Feeding the Haute and the Hungry

Interview by Monica Parpal |
Culinary Personalities

For 26 years, Executive Chef and Proprietor Bruno Serato has helmed Orange County landmark Anaheim White House Italian Steak & Seafood Restaurant. Housed in an historic 1909 building, this award-wining restaurant is known for its elegant service and 12 spectacular private dining rooms—many with painted Italian-style frescos and most named after U.S. Presidents. Serato himself is known the world over, both for his culinary excellence and his philanthropic achievements. Recently, he was knighted by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for his accomplishments. DiningOut had the pleasure of speaking with Sir Chef Serato about his career, his cuisine, and his proudest moments.

What do you think are the biggest differences between cooking in a restaurant in Italy and a restaurant in California?

 Definitely the culture. Italian people believe their mamma's food is the best, while people here go to restaurants for the best food. People around the world like different types of food, and you have to adapt your style to the region where you work. I had to figure out that balance.

Your cuisine has been described as one of the first examples of “California cuisine.” What does that term mean to you?

To me, Californian cuisine means lighter flavors and cool presentation. It's a mixture of French, American, Asian, and Italian influences. Cooking Asian-style cuisine was new to me at first, but it gave me the opportunity to do more with the ingredients. With California cuisine, the presentation is especially important—I always strive for that “wow” factor.

Some areas of California are similar in climate and conditions to regions of Northern Italy. Are you able to source many of your ingredients locally? Do you import anything from Italy?

I source a lot of my vegetables from local farms here in Southern California, which offer the best produce. I do get a lot of stuff from Italy, like pasta, cheeses, prosciutto, and tomato sauce—the very best. I also offer escargot on the menu, which, of course, comes from France.

Is there a menu item at Anaheim White House that most closely represents your style or personality?

One of the my greatest items is the Lobster Ravioli. It's a very delicate appetizer, with lobster, fresh basil, Japanese ginger, and citrus. But as a representation of my country, I'd have to choose the Osso Buco Milanese, a 16-ounce braised bone-in veal shank. We are also offering a wider selection of steaks starting this year, including a NY Steak and Roasted Bison from North Dakota.

The restaurant itself occupies an early 1900s era home with 12 different private dining rooms. Do you have a favorite?

My favorite room is the one I call the Bobby Ryan room, after a top NHL hockey player for the Anaheim Ducks. Because we have 12 private rooms, the restaurant is a great place for business dinners, romantic occasions, or family gatherings. The outside has remained largely the same since 1909, but I've redesigned some of the interiors. I love art, so I wanted to put an Italian touch inside this grand villa. Four of the twelve rooms have Italian fresco-style paintings on the walls, including the Bobby Ryan room.

You've made it a priority to give back to your community by serving free spaghetti dinners to as many as 300 homeless children every night for the past seven years. To date, that's half a million dinners. What's your favorite memory of doing this community service?

My best memory is that of a seven-year-old boy I met during our first dinner in April of 2005. Our pasta was the first pasta he'd ever eaten. When you feed a child for the first time, you never forget it.

You've won multiple humanitarian awards and restaurateur awards over the years. In all you've accomplished, what are you most proud of in your career to date?

Probably the CNN Heroes award in 2011. I was recognized before a worldwide television audience. That was an amazing event.

You've owned your restaurant for about 26 years now. What lessons have you learned that you would pass along to aspiring restaurateurs?

Get ready to work. 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're not ready to do that, stop now. If you work that much, and very hard, you can make it. But it will not be easy.

You've accomplished so much. What goals do you have for the future?

I want to get more restaurants to follow my project, which is feeding underprivileged kids in their own cities. If every chef in this country fed kids every day, then we would not have hungry children. That's my goal.