From the outside it looks like a typical house in West University — albeit one with a lot of bustle going on.
Only when heading past the interior chaos of computers and tables of kitchen utensils to the pristine kitchen strewn with lights and cameras does it become clear the mess is a film set, not extensive spring cleaning.
It's a three-day shoot for a new iPhone/iPad application by Bertolli, featuring tips and tricks for Italian cuisine and recipes by California-via-Florence chef and Top Chef favorite Fabio Viviani. He's taking advantage of the quick break to try out his own new iPad. When the crew finishes lunch (a lemon artichoke chicken with mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese), he puts his black chef's jacket back on and heads back into the kitchen to demonstrate a red snapper recipe, the first of 16.
Before filming, the details are worked out, from what needs to be poured where, to how much of the auxiliary ingredients to include — there's enough feta on the table for four servings, but Viviani only has two pieces of snapper, and he doesn't want the recipe written wrong — to how to reference a wine pairing, since he has an endorsement deal with Santa Margherita and there's none on set. It's tense.
But once the camera rolls, Viviani shows why he won fan favorite for his Top Chef season and was called back for the current All-Stars class — he's good-looking, his thick, occasionally bumbling accent is effortlessly charming and he seems at ease improvising tips and explaining what he's doing for at-home chefs.
Between takes, I sat down with Vivani to chat about his food philosophy, where he's eating in Houston, and his perspective as a reality star chef.
CultureMap: So how long are you in Houston? Do you have any plans to eat at any restaurants around town?
Fabio Viviani: We're in Houston three days, this is where the headquarters of Bertolli is. I had dinner last night at Reef, Bryan Caswell has been a friend of mine for years. It was a great meal, I started off with two dozen oysters, the snapper carpaccio, and the roasted grouper. It was a great, great meal. He was robbed on The Next Iron Chef. He should have won.
CM: Tell me about these video tutorials. What do you think about when choosing recipes?
FV: I like doing recipes that teach people — well, I don't mean teach people, I'm just one guy. But I can show people how to use things and get the most out of their ingredients and how to discover new flavors. I have two rules: It has to be simple and it has to have ingredients that are easy to find. I could come out and try to show what a great chef I am by doing thing that are really complicated, but what's the point if people can't replicate it? So we are doing several tips people can use in different dishes and 16 demonstrations and recipes.
CM: You're back on Top Chef as part of the current All-Stars season. How do you balance being a chef and being a reality star?
FV: I have two restaurants in California, Firenze Osteria and Cafe Firenze, that are doing very well. If I have a TV show and no restaurants, something went wrong. If I have three or four retaurants and no shows, then I'm doing good. Top Chef has been a great thing for me, I mean, its national TV and its a great platform for people to see who I am as a cook.
CM: You started off the season with a bang by getting heated with new judge Anthony Bourdain. Is he the toughest judge?
FV: Anthony Bourdain isn't the toughest judge. He's just trying to be the funniest judge. He just made a joke at the expense of the wrong guy. He knew I was going to call him out. He wouldn't even look me in the eye at the judges' table.
CM: I hear you were once a private chef for William Shatner. What was that like? Do you have a Shatner impression?
FV: I don't really have an impression, because then I would be an actor. But he is the most amazing guy. Truly. He can tell you a story about walking his dog in the morning and it's the most exciting story you've ever heard. It's an art. He really is great at so many things, a Renaissance man. I feel lucky to consider him a friend.
Viviani's Bertolli Italian recipe and tip application should be available in spring 2011.