Even though Fabio Viviani was born and raised in Florence, Italy, he’s proven himself to be quite a formidable culinary force here in the U.S. This Top Chef fan favorite and New York Times best-selling author appears as a recurring guest on popular TV shows such as Good Morning America, The Talk, and Ellen.
He serves as the quick-witted, charismatic host of the award-winning web series Chow Ciao! on Yahoo, and he regularly shares favorite recipes with fans through his expansive social media presence and “Recipeasy” website. He also has recently launched a business and lifestyle magazine christened KNOW-HOW.
As if that weren’t enough, the chef promotes his own line of Heritage Collection and co-branded Bialetti cookware, markets a popular selection of wines bearing his name, and just celebrated the grand opening of yet another popular Italian eatery called Bar Siena, in Chicago — he has other restaurants in the city as well as in California and Florida. Viviani’s delectable brand of fresh, scratch-made comfort food continues to take the country by storm, which perhaps makes his signature catchphrase “BOOM!” all the more appropriato.
But while Fabio’s numerous achievements reflect an intense passion for food, they also demonstrate an innate desire to simplify so that every bite can be shared with friends and family. For Fabio, food is a celebration of taste and tradition, with family at the center. And that family wouldn’t be complete without his beloved pets. We recently caught up with Fabio to talk about those pets and find out how they inspire his personal philosophies on life and success.
Dogster: Everything you do seems to be infused with a deep, enduring love of family. What does that word mean to you?
Fabio Viviani: I come from a big extended family — and when I was growing up, family was its own concept. You’re going through life together with these people who are closest to you. In our case, we were pretty poor, and we didn’t always have a lot to eat. In fact, one of my father’s favorite sayings was, “There’s too much month at the end of the money.” But we always made room for pets in our house, and we always had each other. This is what I knew — I wasn’t familiar with anything different. So any time around the family table was an occasion, and I was a happy kid.
Is it true that at one point, you’d considered becoming a veterinarian?
When I was very young, I did think I might want to become a vet. But then two things happened: One, I went to work at a bakery when I was 11 years old to help my family pay for my mom’s medical bills. And you know, I just realized how much I loved being around food. I loved making it. I’d get to bring some leftovers home once in a while; it was amazing.
The other thing that happened was I started to realize how lots of times, vets have to care for creatures who are suffering. This is heroic, don’t get me wrong — the animals need their help. But I just cannot watch an animal suffer. I mean, I’m a guy who doesn’t get shaken up too easily. You know, there’s a lot I can handle. But animal suffering — that’s something that can bring me to tears.
You’ve been involved with several animal-related causes. Please talk about some of those.
The humane treatment of animals is extremely important to me — in fact, I spent some time as a National Ambassador and Hero Dog Awards Judge for the American Humane Association. I’m also involved with the Chefs for Seals project through the Humane Society of the United States. I’m telling you, fishermen will actually shoot or club these helpless seal pups to death, to make money from their fur. Sometimes the seals are even skinned alive. We’re banding together to put a stop to this. [Author’s note: More than 6,500 restaurants and grocery stores are part of the Protect Seals campaign, in addition to about 800,000 people].
Then, of course, when it comes to helping shelter animals, my wife and I like to go out and get these big bags of good-quality dog food. We’ll go to the local shelters and just donate it. Even with a really busy schedule, there are always ways to help make a difference.
Tell us a little about your current pets.
Well, right now we have three cats and a five-year-old dog named Neiman. But the actual plan is to add a second dog. My wife always wanted a Pekingese so I said all right — we’ll get one pedigreed dog from a responsible breeder, and then our next dog will be a shelter dog. We’re expecting a new baby in a few months, so after that we’ll probably adopt our new dog from the shelter. We’ll name that one Marcus. So then we’ll have Neiman and Marcus.
What is Neiman like?
Neiman’s not a very active, doglike dog because he’s got these little legs. I mean, he can go up the stairs, but he doesn’t really know how to get back down because his legs are just so short. The first time he tried, he kind of just started to roll down. So, of course, he got scared, and we were even more upset. Now we pretty much carry him around, and my wife even got him his own doggie stroller.
