Posted in FreshAira on October 01, 2013 by
Something that happened earlier that I’ll explain at the end:
Hong Kong, during a demonstration for the promotion of Italian cuisine; a plumpish Chinese lady is passing in front of a stand where a chef is doing that which he has specifically come to do; cook for the public. Nimbly, as only Chinese housewives know how, she takes a little white stick from a tray and puts it in her mouth in perfect Fantozzi (Italian cult film) style. After a couple of seconds, she looks at the chef with astonishment and disappears.
Pizzoccheri are fresh pasta typical of the Valtellina (Alpine Lombardy). They are made of buckwheat and are served with ribs, boiled potatoes, a lot of Casera cheese and flooded with melted butter.
A mountain dish, ancient, a bomb of calories but delicious.
Recently on the Web, I chanced upon a recipe of a starred chef:
Spherical Golden Pizzocchero; it describes a dish which is not very difficult; a ball covered with gold dust.
The other day on a television programme another chef proposed tuna Tartar on a disk of panettone.
That’s right, panettone!
On the Web, you can always view a famous two-starred Italian chef in video who explains in the tone of a bow-legged poet how he has spherifed eggplant Parmigiana, almost as if he had finally discovered the secret of cold fusion.
Clearly, I don’t doubt the professionalism of the chef in question at all; it’s just the dishes that I don’t understand.
As far as tuna with panettone is concerned, it’s not necessary to enlarge upon it much; the mistake is clearly visible even to those who don’t understand cooking. It’s common knowledge that pandoro (Veronese Christmas season cake) is used with raw tuna...
Other than the recent mania of spherifying everything, even peas, the other two dishes seem insipid to me. This observation of mine is obviously based exclusively on the approach of the chef to the dish and not on the result of his never having tried them.
Please understand, I’m not against evolution or revisiting traditional dishes. I’m against useless plates, plates that are fine in their own right and that serve to feed the chef’s ego more that to satisfy the guest’s appetite.
I wouldn’t want to exaggerate now, we are speaking here of some, let’s say, slightly hazardous dishes, nothing dramatic.
But there we have it: we shouldn’t dramatise cuisine. Some of the greatest chefs have done some bad dishes and yet they remain great chefs.
Sometimes when in a great restaurant, it can happen that we don’t like the dish; if we think that we haven’t understood the dish, our attitude is mistaken.
Italian cuisine is probably the most popular in the world, because it is a cuisine that doesn’t have to be understood. Our dishes speak a language that is universal and immediately understandable even before trying the dish.
A ball covered with gold dust full of pizzoccheri looks like the brass knobs of my grandmother’s bed and feasibly on Mars they might be more appetising than the original dish.
Little coco butter balls which look like little chocolates and taste of eggplant Parmigiana could at best be a culinary happening but will never have a future, and let me tell you why:
If we had had an interpreter for our Chinese housewife, we would have been able to explain the why of those strange little balls and maybe she would have been amused by trying them instead of disappearing. But if the original dish had been in the place of the little balls, the lady would have accepted a portion, she would have taken a seat and she might have even finished it with a good glass of wine. Without the need of an interpreter, she would have spoken about our cuisine and even Chinese housewives would have understood the Neapolitan dialect of eggplant Parmigiana.
Every year the Michelin Guide awards its latest stars; every year there is bickering; every year Italian chefs get pissed off because it appears that the Guide favours the ‘fancy French’ restaurants.
Nevertheless, we all dream of getting a star.
I don’t have one and I’m no snob; I would really love to have one and, to tell the truth, I feel a bit of wholesome envy of those who do.
For my birthday, my girlfriend gave me a star with my name from the NASA Webpage. The birthday card said; “This one is for ever and is far more valuable”! I thanked her, pretending to feel touched, but I really wished I could send her happily into orbit to accompany that star of mine...
But then, jokes aside, I’ve always asked myself how it’s done; how is it done in practice; who is it that gives you the star; how and when does it arrive?
