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Kitchen Superstars

Famous for Italian cuisine, Michael White goes French

Chef Michael White, the man behind a Michelin star-awarded empire of Italian food, is turning heads again. He’s gone French.

Building on the strength of the high-end Italian dishes at his New York City restaurants Marea and Ai Fiori, White last year opened Vaucluse, a French-style brasserie featuring upscale country fare.

Vaucluse’s menu includes rich ingredients like black truffle, foie gras, and escargots – and everything, including the pasta and the butter, is made from scratch.

Part of the Altamarea Group, Vaucluse is owned by White and his business partner, Ahmass Fakahany, who have over a dozen restaurants around the world.

A Wisconsin boy with Scandinavian roots, White got his start at the famed Spiaggia in Chicago.

"Seeing the food that went out at Spiaggia, no one knew what risotto was,” he recalled about how modern Italian cuisine evolved. “People make risotto all the time now, but 24 years ago ... prosciutto had just come to America."

After two years at Spiaggia, he traveled to Italy to expand his knowledge of the cuisine. He intended to go for six months, but it turned into seven years of studying across Italy and France.

Italian dishes were his focus when he came to New York in 2002 and opened numerous restaurants, including Marea, which won the James Beard Best New Restaurant Award in 2010.  

Now his focus is on more than just fine dining. White has a hand in everything from casual pasta spots like Osteria Morini to a pizza place called Nicoletta Pizzeria.

White says French cuisine ties in with all of his other restaurants, 

But while many critics gave the eatery high praise after it opened, New York Times food critic, Pete Wells, caused a stir when he called Vaucluse a “disappointment” and gave it just one star.  

White and Fakahany were quick to defend their restaurant --as vocally as possible. Fakahany wrote a biting public response, calling the Times a "dinosaur" and "desperately anxious to be relevant."

White himself brushes off the debate and says staying focused on high-quality classics has given him the winning edge for years.

"Quality is the ethos. When you add all of these things together, it's all about quality," he said.