I was on a TV show where I lost twice. I lost twice.

So, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, America! You like me, but I lost. Twice. The good news is I couldn’t care less because I’d been here 32 years without TV and was doing just fine. But I’m very blessed because the reality is without television I couldn’t have met you, Sarah, or other people. Somehow, we’ll enhance each other’s lives in a good way. So that’s the very fortunate part about television – the kind of exposure that you can’t pay for, if you’re smart on how to use it.

Why do you think you were voted ‘fan favorite?’ I tell things the way they are. I don’t hold back. When I hug, I mean it. When I kiss, I mean it. When I say good or bad, I mean it with all my heart. I’m not pretentious. I grew up on food stamps. And I didn’t even win the show, so what’s fame? I’m just honest and easy to be around.

Best piece of advice? The best pieces of advice I’ve ever received are from my grandfather (about life and relationships) and from my food mentor, Simone Mugnaini – a guy out of Italy that had 30 restaurants and never got a good review or whatever, but he runs the country. His advice? In food, it’s “Do it right, or do it twice.”

So what’s the advice from grandpa? Well, now that I’m dating, because of TV and because I’m Italian, the lady part comes pretty easy. I have a lot of chances to go out on date. But thinking back to when I was 17 or 18, I was in my house in Florence, getting ready, putting on cologne, going to pick up some girl in the club and my grandpa was there looking at me ­– you know, when you get those kind of stares. He shook his head, and I was like, “What’s he looking at, is there something wrong?” He said, “You guys are funny.” I responded, “What do you mean?”

See, my grandfather and grandmother were together for over 70 years. He didn’t date. So my grandfather said, “I get it, you guys are boys. Testosterone is through the roof, but trust me, one day you gotta realize that you gotta find one good one and stick with her, because it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you can’t date ‘em all. So just don’t go through the hassle. Dating, it’s a job. Get one woman, make her happy and just focus on everything else in your life because you got that taken care of.”

And the second best advice he gave me came when I got the person I thought was going to be with but it didn’t work out. He said, “In a relationship you have two choices – be happy or be right. Choose happiness. Be wrong and happy, who gives a sh**. Because ladies are more likely to negotiate when they’re happy.”

Sounds like a wise man. What makes you most proud? Wow, nobody has ever asked me that question! I’m proud of my mom. She got sick when I was 11 and couldn’t work anymore, so that’s why I went to work baking pies all night – 1-8AM – then getting my back pack and going to school. And through it all,. I don’t think I’ve seen my mom upset one day in her life. I’m proud of her.

I have a cookbook coming out for Mother’s Day called Fabio’s Italian Kitchen filled with recipes and memories from my Italian Mom. It’s a hybrid between a cookbook and memoir. Someone said, “This is the first cookbook I was bawling 30 pages in and then pissing myself from laughing right after!”

I’m also proud of what I do. People don’t believe I work 130 hours a week, every week. I was up at 5AM this morning taking phone calls…I don’t go to bed until midnight. Sleep is over-rated.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Still in the U.S. Wife. Couple of kids. And a good business run by really good people and friends. Maybe two French bulldogs. House in Italy, which I have. And at least every other month, take a little time to take my family somewhere where we’re alone.

For more fun tales and insights from Fabio, sign up for his newsletter, Fabio Kitchen Academy, atwww.FabioViviani.com.

Sarah Levy

About Sarah Levy Imberman

Sarah Levy delighted millions as the owner and proprietor of Sarah's Pastries & Candies, one of Chicago's most popular confectionaries since its opening in 2004. A graduate of Northwestern University and the French Pastry School, Ms. Levy is the author of Sweetness: Delicious Baked Treats for Every Occasion and the winner of the Food Network Challenge. She’s been featured in USA TodayBetter Homes and Gardens and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. Ms. Levy's now doing business as S. Levy Foods, and is a leader in the airport food concession business.