5 Minutes with Chef Chris Bianco
Talking 'Chef's Table,' pizza, life lessons, Jimmy Kimmel, and canned tomatoes
Chris Bianco is a master of his craft - both pizza and hospitality. Considered to be one of the great pizza chefs in the country, he is as humble and kind as anyone I have met. Watching his recent episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix was a perfect look into his character for work, family, and life. He moved to Phoenix, Arizona more than 30 years ago and has been living there ever since. When I am asked where to go in Phoenix, the first choice is always to go see Chris at Bianco or Tratto and he never disappoints.
JM: You have been considered one of the best pizza chefs in the country for a long time, and I know you will humbly dispute that, but how has Chef’s Table impacted your life?
CB: To say my or any work is a singular best would go against what I truly believe. I see the best of anything in that way. In sports, if you run faster or score more points it’s easy to claim but with art or another subjective expression, I just try to enjoy the moments. As far as Chef’s Table changing my life, humbling is the first thing that comes to mind. The pizzeria has been around for 3 decades and we have had a fair amount of attention over the years but the Chef’s Table experience is another level. People have reached out to me from all over the world, less to talk about pizza and more to talk about how alike we all are. We live, we love, we try, we die and hopefully, we can remain in the hearts of those we love and leave things a little better than we found them.
What makes a great pizza?
I spend a lot of time studying what makes anything good whether that be a chair, a car, a relationship, or a pizza. It starts out with understanding your personal likes and needs, then if important to one’s self, what’s it made of, what are its ingredients that register as great, and who or what is making it. Unfortunately tasting good or looking good only occasionally means being good. Consider your source whether a rumor or a pizza.
Is there a restaurant that you would like to create that you just have not gotten around to or just do not have the time?
Tratto was probably that restaurant for me. When we opened it seven years ago the intention was to build a template; one that didn’t have my name on it with no pizza, and that invited young talent that I could hopefully help mentor their journey while working within a collective vision, and that allowed me to support and illuminate that talent while still making it a great economically viable restaurant with a positive environment for those on both sides of the pass and into the dining room and beyond.
Would you ever consider opening something in NYC?
I’ve learned to never say never but to hopefully make the right decision about whatever is presented.
Does Jimmy Kimmel know how to cook and has he ever made you dinner?
Yes, Jimmy can definitely cook. What makes him great in the kitchen is what makes him great at his day/night job. He asks great questions and makes great decisions. He’s one of the brightest minds and biggest hearts on the planet. He is manically thorough and has the discipline to follow recipes but the palate to know what he likes and I’m an especially big fan of anything he throws on the grill or that comes out of the smoker - he knows his way around it for sure and I’m the luckier for it.
What is one of the craziest stories you have in the memory bank from all your years owning these restaurants?
Too many to list but one thing that stands out was the role restaurants played just post 9/11: How kind people were to each other, and how much we all leaned on our community and country. There were, for a moment, no red or blue states - just people in pain searching for a sense of normalcy and comfort in a suddenly surreal world. That lasted a few months then we went back to our divisive nature. It’s a tragedy to need a tragedy to find our best. Hopefully, we live, learn, and evolve. I know I’m still a work in progress.
Did you have a cooking mentor?
What nice boy from the Bronx wouldn’t say his mother and grandmothers? For me, it was definitely the case. Since then, I’ve added the inspiration of many.
Last meal you ate outside of your own places that you loved?
There is a tiny (well-known and celebrated) Sonoran-style Mexican Restaurant called Bacanora that is everything I love about a great restaurant. Focus, dedication, consistency, and great sustainably sourced ingredients cooked over live fire.
If you could host a dinner with four people who would they be?
That’s easy since I never have enough time with my amazing wife and three occasionally fantastic kids so I am going with the home team. For dessert, a babysitter for the kids, and a Uber ride anywhere for Mia and me.
I love your canned Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes. What makes them so good?
They are a reflection of our farmers’ dedication to organic and sustainable farming, and the hope to share a little piece of California terroir with the world. Just as wine regions connect with people, places and, ultimately product. My partner Rob DiNapoli is a third-generation veteran of the California tomato industry and his passion is palpable and inspiring. We do our best to balance the salinity and the viscosity of the pack to give the end user a level of confidence in its consistency and our commitment to not suck and be better than yesterday but hopefully not as good as tomorrow… and to have my dad’s art keep company in friends and families’ pantries always makes me smile. I hope it makes them smile, too before and after supper (Buy Bianco DiNapoli here).
In case you missed it from Air Mail
There are fancier small restaurants than Chez Nous, and ones much easier to find, unless you are familiar with the back alleys of Charleston, South Carolina. You might not be dazzled by the décor, which is that of an 1835 single-family house lovingly but not extravagantly restored, with only the fireplaces and the wide-plank pine floors left essentially untouched. (Continue reading)