Silvia Baldini (www.silviabaldini.com) founder of the New Canaan, CT-based culinary group Strawberry and Sage (http://www.strawberryandsage.com/), recently won a grueling 12- hour competition on “Chopped.” She is the first woman chef in Connecticut to bring home a victory on the Food Network show with her award-winning sweet canederli dessert (think bread dumplings made with standard pantry ingredients).
Chef Baldini, who formerly had a career as an art director in NYC’s advertising world, is all about “chic and simple comfort” cuisine.
As someone who was always surrounded by food peeling, chopping, sautéing and stirring – “I’m Italian – I grew up with it,” she said, she was trained at the Cornell and ICC Institute in NYC with a degree in restaurant management, before heading to Cordon Bleu in London. After working as a chef at the Ritz, and doing staging at a variety of prestigious European Michelin star restaurants, she started her own event company.
The name – Strawberry and Sage -- pretty much sums up her philosophy. Baldini says she wanted the moniker of her business to combine a bit of both worlds – the savory and the sweet – both of which she likes to use in her cooking.
Fresh and local ingredients form the base for all she does. “The whole secret of cooking well is knowing how to use your ingredients,” she said. “I don’t like to use crazy things. Give me a simple beautiful tomato and I’m happy.”
Her inspiration for her craft, however, remains rooted in the art world where she first started, meaning everyday objects in nature, in life, driving to do errands, etc., get her juices flowing. She’s also big on striking a balance between how something looks and how it’s presented. “Being an art director was my first love,” she said. “I’ve always been involved in visual thinking and so when I cook, I combine the visual aspect with the taste and the food.”
Simple ingredients remain her starting point though she’s a big proponent of kicking things up a notch with interesting combinations. Among her go-to items: Mediterranean spices like Ras el hanout, za'atar, sumac, saffron and preserved lemons which add subtle flavor twists. For example, she likes to mix vanilla and scallop and lemon or use very tangy flavors to add sweetness. It’s as if, along with the pretty plate, you also get an unexpected surprise in each bite.
Chefs that have inspired her along the way include Massimo Bottura (http://www.osteriafrancescana.it), Yotam Ottolenghi (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk), Alice Waters (http://www.chezpanisse.com) and fellow Cordon bleu graduate Tara Norvell (http://www.okonomibk.com).
Working with some of these chefs made Baldini realize early on in her training that you don’t have to do one thing – you can combine a host of experiences and flavors.