I was scheduled to meet with Fabio Viviani 45 minutes before his cooking demo on the main stage at the Sunset Magazine Celebration in Menlo Park, Calif. By all standards, it was a sweltering hot day. The type of heat that can suck the life right out of a person. But not Viviani. He seemed to have a bountiful amount of energy and never missed a beat as he greeted a continuous stream of fans and graciously posed for pictures.
Viviani is of course the affable Italian chef who shot to fame after starring on Bravo’s Top Chef on Season Five. Although he has appeared on the show twice, he has never taken home the title. Something he joked about when I asked about his time on the show.
“I lost the show twice, so it has not been that great for me as far as experience. But the showcasing experience, people seeing who I am and how I operate – that is good news. The fact I got kicked out twice – that is bad news.”
So, who is Fabio Viviani?
Born in Florence, Viviani only moved to the United States in 2006. He has retained much of his thick Italian accent, and each sentence that he speaks is punctuated with excitement. He is lighthearted, often self-deprecating and every bit as personable as you would imagine him to be.
After a few minutes of interacting with him you realize that he is not just a personality, but also an astute businessman. He rattles off a number of his business ventures. Five restaurants including the recently launched Siena Tavern in Chicago. A cookbook – Fabio’s Italian Kitchen – that was released earlier this year. A popular weekly web series on Yahoo called Chow Ciao. A slew of endorsement deals. And his newest venture, Comfort Mats by Smart Step Home®.
But you really only begin to understand who Viviani is and what drives him when he describes his upbringing back in Italy. He speaks of being very poor and how is family depended on food stamps. “My family did not have any money. I learned to do the best with anything I got…You have to get very creative when all you see for the week is egg and tomato,” he told me.
These experiences not only served as the inspiration for his culinary style, which he describes as “simple, laid back, family style and no fuss,” but as motivation for his success. “It translated into making business happen, being a hustler. I am the hardest working man in this industry,” said Viviani.
Back at the main stage, Viviani begins his demonstration on how to make fresh egg pasta and lazy meatballs. There isn’t an empty seat in the house, and despite the nearly unbearable heat the crowd continues to form outside the covered area. His seemingly magnetic personality is like a force field that just keeps drawing people in.
Like any good performer he works the stage. And for 30 minutes he keeps the audience laughing and engaged. As an onlooker you know that this is someone who is exactly where he belongs – on stage at a festival, on television in your living room or within a cookbook in your kitchen – as a fixture in people’s lives teaching them the joys of cooking and food.
He flubs the recipe a little and adds too much stock to the sauce. But nobody really cares — least of all Viviani.
“You cannot live by molding yourself to someone else’s opinion. I don’t want to be anybody. I want to be the best version of myself.”