EyeSwoon

I was never Little Miss Outgoing. You know, the one to step into a party, chat up a whole slew of people with ease and walk out with a crew of new friends. I was shy and awkward in social settings and in my head far too much. I was thinking about how easy it was for people, how much they all had in common and wondering what everyone else was talking about. In a crowd full of people, I always found myself lonely or isolated. Yes, I had “friends” at these events, or perhaps I should say I knew lots of people, but ultimately I felt alone. Even as an adult I am usually the first to leave a party, feeling mildly defeated. Separately, I was never much of a planner — never militant, organized and pragmatic with regard to scheduling. I work best under pressure and at the last minute. So where do I thrive? I’ll tell you — I am simply always better one on one.

Nowadays, or really in the past three years, I have thrown in the towel on hoping to “connect” at an event or at a party. It is in the kitchen where the true magic happens. This is the place where a stranger becomes a friend and it is likely the only place where my words flow out honestly and joyfully. Perhaps it is because the kitchen is where I feel most like myself, where I am not trying to be something I am not. It is also where a shared passion is celebrated, and where the fast pace prevents my mind from intervening.

Three weeks ago I went to Los Angeles to film an exciting project and while there I had the swoony opportunity to cook with Chef Nina Clemente at Di Alba, an eatery by Nina and restaurant group The Smile. Located in the Arts District, Di Alba serves Italian-inspired fare like focaccia by the slice, salads and pastries. Before I walked into Nina’s kitchen, we were only Insta-friends. True to form, our date in the kitchen came together just two days prior to my leaving for L.A. You know my mind was like, “Athena, you are such a mess. Why didn’t you plan something in advance? There are so many incredible people on the West Coast to shoot with.” And then my good ol’ Instagram feed began singing the tune of Nina Clemente. Lightbulb! An email to Carlos Quirarte from The Smile, an intro to Nina and boom, a shoot was scheduled. And then mega boom, a friend was made.

Let me rephrase — when I say friend, what I really mean is long-lost soul sister. Oh no no no, that awkward Athena stutterer, the one who can never quite find her words — that lady was nowhere to be found. Nina and I instantly fell in love. First she fed me the most delicious focaccia with citrusy shaved brussels sprouts, a poached egg and the spiciest infused oil. Then we went around the world of conversation from the L.A. famers’ markets to mommying to ‘80s NYC to how Nina found her way into food. She talked me though how she made fresh ricotta that morning and where the light was best to shoot our dish. This was all within five minutes of my stepping foot inside Di Alba.

And then our swoon-fest courtship came to such a screeching halt that there were practically tire marks on the concrete floor where I was shooting the ricotta and the ingredients for our dish. Yes, that’s right, the food was spread out on the floor. (This is completely normal to anyone who works in food or is photographing food — the floor is the sweet spot.) But what wasn’t so sweet was that the screech I mentioned was courtesy of the HEALTH DEPARTMENT! For Di Alba’s first-ever inspection!

Here is where the real frenzy set in. We went from literally being frozen, like, “is this really happening?”, to ricotta off the floor and into the garbage and hair pulled back and wrapped in a scarf. We thought we were fast-paced before. Well, now we were in fight-or-flight mode. Oh lord, oh lord, I just could not be the one responsible for anything less than an “A”. I scurried away into the corner, quiet as a mouse, while Nina and Matt and the entire kitchen staff went through what felt like a 15-hour-long inspection. When they emerged from the kitchen, sweat beads ever so slightly revealing themselves, they paused – the anticipation killing me – and then beamed that they got an “A”!

Nothing like a little drama to build a fast friendship. Not only did we get to recount the entire episode and laugh about the hilarious timing of it all, we also now got to spend the entire afternoon together as opposed to just a mere few hours. Now, four hours into our day together, we finally got into the kitchen to make Nina’s absolutely delicious roasted asparagus and radicchio salad spiked with crunchy pistachio, refreshing mint and the most pillowy dollops of fresh ricotta. (recipe below!) Oh, and we most certainly needed to remake the homemade ricotta that got tossed out, which I will admit, I was quite happy about. Love learning something new, and I might add, from the most patient and warm, and charismatic teacher imaginable, especially after she was thrown for quite the loop! When Nina and I exited the kitchen we had smiles plastered across our faces and at almost the exact time, we squealed about how we feel like family, like we’ve known one another for a lifetime. Now THIS is how I build a deep-rooted friendship. Who needs a party, anyway?

Nina Clemente

De Alba

  • Q&A

    • How would you describe the food you create at Di Alba? What is the core value represented in the food?