I know that the new Guide always comes out around New Year’s, and I’ve always imagined that the chef, unaware, is visited by a messenger late at night, probably after service.
I imagine the messenger to be tall, blond and cold; an apparition found at the door of the still humble kitchen, illuminated by the neon lights, while the chef is preparing brazed she-ass and beef stew, and announces the grant of the star to the selected.
The immaculate grant.
It’s a waste of words to say that the messenger’s name is almost always Gabriel.
Of course, you’ll probably think that I have an overactive imagination, but I can assure you that some of the starred chefs I’ve met walk two spans from the ground, and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that when they’re in the kitchen alone, some try to multiply the buns and the sea bass or to revive a couple of lobsters, for nothing other than to lower the costs a little. Indeed, it seems that one chef, upon receiving the highest possible recognition, his third star, evidently in the state of mystical ecstasy, set forth to the nearby market railing against the dumbfounded merchants, overturning stands and crying; “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise up a restaurant.”
There is, therefore, no use in denying that Michelin makes even those dream who do not believe that it is an independent and impartial guide. One star is the fruit of a lot of work and research, and it brings glory and almost always business. Certainly, the criteria of the awards are subject to opinion; probably, being a French guide it tends to promote French interests, and frankly I don’t see why it shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, we Italians are not capable of creating an institution on par with Michelin; therefore, until we do, we’ll have to appeal to it as to the Holy Spirit.
Posted in FreshAira on February 28, 2013 by
This little handbook is dedicated to whoever is travelling around the world and wants to eat Italian while avoiding everything that has no more than an Italian appearance. In order to understand, to become acquainted with and to disentangle oneself from the wild and dangerous jungle of Italian restaurants abounding on the planet, in such a manner that no one is offended, let the following be taken lightly.
To conclude, I wish to clarify that there are restaurants around the world in which there are no Italians but you eat really well and the cuisine is genuinely Italian. The difference is the seriousness the love and the respect given to our cuisine.
Italians, carrying cardboard suitcases tied close with string, leaving their families and their country head off crying. They go off to live in lands in which they are barely tolerated and where they accept the most menial of jobs.
Some time ago, that is the way we were. But the world has changed and we have changed, too.
We no longer emigrate out of need or for fame; we emigrate out of choice. Many would disagree, but that is the way it is.
The restaurant industry is the sector we ‘export’ the most. Italian chefs and restaurant managers are in high demand. And other than independent restaurants, almost all luxury hotels have an Italian restaurant. This market sector is thriving, so Italian chefs are in constant movement. However, the cardboard suitcases and sad voyages into the unknown are gone.
We leave with the tools of the trade and the rest of the things we need; often fiancées or, wives and children are taken along and the biggest problem is not leaving one’s country but rather the baggage excess. We make sure that nothing is missing.
In a contract as chef on the Maldives, I recently included the condition of taking my cat along. There was an impasse for a couple of weeks until the authorisation arrived, signed by non other than the President of the Republic of the Maldives. The astonished faces of the islanders when they saw a chef arrive with a cat hid nothing of what they thought of me; I am sure that they still talk about it.
Other than the touch of colour, Italians who still emigrate still are no longer simply manpower; chefs and restaurant managers are requested these days for their professionalism, and for their unique skills and characteristics.
Periodically on our forum, there are hot debates about what is a reasonable salary for an Italian chef abroad. While it is true that we no longer travel with our cardboard suitcase and that we often stay in beautiful places with every comfort, it is also true that we have to work hard and that we are highly qualified specifically for that work.
But what is the right price for emigrating?
Should we really have the pretention of earning more than in Italy for moving abroad?
Well, let’s speak a bit about figures. Generally, a chef of an Italian restaurant of a five-starred hotel earns between $ 3,000 and $ 4,000 a month. Such contracts are pretty standard; they provide for bonuses and are very often tax-free. Often, on our forum appear considerably lower offers, which spark off the indignation of many colleagues.
