A few weeks ago, I interviewed Biba Caggiano about her restaurant’s 20th anniversary and her new cookbook. Here is part one (of two) of our conversation. Enjoy!
SM: It’s been a while since we last sat down with you. So honored to be chatting with you!!
BC: Yes, thank you. Yes, I was on the cover, what 5 or 6 years ago?
SM: Yes, I’ve only been with Senior Magazine for about a year now, I am so overwhelmed to be here with you!
BC: Oh please, don’t say that, I am just like everybody else in this world.
SM: It’s true, though! (I laugh). OK, so, this restaurant’s been here for twenty years now. Please tell me about the Old Tavern Building and how your restaurant came to be located where it is.
BC: Well the building selected me, really. It was built in 1861, it was a landmark. It was considered the biggest watering hole in Sacramento. When I found it, they were beginning to renovate it, to fix it, and I don’t live too far away from here. When I saw it, it was such a beautiful building, it would be great if I could put a restaurant there.
SM: What were some of the dishes that you put on the menu when you first opened?
BC: I tell you that my menu when I opened was quite small. It doesn’t look at all like what I have now. I started out with the type of food that I knew better, that I knew well enough. I began with the dishes of my region, Emilia-Romagna, we began by making homemade pasta, (which nobody in Sacramento was doing at that time), we did all the traditional sauces. I began slowly with the recipes that I knew very well.
SM: So they were comparable to the recipes in your first cookbook (Northern Italian Cooking), then?
BC: Yes, actually, yes. My book came out before I opened the restaurant, it’s about 25 years old now.
SM: How old were your children when your restaurant opened?
BC: Well, one (child) was in college, and the other one was about fourteen…so, one was gone, and the other one was driving me crazy! (laughs)
SM: So how did you balance your home and work life so successfully?
BC: It was difficult. This is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I don’t know the exact number, but there is a ninety-something percentage of failure (in the restaurant business), so it’s really very tough. I started with no knowledge of the business end of the restaurant. What I knew was the food. I had been teaching cooking classes before, for about seventeen years, so I knew the food that I taught people was, people went crazy for, but I didn’t know anything about the business. So we hired good people in the kitchen, and each person helped out in the ways they could best contribute, but it was tough at first. I would work eighteen hours a day.
SM: When was the turnaround? When did you sort of see things begin to be profitable, and start to develop a real customer base?
BC: It was not the first year. I would say after three or four years the restaurant began to do decently. But I was driven, and I wasn’t going to fail. I was willing to work as many hours as it took and I am a very fast learner. I put everything I had into this.
SM: Tell me about your new book. I’ve heard it’s almost like of a tour book (of Italian cities) with recipes?
BC: Yes, exactly. I said, what can I do that is new, after seven books? You know, you can’t repeat yourself. A lot of my customers would say, “Biba, I am going to Italy, do you know of any good places where we can go to eat?” I say, “Sure!” See, I have files, I have been keeping things forever (lists of restaurants). I would jot down places to remember (that I visited during my travels). I said, to myself. “Why don’t I do something like that? Why don’t I do a very simple book, with recipes that are very accessible to everybody?” Another thing people ask is “Which of your books is the simplest? I like to cook, but I don’t like involved things.” So, I listened. In this book I am doing recipes that are approachable. Food that is good, but not intimidating. Plus, a little bit of a travel book with my favorite restaurants and food markets. You will see where to go and find out why people are so passionate about food!
Special thanks to M. Dunne of the major newspaper of our city!!
I read some of the stuff he's written about her before I met BC, and it really helped structure my interview (along with the cookbooks I checked out at the library). I was happy to go in prepared. Usually (admittedly) I am not that prepared because I handle so many other things in addition to my column. Not that I am complaining––I like what I am doing––but it is hard to be great at one thing when one is pulled in 700 different directions. ;)