      The food I make at Di Alba is an ode to childhood dishes I grew up eating. Sourcing the best produce allows us to let the ingredients shine on their own. We enhance the existing flavors instead of excessively manipulating them with heavy sauces and dressings. The core value of the food I make is good for the earth and good for the body.

      How did you unite with The Smile/Di Alba team? How did the Arts District location come about?

      Carlos and Matt have known my sister for years and Melia and I have known each other since birth. Matt describes my food as “beautiful, delicious and The Smile’s exotic Italian stepsister” so the collaboration seemed like a natural fit.

      What inspired you to you become a chef and what was the genesis to where you are today?

      Arriving in L.A. at the tender age of 25, I fell head over heels in love with the farmers’ markets. I began throwing dinner parties and cooking very simple food. Word of mouth spread and I began booking catering jobs. With no experience I accepted each and every one that came my way. I got to a point where I was cooking for 60 people out of my home kitchen and realized I needed some formal training. I put together a visual resume (as I had no restaurant experience) and tried to find a job working the line in many restaurants. No one would hire me until I got an interview at Osteria Mozza. Although my experience was limited, I could tell the endless salumi and mozzarella varieties apart so they offered me a position working the mozzarella bar. Watching Nancy Silverton work ignited my passion tenfold. When I started to crave more creative freedom I left the restaurant and continued to build my catering and private client portfolio. I would earn enough money to stage (work for free) at different restaurants across the world and continued to absorb the knowledge I encountered. Every experience built up my skills and confidence in the kitchen. Hard work, perseverance and passion led to where I am today.

      Your favorite dish at Di Alba? Most popular thus far?

      My Italian Tuna Salad is a crowd pleaser and a play on a dish I grew up eating. I use sustainably-caught albacore and poach it in olive oil infused with aromatics, then flake it and toss it with cherry tomatoes, fennel, lemon-cured red onion, black olives and tons of parsley and basil.

      Biggest turning points in your career?

      I did a pop-up dinner at The Standard, Hollywood when I was three months pregnant, five years ago. It went so well that a month later I did a tasting for André Balazs and Pepe Tena, which led them to hire me as the executive chef at The Standard, Hollywood. Having never run a restaurant, they gave me the chance to run a whole kitchen staff and it was life-changing.

      Any kitchen trick for home chefs that’s guaranteed to pack flavor into their dishes?

      Infusing olive oil with garlic cloves and Calabrian whole-dried chilis is sure to pack a punch for any vegetable or pasta dish. Tons of fresh herbs also assist in brightening any dish.

      Why is shopping at the farmers’ market and buying non-GMO food central to your approach to cooking? Tips for picking out the best food at the farmers’ market?

      Commercial sales of genetically modified food began in 1994. That is not enough time to truly know the affects these alterations can have on our bodies, though clearly it’s terrible for the environment. I quite simply don’t trust the science. By avoiding products with soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets (most processed food has one of these ingredients listed), it’s a bit easier to avoid GMOs. Meat is largely affected as well, as animal feed often contains soy and/or corn. I stick with grass fed or non-GMO fed animals when serving meat or eggs.

      Sourcing from the farmers’ market makes my job so much more enjoyable. I rely heavily on the quality of the products I use. Letting ingredients shine without heavily manipulating them makes for easier digestion and more vibrant dishes. I don’t exclusively source organic produce from the farmers’ market. Getting organic certification is costly and some small farms I’ve been using for years simply can’t afford it. As long as the produce is pesticide-free (talk to the farmers, they are often at the markets!), I am confident in what I’m buying. To me there is no “best” at the farmers’ market. If you’re eating lots of fruits, vegetables and grains sourced from any farmers’ market, you can’t go wrong.

      What is your approach to cooking when you’re at home versus at work?

      It’s all about the one-pot meal at home. After being on my feet for 12 hours a day cooking for work, I prefer to create something more rustic and comforting outside of the restaurant. Spending time with my daughter is the most important part of being home, so the less time I have to spend at the stove, the better. When I do create something more time-consuming, I put her to work as my little sous chef.

      Five ingredients you couldn’t live without?

      Extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Calabrian chili, garlic, fresh herbs, (primarily basil, Italian parsley and mint — does that count as one?).

      What effect did growing up around famous artists have on the way you approach food?   

      The aesthetic of my dishes is one of my top priorities. Growing up around artists kept me in a constant state of visual stimulation. I try to express my creativity through the dishes I create. In my opinion food is one of the best forms of art, as it indulges all five senses, (and a sixth — umami!).

      You are clearly a healthy eater, but any indulgences you can never say no to? What is your Kryptonite?

