As the daughter of New York artists Francesco and Alba Clemente, Nina Clemente knows a thing or two about how to make a plate look nice. This summer, the chef and owner of di Alba, an Italian-inspired café in Los Angeles, will bring her keen eye and flair for Mediterranean cooking to The Standard Plaza, a public square outside of The Standard Hotel in downtown New York City. Ahead of the opening, we caught up with Clemente to discuss her menu, the art of plating, and her incredibly chic chef jacket.
I love your chef jacket. How long have you had it?
"Zac Posen designed it! I went to school with him since I was eight years old. So last summer I asked him to make me a chef jacket. He's really into cooking—he's putting out a cookbook in October—so he happily agreed."
Tell me about the new menu at The Standard Plaza.
"Last year we did pizza from a wood burning oven. This year, shifted the concept to these beautiful boards that are very bountiful. The whole idea is to pull people together and engage and interact over these boards: there's charcuterie, cheese, beautiful tartines. Then we have a bunch of mains: swordfish, branzino, steak, bolognese. Those are a little bit more composed, but there's still that shareable element. It's all feel good food."
I read that the food was inspired by upbringing on the Amalfi Coast.
"I was very fortunate to spend my summers in Amalfi—the actual town. Most people, when they think of Amalfi, they think Positano, Capri, the glamorous places. I grew up in Amalfi the 8,000-person fisherman town. It's still tragically beautiful—all of these houses stacked in this little valley on the Mediterranean—but my first kiss was also recorded by 20 people. Everyone knew everyone! Our house had this tiered garden, so my mother and I would pull these incredible vegetables straight from there. Everything was so clean and fresh."
What's the best dish your mom makes?
"The bolognese is an ode to my mom. Growing up, it was very much the special meal. Meat was always very luxurious—it was that special holiday meal. The south is much more seafood-heavy."
Do you have a favorite summer drink?
"We do a Bootsy Collins, which is a Tom Collins-style drink made with vodka, fresh basil, and a housemade bergamot sour—bergamot, a little sugar, and a touch of lemon—and topped with prosecco. It's straight from the Amalfi coast, reinvented."
What would be your ideal summer meal?
"I would start with a charcuterie platter, because I don't eat tons of meat, but, funnily enough, Italians eat lots of pork. So some speck, mortadella, focaccia, some marinated olives—all of the notes you'd want to hit on a hot summer day. Then I'd follow that up with a swordfish on grilled polenta with cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and capers. Then, if I'm sharing, a steak with dried porcini mushrooms and a side of crispy potatoes, because I'm a sucker for them. I'll serve them with a little lime yogurt dip that cools you down a little. Probably a freekeh salad too. And cherry gelato for dessert. I'm a big eater. [Laughs]"
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What's your best cooking advice for novice chefs?
"Don't hover over your food while you're cooking; let it do its thing. When I was cooking in my teens, I was pretty terrible because I would just stand and wait, then you start doubting yourself. And the best tool you can ever have, aside from your hands, is a sharp knife. I like Shun knives."
You're a pro at plating. How do you go about it?
"For me, it's all about color, texture, shape. It's like I'm choosing a canvas and then I get to paint with my ingredients in 3D. I draw a lot from art and interiors—I love Athena Calderone's Instagram. The beautiful thing with food is that I can always rearrange and transfer to a new plate."