I ask myself this question often, and I believe it depends on the fact that one of humanity’s greatest curiosities concerns the moment of creation. When we find ourselves before something that strikes us, we invariably wonder, “Where does this come from?”, often questioning our own skill: “Under the same conditions, would I be able to invent something similar?”. I’ve asked this many times, and usually it turns out to be the approach of the architect and engineer that governs my process of inspiration. I remember reading the history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking that I would like to build something equally great. Bridges have this effect on me, as do certain musical compositions (I really like the music of Ennio Morricone, for example).
Getting back to “How is a dish born?”, which is perhaps the most pressing culinary question ever (we should also study the history of questions, which shift with time, subject to trends), the first response that always comes to mind is an honest “Boh?”. Seriously, my instinct is to admit that I don’t have the faintest idea.
Over the years, however, as I mature, I’ve begun to formulate an explanation. I started with a process of elimination, which is to say an understanding of that from which my dishes are not born. I know with certainty that my dishes are not born of calculation. I almost never start with a functional purpose (“I need a first course for Reale, a main course for Spazio”…), and I don’t think in terms of food cost (though perhaps I should!). For me, everything starts with the materials, which are the key through wich I experience the world around me. When I visit a place I’ve never been, for example, the first thing I do is touch its surfaces. Those who know me have seen me enter a restaurant, a home, a church and pass my hand over a wall, test the stability of a railing, tap a glass or a plate, caress a table or the seat of a chair. Then I move on to the questions; how is it built? What features does it have? How does it conduct sound, or heat? How does one clean it? What does it cost to build? And so forth. Let’s not even talk about construction sites, which for me are like an amusement park.
The same thing happens with the ingredients we use for cooking. When I find something that strikes me (while at the market, or in a restaurant, or because someone sends me a photo, or I’m reading a book)? It’s all over.
I function like an obsessive sponge: not a pretty description, but fitting. I identify the object of my desire in that moment, and I’m off: I take the ingredient and look at it from every angle, I read everything, try everything. I absorb every idea and I never give up. I like doing research, so every morning, for periods that can even last months, as soon as I awaken I go down to the kitchen, drink a double espresso and get to work with my crew, who are infected by my obsession. We test, we taste. Not convinced? We toss it all out and start again. We seek the opinion of an expert, we try to track down that piece of equipment we’ve heard about that might help us. We document each step, record the results, take photos. This is very important, and in fact I always urge young students who are looking for their own voice, their own cuisine, to keep a kitchen diary where they can document every experiment, because you never know when something that doesn’t work today might become useful in the future. Sooner or later, it will happen.
Squid, peppercorns and lettuce was born of a million failed attempts. Seven versions with I don’t know how many micro-variants. My Smoked Capocollo Tortello of Glazed Pork was born of an infinite series of trials (i.e. the thickness, the roughness, the ‘callosity’ of the pasta, but it was the internal succulence that won us over, because the intent was to liberate the juices– but to do so the internal moisture had to be perfect and the surface had to be ‘glazed’). My Roasted Artichoke was like childbirth, joyous but extraordinarily laborious. The same with Savoy Cabbage and Potato, which I’ll explain later. I won’t even begin to write – because the work behind it would require an entire volume – about the arduous road we’ve traveled in recent weeks with the Bomba: a recipe that lies at the heart of a much larger project, on which we’re working day and night with an interesting mix of technology and DIY (we turned a normal fridge with a fan into a humidity chamber). Sometimes – rarely, but it happens – I throw in the towel.
Yet I always learn something. No effort is ever wasted.
How is a dish born? For me, almost always, from a single ingredient. From a sort of obsessive-compulsive trance, with the ingredient at the center. It happens to be edible, but it could just as well be granite, wood or metal. In fact, I always say that the circumstances of life are what led me to become a chef, but that I might have been equally happy as an architect or chemist. Who knows.
I don’t think it’s the same for everyone. Those who work well not only without a fixed tasting menu, even with no menu at all, improvising on the basis of what’s available, obviously works with completely different parameters and methods. That doesn’t mean they do less research – you have to have accumulated countless hours of experimentation and have a great mastery of technique to create dishes on the spot that are both convincing and artful. It’s not a question of better or worse, but perhaps one of two sides of the same coin (it’s true that even I have created a dish in a matter of hours, under pressure, without having to go back and fix it – that’s what happened with my Ravioli with Buffalo Ricotta, Distilled Buffalo, Pepper and Capers, created for Le Strade della Mozzarella in 2013).
What’s important is respect – for flavor, for the authenticity of the ingredient. For the pleasure of eating.