Sunday, September 6, 2009

Trattoria Life Starts

I live above a trattoria in Italy.

The time in ALMA school is over now, and all of us from George Brown Chef School in Toronto, and ALMA in Italy, are out on stage, at trattorias, restaurants, hotels and fine spas all over Italy. Some students have gone to small places in Sicily, some to large cities. One is in Venice, one in Bologna. Students are in Savona, Piacenza, Cortona, Cuneo, Rome, Parma; all over the place. ALMA has placed us with the finest cooks and chefs in Italy.

A trattoria is not a large restaurant ... it is more of a small, intimate operation, run by two or three people, completely dedicated to the typical produce of the area. For me, the ‘trattoria’ implies a work-in-progress, a personal investigation on the part of the Chef.

In Italy the idea of ‘typical’ is everywhere in the food world ... I see advertisements for typical food on little bars, trattorias, almost everywhere. It is a concept that most people here take enormous pride in, and have deep concern for. Typical implies respect for the land (so it can keep producing), for the methods used, for the presentation, cooking methods, wines available, even the manner of presentation (see the previous blog about Mr. Marchesi for deeper detail on this.) Manner and style are very important here ... nothing is just cranked out and banged down in front of customers who happen to lurch through the doors ... the choice of where to dine, when and with whom is carefully and deliberately made. (Canadians who have not travelled much have SO much to learn from this concept!)

I have the good fortune to work with Chef Cristian Zana at his trattoria, “Trattoria All’Isola” in Cogollo, near Vicenza, about 100 km to the west of Venice. Chef has had the trattoria open for about 7 years. He runs the kitchen and his delightful partner, Sylvia, runs the front-of-house operation. Sylvia is a sommelier, highly-trained and knowledgeable. Sylvia and Chef have welcomed me with open arms into their life of work and play. They are bright, very talented and enthusiastic. And they set one furious pace! Everything here is hand-made. We get along well in a mix of their excellent Italian and our self-generated mash-up of English and Italian. Their concern for my learning is strongly evident. They are unfailingly kind and generous.

A few examples will suffice, I think, to demonstrate the furious pace. I arrived on Friday at about 4 in the afternoon, and after taking a fast nap of 25 minutes , and taking time to change into whites, I went to work in the kitchen starting at about 5 until 1 in the morning. We served 2 people that night ... customers linger ...

Chef had me watch some operations and executions for the first 20 minutes, firing off fairly rapid Italian mixed with some English. Then I had to start producing ... and managed to. Last night (my second in the trattoria) we served 17 customers (a large number for this small place and tiny kitchen) ... our work evening started at about 5 PM and we walked out of the restaurant together at 1:45 AM to go for pizza! I rolled into bed just before 3.

Chef had me making parts of dishes ... steak tartare, prep of many vegetables, making bread, making pasta, making a kind of vegetable tortellini, plating dishes, making octopus salad, peeling spuds, carrots and running for him to the refrigerator (up a flight of ancient stairs), to the freezers, to the patisserie area, helping with making sauces, preparing rabbit ragout, preparing duck legs, running a vacuum-seal machine, forming pasta frolla into tiny baking dishes, and making it all a joy! His Mum comes in at night and runs the dishwasher and cleans, and Sylvia looks after making sure everything goes through the door on time, in order. What an operation.

And what a joy to be part of ... work hard and play hard. As Andrew, one of the other George Brown students said when we were all together at ALMA, “Face it ... We’re a bunch of adrenaline junkies getting our fix playing with sharp objects and peoples’ digestive systems.” He was right.
Everything we were taught at George Brown Chef School in Toronto and at ALMA is absolutely correct. Thanks, George Brown and ALMA.

With this entry are three photos only ... the kitchen at the trattoria and one of the general area of the town. And one of chef Zana and Sylvia.

Cogollo is deep in the Dolomites, and when I look out of my window in the morning I gaze across the road and village at gorgeous mountain scenery and a little hamlet. Cogollo will be home for almost 3 months for stage.

Today’s question is from Chef Zana ... when you put food on a plate, what are you doing?

