Ask any pastavore and he will tell you: Michael White’s fusilli with red-wine-braised octopus and bone marrow is one of the greatest pasta dishes of the century, if not all time. Everyone who has ever tried it loves it. Well, that’s not entirely true. We do know one person, a certain critic, who claims to hate it. But he is a gloomy, disputatious old curmudgeon who, as a baby, would have given his own mother’s milk a bad review had his fat little fingers been able to work the Smith-Corona.
Anyway, as we were saying, ever since Marea opened five years ago, Michael White has been credited with and celebrated for having invented this fiendishly good concoction, and rightly so, we always thought. So imagine our surprise to learn that the man who might actually be responsible for the dish is one Kevin Sippel, the 37-year-old chef of Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey, which White’s former business partner Chris Cannon plans to open this fall.
In a recent New Jersey Monthly blog post announcing Sippel’s hiring and listing his bona-fides, Rosie Saferstein reports that Sippel was the chef de cuisine of Alto and a sous-chef at L’Impero who studied at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Asti and also with Paul Bocuse in Lyon. Then, at the end of the story, Saferstein drops this explosive little tidbit from Cannon: “He [Sippel] in fact created the octopus-bone marrow dish that was made famous at Marea.”
Sure, it’s common practice and, depending on the circumstances, perfectly fair for chefs to take credit for dishes created in their own kitchens under their supervision, and anyone who thinks that this isn’t done all the time is naïve. And we should take into account the fact that White and Cannon’s split was reportedly acrimonious. So maybe Cannon is giving his new chef, Sippel, more credit than he deserves for what might have been a collaboration.
Still, an online search regarding the origin of the Marea dish leaves more questions than answers.
For instance, in a 2012 Eater video with Jared Gadbaw, Marea’s executive chef, Gadbaw says: “Before Marea opened, Michael and I went to Italy for a couple of weeks, and we ate at ... one of Michael’s friend’s places in Campania, and he served us an octopus ragù. So when we got back, we started playing around with our own version. We had another dish at the time that we were using bone marrow for. At one point in time, somebody grabbed a handful and threw it in the pan with the octopus, and you know, the next thing you knew, we had a dish.”
A few months later, in a recurring feature called “The Five Dishes That Made My Career” on the food blog First We Feast, White lists the fusilli as the No. 1 dish that made his career. “It was by happenstance that we were making family meal at Alto years ago,” says White, “and we had octopus and marrow, and when we brought them together it was delicious.”
So what can we infer from all this? (1) We know that the octopus-bone-marrow fusilli, as White says, was born as a family meal at Alto, where Kevin Sippel worked, and not at Marea, which you might have surmised; (2) family meals are typically made by underlings and not by head honchos, so White’s role is presumably minimized by his own admission; and (3) the mysterious “somebody” Gadbaw mentions, who nonchalantly grabbed a “handful” of bone marrow and tossed it into the octopus ragù, was likely Sippel.
Was it definitely Sippel? And if so, was his contribution more than just a carefree doctoring of an existing sauce? Isn’t the emulsifying action of the bone marrow the key to the greatness of this dish? Will the curious case of the octopus-bone-marrow fusilli ever be solved?
We may never know, but we’re contacting all parties and asking for an explanation. We’ll keep you posted.