I spent a few days in New York battling the cold (-16 degrees centigrade, if you consider the wind chill factor), trying to see and taste as much as possible.
It’s not easy at those temperatures. I did manage to visit the new Whitney Museum designed by Renzo Piano, and at a certain point, exploring the galleries, I started thinking about something that’s been on my mind for a while: the importance – and the risk – of contamination. Piano is an Italian contaminator, one who has left magnificent marks from Japan to America, by way of Italy, like many other men and women who have always brought the excellence of our country to the world. And those who leave almost always end up being reshaped by the experience, and they bring back ideas and intuitions from beyond our borders.
But how does contamination work for a young person going into my profession today? How much does it cost? How much is it worth? It’s not easy to answer.
Italian cuisine is the result of stratification: like a deposit of slate, a cross-section of Italy’s recipes reveals compressed layers, traceable as much to the country’s regions as to Spain and France, the places where Western gastronomic culture was born. Every chef since time immemorial has allowed himself to be contaminated, has learned the lesson of Northern cuisine (sometimes rejecting it), has travelled both near and far. But the nucleus of the cuisine in our restaurants has long remained firmly Italian, because the foundation were laid here.
One young person out of three tells me they want to emigrate, those who remain are seen as ‘sacrificing’ themselves. It’s certainly not easy to find work in Italy, and I see a lot of frustration among those trying to break into a profession where there’s more supply than demand, and where there’s also the concrete problem of training and apprenticing. The urge to go elsewhere has always existed, and not just among the young folks in our field. But too often those who embark on a Grand Tour of Europe or America or Asia so so without having yet understood and developed their own Italian-ness. And when they return (if they return), they have difficulty expressing it, or perhaps they don’t even want to.
And it is here that we lose everything.
Fewer and fewer young people take any interest in the traditions of the less frequented regions. Basilicata, Calabria, Sardegna, Molise, Abruzzo: apart from the chefs who are born and professionally educated there, who studies them? Among today’s young people it’s no longer fashionable to be influenced by the gastronomic tradition of our country. Which could also be defined as contamination, but apparently it’s not considered ‘cool’ enough. For many aspiring chefs it’s more important to be able claim to have dined at the counter of the new ramen bar in New York, or to have applied for an internship in Sweden or Denmark than to acquire a solid knowledge of regional italian cuisines, even the most widely familiar like those of Piedmont, the Veneto and Tuscany. The risk is that, in Italy, we’re beginning to lose the essence of Italy in our food. And this evanescence of our gastronomic DNA threatens to spill over beyond the recipes themselves and into the table setting, the ceramics, the look of the dining room, the uniforms. Instead we should want to investigate the depths of our tradition, with contemporary sensibilities and techniques.
Contamination from abroad is fantastic, electric, like fresh blood. And for a chef – as for anyone whose profession involves both imagination and elbow grease – it can be very useful. But the right to contaminate must be earned, one must be prepared to incorporate it, and to do so there must be a solid foundation of training and an ability to maintain one’s own identity. Do you enjoy introducing contaminations from ceviche, seaweed, fermentation? Fine, I personally appreciate all three and I’ve had occasion to use them, as well as other products and techniques from faraway cultures. But when I think of a young novice who hasn’t yet found his own personal language, his own vision, I imagine him using these contaminations and it has the same effect as someone speaking Italian while choking every sentence with 4 or 5 words of English.
In New York I tried an interesting ramen dish (yes, I too have sat at that counter) and I thought about what it would be like to do something similar with one of our broths. I spent hours browsing the shelves of one of the best stocked supermarkets of the city with the aim of bringing home packets of seeds and powders with which to experiment at Reale, always mindful, however, that the path on which I travel is, I repeat, Italian. It’s fine to to a Grand Tour of distant lands, but I feel that our curious young travelers, upon their return, should embark on a Grand Tour of Italy, with the same approach as they would travel Australia.
Research is also this.
In the photo: “I was just thinking”
Ricci Albenda (2009)