The Marchesi Code

The past week has been an absolute blur, so for those of you who have been waiting ... just waiting! for another blog entry, I’m sorry, but this is the best I have been able to do. As you read the unfolding story below, I think you’ll understand why ... I am writing from my little room above a trattoria in Cogello ... it has been quite a week ...

Let’s see ... about 30 – 35 years ago a remarkable man, Gualtiero Marchesi (said mar-kay’-zie) single-handedly reinvented Italian cuisine with his book, “The Marchesi Code”. He approached food, cooking and living as an Italian with a strong philosophical focus, reflecting a sensibility of the possibility of art, nourishment (in every sense) and a deep and abiding understanding of what it means to him to be Italian. In this remarkable cookbook and personal statement he elaborates Italian cooking and culture through 13 recipes. (For the interested, you can order the book in English through )

Consider a cookbook, an entire cooking school, arranged around these 13 principles: harmony, beauty, civilization, colour, genius, taste, invention, lightness, myth, territory, tradition, truth, simplicity. These are what my cooking school, ALMA, in Colorno, Italy, is trying to share, get us cooks to consider and aim towards, to be both an initiation and a portal. Sound too weird for words? Try it! This is all our teachers here have been trying to do ... get us all to think more simply. Most of us have our heads so busy with detail that we forget the big stuff. We’ve been given time to consider, to become open, to the big stuff. Maestro Marchesi spent almost an hour with the George Brown students on Thursday of this week, talking about life and answering questions. We didn’t spend too much time talking about the ‘how’ of cooking, but quite a lot on the ‘why’ that he wrote about in his cookbook, and spent his whole professional and personal life developing. Quite a remarkable man, somewhat shy, self-effacing, with a delicious grin that lights him up from the inside. Our cooking teachers at ALMA all worked in his kitchen when he owned a Michelin three-Star restaurant (the first in Italy). Mr. Marchesi refuses to call himself a chef ... he is a cook, embodying everything that the professional cook is and can be.

To get there, we have to understand what we have to work with and who we are, and the tours of producers, of craftspersons’ life-work, has been a series of almost dreamlike trips. The farm visits, the cheesemakers, the prosciutto makers, everyone has been dedicated their whole lives to making something as perfectly as is possible, with the utmost respect for detail, for history, for the area, for every possible input and outcome. If all this sounds too woo-woo for words, let me assure you it is not. Some of the trips started VERY early (up before 5 AM for long trips), and often back late. One of our tour days started at 5 and we got home at half past midnight, and had to be in the kitchen ready to roll before 8 in the morning. Hard work and hard play go together. What a blast! Giovanni, our (probably exhausted) bus-driver is a saint.

An example ... Felsina Winery and olive grove. This gorgeous place is built around three principles; utmost knowledge of the land, respect for the processes of history and customer need, and finding a life balanced properly, with time to work and time to stop and enjoy what one can do. We were welcomed to the winery, given tours of the land, shown the winery and olive oil presses, then greeted by the present owner. His philosophy is profound and simple too ... make something as perfectly as his trained, caring hands can craft, then give it all to his children and hope that they can, and will, do the same. The winery has been in the family for almost 300 years, expanded by the father of the present owner, and is situated in buildings over 1000 years old. The wine ages in history, literally! The olive oils (there are 4 varietals) are presented just as enthusiastically as the gorgeous wines. The wines are available at the LCBO in Ontario (look under Felsina, or Verardenga) and are worth every penny. The family treated us to a gorgeous lunch and extensive, guided wine and oil-tasting.

Our ALMA program included an evening B-B-Q on a farm in the rolling hills of Tuscany. What an evening ... the finest foods imaginable, an outside location, and then a group of local historical entertainers came by and sang typical songs of the area, sharing songs about philosophy, life-troubles and ways of growing as one ages. As Chef Tomaselli told us, we were in for a treat he could not really explain, and he was right. I took a moment out of the evening and texted to my wife “We are having dinner under a Tuscan sun!”. What a gift from ALMA and Italians to us ... examples of the very finest that Italy is, and has to offer, not only to us but to itself.

Question for us all today ... how do we make our dinners special ... how do we make our own Tuscan suns shine?