      I don’t really consider myself a healthy eater, my body just happens to crave healthy food. My mom set that foundation in me as a child so the credit goes to her. In terms of indulgences, it’s a bit boring but I can wipe out entire bags of chips — any and all flavors, (as long as they are GMO-free).

      Can you speak about spending summers in Italy as a child and how that has influenced your cooking?

      I grew up plucking beautiful produce from my mom’s tiered garden in the coastal town of Amalfi. Summers spent in Italy revolved around food and family. These memories tremendously influenced how I approach food. There is no ego in the food I present, just genuine yearning to bring people together and nourish their bodies and souls.

      So, all daughters of artists for The Smile – Melia, yourself and Zena. Accident? Happy accident, or perhaps faith?

      We grew up in similar settings and were all infused with the artistic bug, so I find it quite romantic that we all ended up in the same field collaborating.

      How has being a mama changed how you perceive food?

      There is lot more thought that goes into food groups and nutrition. My daughter is constantly eating and it’s important for me to set the same foundation my mother set in me. My biggest source of pride is when she refers to some delicious vegetable she’s enjoying as “nature’s candy!”.

      The 5 local go-to restaurants or cafes you frequent in Los Angeles?

      Beverly Tofu House (I don’t like tofu, but their bibimbop and galbi is the best), Gjusta (every single item Travis cooks is damn good), Go Get Em TigerHermanos Coffee, The Apple Pan.

      Your ideal meal is… With…

      Christmas dinner cooked by my mom, with my entire family.

Fresh Ricotta & Asparagus Salad

Nina Clemente

  • Ingredients

    • Fresh ricotta:
      • 1/2 gallon of whole milk
      • 1/2 cup whipping cream
      • 1/2 quart buttermilk
      • Cheesecloth
      • Zest from 1 lemon
      • Salt to taste
      Lemon champagne vinaigrette
      • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
      • 1 shallot (finely minced)
      • 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
      • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
      • Salt to taste
      Salad components
      • 1 bunch asparagus (preferably thick)
      • 1 head of raddichio
      • 2 handfuls wild arugula
      • Pistachios (toasted @350 for 5-7 minutes)
      • 3 tbl fresh mint (gently torn into pieces)
      • 2 tbl extra virgin olive oil
      • Salt to taste
      • 1 lemon (juice and zest)
  • The Prep

    • Fresh ricotta
      Add milk, cream and buttermilk to a large pot. Heat over medium-low heat.  
      Only stir occasionally so that the milk doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan. Clip on a thermometer.
       
      You can use a candy thermometer or an instant-read thermometer. Heat the milk mixture until it reaches 200 degrees. You’ll notice the curds separating from the whey.
       
      Remove from the heat and let sit undisturbed for 30 minutes.
       
      Pour the warm ricotta/whey mixture into a strainer lined with cheesecloth.
      Stir the ricotta gently to help remove the liquid whey. Let drain for 1 to 2 hours.
       
      Remove the ricotta from the cheesecloth into a bowl. Stir in salt to taste and the zest from 1 lemon.
       
      Store the ricotta in glass containers with an airtight lid in the fridge for up to 2 to 3 days. Leftover can be added to pancake batter, spread on toast with a drizzle of honey and walnuts, stirred into a tomato sauce pasta or eaten straight from the jar!
       
      Lemon champagne vinaigrette
      Whisk lemon, shallot, champagne vinegar and salt and let the mixture sit for 5 minutes.
       
      Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Set aside until ready to use. 
       
      Salad components
      Pre-heat oven to 450.
       
      Snap the end of one asparagus, then trim the rest according to where it naturally snaps.
       
      If asparagus are thick peel the bottom half. If thin they can be left unpeeled.
      Toss asparagus in extra virgin olive oil and salt.
       
      Roast at 450 for 3 to 5 minutes until tender, (2 to 3 minutes for thin stalks). Taste asparagus to make sure they are tender.
       
      Zest lemon and set aside. Then squeeze the lemon juice on top of asparagus and set aside to cool. Slice radicchio into 1/2 inch ribbons. Wash and dry arugula.
       
      Building the salad*
      Layer radicchio and arugula in a large platter. Top with cooled roasted asparagus.
       
      Generously spoon lemon champagne vinaigrette all over the greens. Spoon fresh ricotta and scatter over the greens. Sprinkle toasted pistachios and fresh mint. Season with salt and lemon zest and enjoy!
       
      *All ingredients (except the asparagus) can be prepped the day before. Pull out of fridge to bring the dressing and ricotta to room temperature before serving.
       
       

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