It has to be said, that many hotel companies are in search of young employees to place in an already established structure more to ‘exhibit’ an Italian chef rather than to really desire to have one; so they offer pay which in Italy is offered to novice and which many consider to be directly offensive.
Also I consider that offers that are too low should not be accepted in order to hinder this tendency to the lowering of earnings. An Italian chef should be assumed exclusively because of his professional skills, and not simply because he is Italian. This said, it is clear that work offers are determined by the market, by demand and offer; we are all free to accept or refuse them. The only thing that we owe to our colleagues is to behave as professionals at all moments; when we choose work, when we are working, and when we terminate a work relationship. This will make our sector and our reputation grow, and indirectly will raise our salaries.
Kilometer 0 in the restaurant business does not exist. It is an anachronistic contradiction. And really it is a fantasy, only for publicity purposes.
But what is Kilometer 0?
KM 0 means using only products of the immediate area of our restaurant. It means only working using products that are in season. It means avoiding having a peach travel halfway around the globe, in February, just to satisfy our capricious clients.
OK, that said it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. But if we reflect just a bit, it is not really such a new idea. 40 or 50 years ago, trattorias and small restaurants worked exactly in this way, essentially for two good reasons. It was the only way possible, but above all it was the most cost effective way of working.
It is pointless to say that things today have changed. One of the mysteries of globalization is that vegetables and fruit often cost less when coming from further away. The seasons still exist but the seasonality of products on our table is present 365 day a year.
For this reason many of our clients struggle to understand why they do not find products in our restaurant that they easily see every day in supermarkets at an excellent price.
Let us be clear that the concept behind Km 0 is not wrong: eat better and pollute less. But it only makes sense if it is applied in its entirety and is economically feasible and sustainable.
Here is where a problem arises, who is truly able to follow the idea of Km 0?
Let’s completely exclude Italian restaurants abroad, and all other ethnic restaurants for obvious reasons.
Let’s leave out too all restaurants in big cities.
The only people who can truly follow Km 0 are the few agri-tourisms or the even fewer restaurants that are located in rural areas blessed with an abundance of resources. These are businesses that produce and cultivate a big part of what is used in their kitchens. These restaurants follow the philosophy behind KM 0 as their unique distinctive feature, not any desire to follow a trend. Their clients already know what to expect, and in fact are pulled in for this reason.
Finding on a restaurant menu some type of dish or product proudly originated from Km 0 makes one smile, considering that a good part of what is used in the kitchen has probably traveled the world three times.
That said, buying everything possible locally and using the freshest seasonal products is the responsibility of every chef or restaurateur, but it is simply common sense.
We, the Italian chefs who work abroad, are comfortably seated upon Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, lazily stretched out on Tiramisù and have our heads resting softly upon cushiony Mascarpone.
Italian cuisine is famous around the world and we chefs have the not so simple task of having our guests eat as if they were in Italy. We have a mission; promote our cuisine, our products, and – why not also? – promote our country.
The problem is that our classic dishes are so famous and renowned that we are getting lazy, we are resting on our laurels, or if you wish, on the laurel.
It’s true; there are some dishes that are difficult to remove from the menu. They are those dishes which have made our cuisine the most popular in the world and which all our guests around the world expect to find in any classic Italian restaurant. Let’s face it; the temptation of living on rent attracts.
So then, we have to tackle this laziness. If it’s true that the overwhelming majority of the Italian chefs abroad are not required to produce creative cuisine but rather to produce our traditional cuisine with a modern flair, it’s also true that this doesn’t mean that they necessarily remain immobile.
It’s as if we wanted to promote Italy’s artistic heritage by always exhibiting the same ten beautiful works of art, while forgetting that a good part of the world’s artistic heritage is to be found in Italy too. The same reasoning can be applied to cooking.
So then, we ought to seek out dishes to be reproduced abroad from our boundless heritage of regional dishes, and many of them may well be unknown to the bulk of Italy’s huge public.
