In the culinary world, the meals which taste the best are the ones that are the simplest. When you have ingredients of the highest quality like seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits, grass fed sources of meat and wild game, the way in which you prepare these ingredients should be very simple. Any good cook or chef would agree, you don’t need to add a bunch of flavor to a dish with quality product. The addition of herbs or spices is meant to enhance the flavor of your ingredient, not cover it up. If you can keep this in mind when you are cooking, you really can’t go wrong. This was one of the hardest concepts to grasp as a young cook especially when I started my cooking internship in Vicenza, Italy under Chef Renato Rizzardi.
I became a bottom-of-the-totem-pole intern cook at a one star Michelin restaurant in Vicenza, Italy. This is La Locanda di Piero, one of the best and possibly the hardest cooking experiences of my life. I had gone there with already about four years of restaurant and catering experience and almost two years of culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. I had arrived with relative confidence, thinking it was just another kitchen, I got this! Really, this was almost just a cover up for being pretty anxious for being in a Michelin kitchen as the only American who didn’t speak a word of Italian! This was the first time I had ever been out of the US, much less, the first time I had ever been to Europe. It is about a 50 seat restaurant set in Montecchio- Precalcino in Vicenza. There wasn’t a whole lot around, a few small vineyards and the Alps off in the distance.
I shortly learned that I didn’t know anything! Not only did I not understand what they were saying but I soon found out that I didn’t really know how to cook. After I spent a couple dinner services sort of just observing and dishing out the amuse-bouche…pheasant soup with a poached egg, the chef told me I had to come up with something for staff meal for lunch the next day.
I basically had to use anything we had that was not expensive and not on the menu. When the chef would go to the market, he would typically pick up a protein for the meal. We didn’t know what we would get until that day. Assuming that these people I was cooking for have a very high standard because of the skill and knowledge of food that they have, I was petrified! As nervous as I was, I went in the next day with the intention to cook the best pasta with vodka sauce they would ever eat. As I was preparing this amazing dish, the chef walked in and asked me in his very strong Italian accent, “What are we having?” I confidently replied as I poured heavy cream into my tomato sauce, “Pasta with Vodka Sauce!” As he turned and walked out into the dining room, he muttered, “Typical American.”
This was an extreme blow to my confidence. Now knowing that I was being judged by not only the chef, but the other five or six people that I was cooking for, my anxiety level worsened. What’s worse, is that as I anxiously served this to them, I couldn’t understand what they were saying as I am sure I was being ridiculed. During the dinner, I was asked by the chef, why I used cream. My dumb-ass reply was: “…to help flavor the dish and the sauce.” He then told me I was not allowed to use cream in any of the following meals I was going to cook for them! The chef didn’t have a lot of respect for American chefs. He was taught by the “old school”. Quality ingredients are what makes a dish, not a mixture of spices, herbs and sauces finished with cream! Most people know of Gordon Ramsay of Hell’s Kitchen, or Kitchen Nightmares or some of the other shows he has been on. What most people don’t know, is that he became recognized for his talent in cooking because of his simplicity. He took really good quality ingredients and cooked them in a way to enhance that ingredient with much less on the plate. He didn’t cover it up with a complexity of flavors. Anyone can drown an overcooked scallop in a curry-cream sauce and make it palatable. What’s much harder, is to make that scallop taste like it’s the last meal with only butter, lemon, salt and pepper!
The chef at La Locanda di Piero had been in the US to cook for a couple years and noticed in many restaurants, that it was not about quality ingredients, it was about the cheapest. Many chefs had lost site of that or just never were taught. Vegetables, fruits, meats and seafood are not mass produced on factory farms with artificial growing techniques, out of season. The appreciation for food is very different there than here in most places, and he recognized that. His goal was to make me realize this. I was taught to appreciate quality ingredients. Those ingredients will stand up for themselves on a plate if the preparation and cooking technique is done right.
I have mentioned before about local, seasonal ingredients. This is another important part about quality, tasteful and nutritious ingredients. Fresh tomatoes simply should not be eaten out of season! I cannot stress enough, your food will taste better and be healthier for you when it is bought locally during its natural growing season. If you don’t know the growing seasons of fruits and vegetables, just do a Google search and it will be readily accessible!