At just 6 years old, Silvia Barban learned how to cook from her beloved grandmother in Northern Italy. At 10, Barban’s parents divorced and her father and grandmother died. To soothe her broken heart, she started to spend more time in the kitchen. “Cooking comforted me,” she explains.
Despite women like her grandmother running home kitchens, Italy’s restaurant culture is dominated by men. But Barban not only trained to be a chef at the prestigious E.Maggia institute in Stresa, Italy, she also started working for top Italian chefs such as Gualtiero Marchesi and Giancarlo Perbellini.
For a woman, opening a restaurant in the United States is much easier than in Italy. Almost half of restaurant owners or co-owners in America are women, and after a few years of being a restaurant consultant, sous chef and executive chef at various restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Barban became the executive chef and co-owner of LaRina Pastificio & Vino, a pasta-focused restaurant located in Fort Greene.
Barban has fought hard in her kitchen to prove that her food is not only at the same level as that of a man’s, but often, above it. “We are better,” she laughs, saying that she sees differences between the ways men and women cook. “We have to be more tough.”
She also believes women take a lot of chances in the kitchen. Her signature dish, for example, is a smoked spaghetti with garlic confit, Calabrian chilies, hazelnuts and olive oil. Inspired by both Italian and American cuisine, it is an unexpected, daring dish.
What inspires a chef to smoke spaghetti? In Barban’s case, it was a large meat smoker, which she spied while on a trip to visit restaurants in the Napa Valley. After drinking a few aloholic beverages, she thought, Why not smoke spaghetti?
The restaurant’s lasagna, with layer upon layer of thin sheets of spinach pasta, Bolognese and béchamel sauces, could easily be shared on a date, while the ravioli, with soft burrata, pesto and pine nuts, is well partnered with a salad made with varieties of sharp and mild radishes, including a slim, jewel-like one with the delightful name “English Breakfast.”
Some of the most complex items on the menu appear to be deceptively simple: duck ragù with just the right amount of pecorino and thyme is tossed with gigli (campanelle) pasta, and the porchetta—with slow-cooked Berkshire pork belly, broccoli rabe and farro—is as tender as it comes.
2017 was the year that finally exposed some of the Harvey Weinsteins and Mario Batalis of the world, yet despite the apparent advances of women, the World Economic Forum says in a new report that “equality is in retreat.” Supporting women-owned businesses is one way to combat some of this inequality, and in the restaurant industry, evidence shows that having women leaders and restaurant owners can improve the workplace environment for all women working in restaurants, whether in the front or the back of the house.
Lucky for all of us, contributing to gender equality tastes delicious, at least when Barban is in the kitchen. Make sure to end your meal by trying either the house-made panna cotta with salted caramel or the banana tiramisu for dessert. Or, all things equal, try them both.