Let it be clear that this idea of mine is neither new nor original. However, things today have changed. Now we can prepare dishes in Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Sidney, something that some time ago was impossible to do. Globalization has made it possible to obtain our products in excellent condition in many countries of the world.
Today, we can venture to do much more and we should approach our regional cuisine differently. Now, we select those dishes which are adapted to our restaurant, to our guests and to the country we work in. We modernise them without distorting them, we inform our guests of their histories because they are looking for that information too.
We carry out the marketing of the dish, we give it the importance it deserves, we launch it as a classic, because that’s what it is – a classic of Italian cuisine.
We treat our dishes as books or as new hits to be launched on the market. This could be GVCI’s new initiative to follow the IDIC, the International Day of Italian Cuisines.
We have dishes that are pearls hidden, just waiting to be discovered and launched on the international market. Let me give you one of dozens of examples: La focaccia al formaggio di Recco, Recco cheese focaccia, a totally regional dish delimited to a very small area, is prepared in San Francisco at the Farina Restaurant and in Singapore at the InItaly Restaurant. If this dish became more popular at international level, it would bring in tow a growing consumption; fresh Recco cheese is purely Italian and could enjoy the same fortune as Mozzarella.
If we are bothered by always being represented by pizza and a mandolin, we ought to supply our guests, worldwide, with another look at things. Let’s give our guests a little more to remember and to talk about. Let’s have our guests discover another Italy, other the than the one they already know or think they know. The entire Italian Chamber of Oenogastronomy would benefit from it.
Today, to be a chef is to be cool.
I’m 42 years old and, while I was at hotel school, being the cook for many was a shift job. When no other alternatives were left, I worked as a tile setter, a plumber, a mechanic or as a cook and there was nothing very cool about it.
Twenty years have gone by and some things have changed.
On television, there are more chefs than dancers and, tragically, there are even chefs who dance... Cooking programmes and reality shows dedicated to chefs abound.
Some time ago, the stereotype of a chef was a big man, somewhat over-weight and bald. The wine which didn’t finish in his cooking quenched his thirst and gave him a nice ruddy and satisfied face. This was confirmed when I announced to my father that I wanted to be a cook instead of the captain of a spaceship and he answered me that I would end up fat, bald and probably alcoholic.
These days, the modern chef takes obsessive care of his image.
When looking for work, we are required more and more to entertain the guests and to speak different languages. The more we progress, the more the work of a chef becomes that of an entertainer. Soon, to hire us, they won’t interview us but rather we’ll have to pass their castings. Other than photos of our dishes, we’ll have to attach an assortment of photos of ourselves in different unnatural poses and parading in outfits of various colours and makes to our CV’s. Those chefs who know some dance steps will have an advantage, while the pause for singing will be obligatory for all.
These days chefs must stay in shape. Photographic services for web pages, specialised magazines and billboard advertising have become routine. Now, no more wine; chefs have turned into fitness hounds of the gym and workouts. The uniforms are necessarily tailored and damned snugly fitted.
Now it’s no longer shift work, to be a cook is a glamorous job! Boys now dream of becoming chefs and of having a TV show all for themselves.
Puppets, Big-Jim-style, which reproduce the great chefs of the moment and let our youngsters dream and play, have just been released on the market. The most requested are: the Bastard Chef, blond hair and evil grin; the Ascetic Chef, dishevelled hair, beard and the air of an annoyed intellectual, escorted by seven small, reverent critics; the Fat Chef, red hair, ponytail and sausage necklace; the Ninja Chef who slices sushi with a katana and of course, the Molecular Super Chef, with superpowers and a thunderbolt in his hand, a little like Zeus. The figure albums and videogames will soon be available.
OK, I admit that I’ve probably exaggerated a bit. However, this is the distorted image that the media are giving about us chefs and our work. I’ll stop here for today; in a little while I have an appointment with my cosmetician. My follicular transplant is already booked for next year.
