a conversation with Chef Michael Millon

 

millon smile

Philadelphia native Michael Millon began his cooking career at Twenty21, continuing to  develop his skills at several restaurants in Boston and New York before settling back in Philly two years ago as Executive Chef of A Mano, which received a glowing three-bell review from Craig LaBan when it opened in 2016.

In our conversation, Chef Millon and I discuss the differences between cooking French and Italian, the merits of running a BYOB restaurant, and why he doesn’t feel compelled to use the term farm-to-table.

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Justin Naylor: In Italy, there’s a stereotype that French cooking is fussy and cheffy while Italian cooking is simpler and more direct. Since you have experience with both, I’m interested in what you think of the differences, and why you decided to go in the Italian direction.

Michael Millon: I do agree with the stereotype of it being fussy and cheffy. But I actually learned to cook French first, over ten years ago. I didn’t really know anything, so I learned the French way – French flavors, French ingredients. I cooked French for a while, but then eventual starting doing Italian. It’s more ingredient-focused, as opposed to technique-focused. At A Voce in New York I really learned a lot, and I learned that I really enjoyed it – the style of it, the flavors. You can use spices; things can be spicy. While I was in New York, Chef [Townsend Wentz] came up and asked me if I wanted to do this [A Mano] because of my experience at A Voce.

JN: What’s a good example, a dish or an ingredient – something that would be done this way in a French way, and that way in an Italian manner?

MM: Sauces would be a big one. French, it’s all saucework. Reductions, stocks.

JN: Which then become an embellishment of the dish, at the end?

MM: Right.

JN: So, they’re made separately, in advance, and they’re a kind of ornament, so to speak, to a dish at the end of the process.

MM: I feel like Italian cooking is more – to use a French phrase, à la minute.It’s in the pan, right there. Garlic, onions, a splash of this, a splash of that, some acid.

JN: I think that Marcella Hazan, whose books influenced me a lot when I started cooking, said that in Italian cooking there’s very rarely a sauce separate from the cooking juices of the dish. You’re not making something in advance as an ornament.

MM: Right, exactly. You don’t have a line that has rabbit jus, venison jus, all these different jus that are pretty much the same! I’m making all these, and I’m refreshing them every day, and it’s like, what is this all for, you know?

JN: One thing that got me interested in talking to you is, every time I’m here, I look back in the kitchen and you’re there. That itself seems pretty rare. I can’t help but admit that I have a bias – I think places that are most successful have a chef who has good taste and who is basically there.

MM: Doing the job.

JN: He or she might have helpers, but they’re there. You can’t just delegate taste, no matter how well you train someone, right? I’m curious if that’s still the case, if you’re still in the kitchen every night.

MM: Oh, yeah. Every day I’m on a station.

JN: Why have you made the decision to be there, in the lead, every day? Am I right that that’s unusual?

MM: I do think it’s unusual these days, especially with larger places. I think it’s more common in smaller, BYOB-type places like this. The profit margin isn’t too big, because we’re solely relying on the sale of food, we don’t have liquor to boost it up. I don’t think we would be able to afford someone to fill my role. It was structured that way, and that’s the way I prefer it. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t on a station every day. It’s too small of a place just to be walking around, checking on everyone. Plus, I like to cook; that’s what it comes down to.

JN: I often wish that I had gone to Vetri when Marc [Vetri] was doing all the cooking back there.

MM: I think he’s back there now.

JN: That’s what I’ve heard, now that he’s sold the other places.

MM: Good for him! Here, honestly – the people who work here now, everybody has great taste. The crew I have now, I could delegate everything. I could go on vacation and they’d be fine. But I just like to be with them, cooking. I was an executive sous chef for a long time, and this was the first step where I was the main guy. The level of integrity as a sous chef, as a line cook, to reproduce the same thing over and over again for someone else’s food is very rare, I find. If your name’s not behind it, and it doesn’t ultimately fall on you, I feel it’s easy to cut corners from time to time. So I think that me being here, we all work together. Leading by example, they all do the right thing all the time.

JN: You mentioned being a BYOB, and the tight profit margins. For those who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia and the BYOB phenomenon, could you explain a little about why that exists in Philadelphia and what some of the pros and cons are?

MM: The number of licenses is set, so they’re expensive and take a long time to process.

JN: In the city, it can be something like $800,000 for a liquor license, right?

MM: At least. From the time that Chef [Wentz] opened Townsend to the time that we opened here – about a year and a half later – the price had almost doubled. With all these places opening, I guess they just capitalized on it. Also, in PA restaurants have to pay retail price for bottles, and so they have to charge that much more.

JN: It’s crazy. So, if those are the cons, what are the pros? What’s nice about having a BYOB culture in Philly?

MM: Me, personally, I like that there’s no bar here. A bar opens a new door to trouble, I feel. It’s just more streamlined, it’s more of a relaxing atmosphere. People can bring their own wine.