Basically, Neiman is a dog who actually thinks he’s a cat. Unfortunately, none of our three cats could really give a crap about Neiman. But he makes himself known because he just plows through all their toys like a bull in a china shop. Our cats can’t ever leave anything lying around on the floor. So in a way, Neiman is like Mussolini. Very anarchic, but he just rules them all.
Given Neiman’s personality, what kind of shelter dog are you planning to adopt?
Neiman’s pretty low-energy, and he’s also pretty scared of other dogs. Our friends will bring their dogs over, and Neiman just basically goes and hides his face in the corner. Which is actually kind of funny because if Neiman hears a noise and he’s sitting right next to us on the couch or the bed, he acts like he’s a lion. He’ll just start to bark ferociously — well, he probably thinks it sounds ferocious, except to us it sounds more like a choked-up ostrich. But then we put him down on the floor, and he doesn’t do anything.
Like this one time we heard a noise in the basement, and Neiman followed me down there to check it out. But when we got there, I looked behind me, and I just see this partial furry face, this little doggie eye peeking around the edge of the door. He won’t start barking again until we show him nobody’s there. Like, “Okay, now I got this.” So we’ll need to get a dog with a nice, mellow personality. Frenchies are one of my favorite breeds, or maybe a Pomeranian so they’re both similar in size.
Obviously, pets have different temperaments — some are shy, others are more confident. You have an existing business/lifestyle/culinary intelligence magazine called KNOW-HOW, and you’re planning to kick off a new self-education initiative called the Know-How Leadership Academy in early 2016. Do you think people exhibit some of these same tendencies?
You know, there are similarities. Just like that example with Neiman, fear itself is a concept. It’s just an emotion, not reality. Now, danger is real — if someone actually does break into your house or you’re standing too close to fireworks, those things are dangerous. But I tell people that fear, as an emotion, comes from a lack of knowledge or self-confidence.
So, for example, cooking students don’t always realize that standing next to a pan with hot oil is, in many ways, safer than standing too far back. That’s because dropping things into the oil from a distance increases the odds that the oil will splash up. It’s easy to gain that knowledge; I just tell you.
But in other cases, people need motivation to get out and acquire the knowledge that will help them reduce fear and achieve their goals. With the Leadership Academy, we’re working with some of the most accomplished minds in America to develop practical guidelines that can help teach people how to maintain that motivated mindset. Ultimately, we’re trying to build a structure where underprivileged kids can get access to these resources. A lot of young kids are growing up in the same situation I was. They’ll of course need a willingness to work, but we can help give them a jump-start. [Author’s note: In addition to the Leadership Academy’s main web site, more information is currently available on Facebook.]
When it comes to facing our own fears and doubts, what lessons can human beings learn from dogs?
Here’s the thing: Our dogs don’t care if we’re tired, sick, down, confused, messed up … we come home, and they love us no matter what. As people, we need to have that kind of unconditional love for our lives. Most people don’t understand that our environment and our circumstances don’t predetermine our outcome. Where we choose to focus plays a big role in where we aim.
Dogs like Neiman might bark when they hear a noise, not even knowing what the noise could be. But as people, we can identify what makes us afraid and then work to conquer that fear. Life doesn’t care where we came from. I mean, think about it, shelter dogs can wind up being some of the best dogs ever. Our environment, our circumstances mean nothing. Look what I came from. If I can do it, so can you. Nothing is set in stone.
What does a celebrity chef like Fabio Viviani actually feed his dog?
I cook for Neiman twice a week, so we can also freeze what I make and use it later. I give him meals made with lean turkey and beef, chicken, rice, lots of veggies. When I’m not home, he gets a very good-quality kibble. He doesn’t eat our human food when I’m around, but now my wife — she maybe sneaks him just a little bit here and there when I’m away.
Let’s say it’s time to unwind. What does a beloved, loyal companion animal have in common with a nice bottle of Fabio Viviani wine?
Our wines come from the finest wine-growing regions in California. We focus on following the best winemaking practices, not on flashy packaging. So they’re chef-quality wines, but they’re fit for all occasions. The presentation is very relatable. Our wines don’t care who you are — they help bring friends, families together. I think wine helps to get us talking and laughing and sharing stories. Our pets do something similar. They bring us together, they help us find common ground. They don’t care who we are, or what we bring to the table. They just love us with all their hearts. They help make life better.
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.