Giotto or Raffaello, Verdi or Beethoven? Inter or Milan? As opposed to the last of these comparisons, which is easily resolved in favour of the first team, aren’t the first two as objectively difficult to answer, as it is difficult to say which is the best cooking in the world? Every nation believes that it eats better than all others. The French have been so certain of being the best that, for years now, they have isolated themselves into a ball of self-exultation. It might even appear that the most recent NASA space mission was, in reality, a mission to rescue the French who’d already arrived on Mars.
More seriously, however, we must remind ourselves that traditional Mexican and French cuisines have been declared intangible cultural patrimonies of humanity by UNESCO, while Italian cooking has simply been relegated under Mediterranean diet in order to receive a somewhat comparable recognition. This serious mistake should be corrected by trying gain Italian cuisine, in and of itself, this recognition which it doubtlessly deserves.
The majority of Italians are ready to claim that we have the world’s best cuisine. This is a claim, however, often made without knowledge of the facts, in a somewhat nondescript manner, covering the eyes with classic, yet still excellent slices of local salami. It is, nevertheless, a case of sustainable national pride and, furthermore, we certainly are one of the world’s oenogastronomic super-powers. Those of us who work in different sectors of restaurant service in Italy and, even more so, those of us who work abroad should, before making claims of triumphalism, take our work more seriously. The competition is really tough and being Italian simply isn’t enough to be a great chef, have great restaurants and the best products. Being a super-power just isn’t enough to maintain these qualities. Abroad, it is essential to understand that we don’t only represent ourselves and our interests; in a special way, we represent Italy and our culture, if for no other reason than because it is our guests who offer us work and do so because they see us as being such representatives.
If we accepted all of these responsibilities, we would finally succeed in creating a movement, a system, a model of Italian oenogastronomy, in which everyone would work together, united, rather than for their own glory, to promote the entire system, without ridiculous jealousies and the pettiness of village clerical ceremonies, because too often Italians abroad do themselves the worst damage. Let’s promote professionalism, let’s isolate the sly guys and gals and those who strive to improvise something they’re not. Let’s help the small Italian producers to export that which is their best. Let’s exclude all those who take advantage of the all-too-typically Italian shortcuts. The French have worked in this manner and have thus obtained great results. Let’s follow that example while keeping our feet on the ground. Then and only then, other than having the most popular cooking in the world, we could think of our cuisine as being the best. Whatever, let’s let it be others to state this claim, it’d certainly be worth far more.
I have to confess it and get it off my chest; among the pile of lies I’m guilty of, I’m also guilty of false reporting! I know it’s shameful. I really regret that I’ve dragged the names of two colleagues of mine into the witness protection programme. At present, I’m writing from an undisclosed place. Tripadvisor and Zagat are among the best-known pages which allow you to review restaurants of more or less the whole world, and they aren’t the only ones, the Web are full of them.
Recently in Italy, polemic was unleashed in some magazines, “restaurants against on line reviews”! Some restaurants literally threatened class action against a webpage. The problem is the business manipulations. Positive false reviews are a juicy present for the restaurant together with its purveyors of restaurant quality foodstuffs. Generally anonymity, which these pages guarantee, makes them the victim of a discrete number of false reviews made for reasons of fraudulence as for others. There’s the individualistic competitor who places poisonous reviews, but then also chefs and restaurateurs who in the guise of guests under improbable pseudonyms fix themselves in fantastic reviews in order to report the rating their own restaurant to be one of acceptable level.
The problem of false reviews is still easily solvable with technical devices. The real question is whether these pages, regardless of the false ones, are acceptable.
On one hand, Giuseppe Zanotti, chef of il Falcone, one of the best restaurants of Minsk, Byelorussia, keeps the restaurant full all day every day, but it’s far from being in first place and he considers it to be a problem. On the other hand, Francesco Torelli, chef of the Figaro restaurant of Irkutsk, Siberia, is Number 1 on Tripadvisor and other pages. In his case, Francesco obviously thinks that the pages are acceptable. Donato De Santis, celebrity chef in Argentina and chef of the Da Donato restaurant of Buenos Aires and Ignazio Podda, executive chef of the Sandal Resorts in Jamaica demand the right of not appearing on Internet pages of undemonstrated seriousness.
