Meet Silvia Barban, The Italian Chef Who Cooks Her Heart Out
Chef Silvia Barban, born and raised in Northern Italy, arrived in NYC nearly five years ago, bringing her rich expertise of Italian cuisine with her. What began as a consulting gig for Chelsea Market's Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina quickly turned into a permanent stay. She's left a heartfelt impression on some of Brooklyn's most-loved Italian restaurants, as executive chef at Aita and LaRina, where she is also co-owner. Most recently, Barban became a cooking inspiration amongst viewers as a contestant on Top Chef Season 14, letting her heritage shine through in each meal she prepared. She may have exited the show early, but she's well on her way to building an impressive career, making her a winner in her own right.
Being a chef is often seen as a male-dominated profession. Do you see that changing? What change would you like to see in the next few years?
Of course I see a change. It's great to see women becoming faces of the industry. As far as changes I'd like to see, I'd like to see people recognized for their talents in the kitchen not because of their race, gender, or orientation. Here in NYC - Brooklyn specifically - women have a better platform to succeed than in Italy. In Italy, I was always the only woman in the kitchen, and I constantly had to prove myself to all the men that I was no different than they were.
How has moving to Brooklyn affected/inspired your cooking?
Brooklyn has been an incredible experience thus far. It actually reminds me of home in the sense that Brooklyn is a community, and I've developed a sort of family here that are regulars in the restaurants. My cooking has become inspired by this community and by the challenge to make all of these people happy day after day. I'm also lucky to have a local market nearby that is a constant inspiration for me, and allows me to explore different ingredients outside of my comfort zone.
There's tons of competition in the restaurant world. What do you think has contributed to the success of Aita and now LaRina?
Again, I will say this sense of community. Both of my restaurants are places where people can feel at home and make memories. My business partners and I are all Italian, and we're giving the community the chance to taste traditional Italian food with a twist. We're both working very hard to make sure people have an incredible experience every time.
Being a chef is such an intense career. How do you find the energy to take on the constant demands your job requires?
My energy comes simply from the passion that I have for cooking. It's easy to wake up and be excited to step in my kitchen everyday and have the chance to make someone else's day great. My goal is to have people come in, eat, and leave with a lighter soul and a smile on their face.
What did you learn most about yourself while competing on Top Chef?
I learned that I have the capability to do so much more than I ever thought I could. While we were filming, I wasn’t able to connect back home, which made me realize how much my family is actually connected to my inspiration in cooking. I felt more connected to my memories from home on Top Chef than ever in my life.
For viewers, Top Chef is entertainment, but this was a real life experience for you. How did it help you to grow into a better chef and person?
Top Chef helped me gain confidence in myself in the kitchen, and I'm looking forward to continuing to grow. Meeting all of these great chefs showed me a whole new world, and gave me more inspiration than I ever thought it could. It opened my mind to different types of ingredients and techniques. Every contestant has a different heritage; Mexican, Chinese, Southern, Hawaiian, Filipino, and more. A mix of fine dining and food from the soul. I took away something from every contestant on the show. If not for Top Chef, I never would have had the chance to be surrounded by all of this. I think LaRina, my newest restaurant, is influenced heavily by my experience on the show.
Criticism is a constant in your industry. How do you deal with the scrutiny?
I believe every person has a different perspective on food and that it is impossible to make everyone happy. I do think, however, that a good critique helps you grow and become better.
What do you want to say to girls and women that want to follow in you footsteps?
"Nevertheless, she persisted." Don't ever give up on your dreams. If you have passion in what you're doing, no obstacle can stand in your way. Always fight for it. In the kitchen, don't allow anyone to tell you that your style is wrong or not good. Be yourself, and don't allow men to make you think you're not on their level. Prove to them that they are wrong.
“Don't ever give up on your dreams. If you have passion in what you're doing, no obstacle can stand in your way. Always fight for it."
How does your personal story play into your cooking?
When I was little, I was a hyper kid. My grandmother had two ways to calm me down. The first was, when I was six years old, she would give me wine and water. The second was letting me cook with her. She was the person who taught me how to cook. After she passed away when I was 10, I realized how important her cooking was to me and how happy it made me feel. Today, I want to be able to deliver the same good feelings that she gave me, to my customers .
What is one of your favorite smells in the kitchen, and what kind of memories does it evoke?
My favorite smell in the kitchen is the smell of roasted potatoes. My grandmother made the best roasted potatoes and after she died, I needed to be able to recreate them again. Rosemary, sage, and garlic will always bring me back to the memory of her cooking for me.
What are your favorite spots in NYC that people may not know about?
I believe there are many favorite places in NYC, so it's hard to name just a few. Every day is a different mood and desire. That's what makes NYC such an amazing place. If I had to name a few, my go-to is Chuko, down in Crown Heights, Bunker in Bushwick, Slowteria in Cobble Hill, and Lella Alimentari in Williamsburg.
Who’s your main MISSBISH and why?
My business partner and roommate, Giulia. I have known her for almost five years and since day one, we've had a connection that cannot be beat. Besides sharing an apartment, we share the same passion for food and wine. It's thanks to her that I continue to grow as a person and restauranteur. I would never be where I am today without her. By age 28, she owns three restaurants in Brooklyn and is my biggest role model.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH is giving women the opportunity to show off their skills and become leading figures in their professions. It's giving young girls and women the inspiration to be themselves and never lose sight of their dreams. It's allowing women to come together and strengthen each other as the underdog. To show off their sacrifices and tell their stories of every road it took to get them where they are now. MISSBISH shows young girls and women that it won't always be easy, but those struggles are necessary to help you grow and reach your goals.
Photographer: Valine Brana