The question is complex and multifaceted: the zone, the type of restaurant, the average age of its guests, the number of reviews and so on. If this system doesn’t always rub chefs or restaurateurs well, then neither do gastronomic critics. Accustomed to digest professionally even the worst plates, this competition from the barbaric hordes of pseudo-critical gastronomists without licence and seen as not possessing the necessary competence, proves, let us say, indigestible to them.
But are we sure then that that’s the way it really is? I don’t think so. Some of a restaurant’s guests acquire the right and therefore the competence of judging the quality of service received. Certainly, professional reviews are something else; writing them is not for just anybody, among other things, competence and dedication are necessary. To conclude, it’s possible to think that, in a not-so-distant future, there will be specialised webpages which will reach such degrees of seriousness, acceptability and more than anything else, the number of reviews which could rival and beat the most highly acclaimed traditional guides, if not in terms of prestige, certainly in terms of popularity and commercial return.
Let us welcome the Barbarians...
We Italians are handy at doing a lot of things, and one of those, among the many others in which we excel, is the art of indignation. It’s almost a matter of genetics; we become indignant very easily.
At present on the GVCI forum, we are debating lemongrass, an aromatic herb widely used in Asiatic cooking. All this has arisen from an intervention by Rosario Scarpato, which has been answered in the Gazzetta Gastronomica by Stefano Bonilli, the founder of the Gambero Rosso, in his editorial “Il rispetto di una cucina diversa” (“Respect for a different cuisine”). Summarising and simplifying the various interventions, Scarpato sustains, together with the majority of the GVCI chefs I believe, that using lemongrass in Italian cuisine has no sense. Bonilli replies to this that Italian cuisine should be open to foreign contamination and that this can only benefit a style of cooking which should not remain stagnant. I can assure you that Scarpato doesn’t have the intention of becoming the new leader of the powerful lobby against the cultivation of lemongrass. I have in fact been told that he’s been seen gobbling down Tom Ka Gai, a typical Thai soup based on lemongrass, under cover in an alleyway in the southern outskirts of Bangkok.
Lemongrass is only an example. The question in a nutshell is; if we allowed Italian cuisine abroad to adapt to or to be contaminated by local flavours, would this cause confusion amongst our foreign guests? Everyday, they eat lemongrass at home and in the restaurants they go to for lunch. The large majority of these guests of ours doesn’t know what the true flavours of Italian cooking are and wouldn’t distinguish between a supposed Italian restaurant which prepares spaghetti alla bolognese with chili or linguini alla Giuglio Cesare and a genuine Italian restaurant. However, what bothered Bonilli most was the definition which Scarpato had given to arie; he had labelled them “little foams!” Neither did Paolo Marchi like this definition. In fact, it was described as a “fall in style;” parallels were drawn with the rejection, in that moment, suffered by Gualtiero Marchesi because of the open ravioli in his innovative cuisine. And all this “gastronomic indignation” because the term “little foams” was interpreted as being derogatory. Really, I believe that the “-ette” (“schiumette” is the Italian word used by Scarpato) is just a diminutive. It’s simply a way of stating what arie truly are: a brilliant innovation which is pleasant to use now and then in some dishes. Sometimes, arie are used to give the airs (the literal meaning of “arie”) of being an innovator and, in that case, they become neither more nor less than just little foams.
And while we discus about little foams and lemongrass, Mario Caramella, in Singapore in his restaurant InItaly, proposes a bollito misto (boiled dinner) in a modern key and understandable for the Asian market and with absolutely authentic flavours. Once again, Italian cooking without lemongrass is stagnant? Well, I still say; “it’s in motion” in defiance to all the arrows of the “holy innovation.”