JN: It’s actually cheaper, so they have more money to spend on food.

MM: They can have more of the menu. And personally – I’m the first one here in the morning, and I’m the last one to leave, because we’re closing the doors and we’re turning the lights off. If there was a bar, I’d be gone, and there would still be people here. I like turning the lights off at the end of the night. That’s a personal pro for me.

JN: Not to be too judgmental, but when people bring crap wine, do you guys cringe a little bit? When you’re making food of super-high quality, wouldn’t it be nice to offer wines of the same really beautiful, high qualitly from great producers?

MM: People bring in Tequila and lime, whatever they want. Me, I don’t care, as long as there are people in here eating and enjoying.

JN: Speaking of servers, do you feel like it’s harder to hire cooks or servers?

MM: Cooks. Oh my God, especially recently, with all these restaurants opening. Ten years ago, cooks were fighting for jobs. Now, if they don’t like it here, they can go down there and get paid $2 more an hour. These corporate places can pay well, and they offer benefits. It’s so hard to compete. I’ll be looking for somebody for two months, and can’t find anyone. Can’t even get a stage. Nothing. That’s why, right now, I’m pretty happy with the crew I have.

JN: Based on my experience eating here a few times, it seems like your bread is mostly or completely based on natural fermentation. Can you speak about your approach to the bread program here?

MM: I was working at Townsend before we came over here, and I wanted to make the bread here. I wanted to do a sourdough. There are different types of sourdough. Type 1 sourdough – that’s what we’re doing – is just making a starter from flour and water and letting it ferment. So it’s just yeast and lactic acid working together, as opposed to using baker’s yeast, which is quicker and probably easier. But I feel like the sourdough just has more flavor, and it’s more fun.

JN: Is it 100%? I know that some people include a small amount of commercial yeast.

MM: No, 100%. We’ve tuned into what time of night we’re feeding the starter, what temperature water depending on how cold or how warm it is in the building. It’s been 2½ years now. At the end of the night we’ll have the starter in different areas of the restaurant depending on what time of the year it is, to get the temperature we want.

JN: Did you acquire that knowledge from someone, or did you have to teach yourself?

MM: I taught myself. Just bought a bunch of books, read them, practiced, failed. More fails, and then we found this one that we’re pretty happy with. It’s very simple, but it’s consistent and it’s tasty. We don’t have much oven space.

JN: It’s still the foccacia?

MM: Right.

JN: Moving on to pasta: when Craig LaBan reviewed you a few years ago, he was complimentary in a lot of ways, but he seemed particularly smitten with the pasta. Can you tell us a little about your approach to pasta? You’re making egg pasta that’s rolled out, and some extruded shapes as well, right?

MM: People come here for the pasta, so it’s got to be good. There’s a ton of Italian restaurants in the city; everyone does pasta. We try to do ours a little different, make it more interesting, with more textures. We always have five on the menu. We try to do five different doughs. I have one guy who’s been working here since the beginning, Enrique, who makes all the pastas by hand every day. He’s amazing, but he can only do so much, so that’s why we need a rotation of doughs. If an extruded dough comes off the menu, I have to change one of the other ones to an easier shape to make, to balance out his work so he can handle it all.

JN: For people who don’t know, pasta can either be rolled out and cut into various shapes or be pushed through a machine – extruded – to get shapes like penne, spaghetti, and rigatoni. Lots of places are rolling their own pasta, of course, but to be extruding is pretty unusual. You could make your fresh pasta and buy really high-quality rigatoni, lumache, or whatever. What convinced you to go the extra step to extrude your own?

MM: We acquired an extruder.

JN: That’s a good reason!

MM: In the beginning, a friend of Chef [Wentz] had an extruder that he wasn’t using. We were getting ready to open the restaurant. I said, Let’s take it. We did it at A Voce a little bit, but they were mostly hand-rolled with egg. Extruding is pretty much flour, water, shape. We tried drying them, but that’s pretty difficult.

JN: So you just let them be fresh.

MM: Yeah, we tried all different temperatures and times, but they would just crack or they wouldn’t dry.

JN: I know Marc Vetri has written about how that was the hardest part.

MM: Oh, man.

JN: Not worth it.

MM: I gave up on it, it was that hard.

JN: How is your freshly-extruded pasta different from high-quality, Italian-made, commercial pasta?

MM: Because ours aren’t dried, they have more of a chew to them. The ones you buy in a box, a ton of them are great. I have them at home. But they’re more firm, and then they’re overcooked. It’s like there’s no middle ground. With the ones we make – and we’ve been incorporating different things into the machine, like squid ink, egg sometimes – we can put our own texture on it, however we want to do it.

JN: Yeah, I was wondering why extruded pastas are almost never egg-based.

MM: I think just because it jams up the machine if you don’t have the know-how of different levels of water to add. But Enrique’s a master of his craft, he tinkers with levels.

JN: Where did he acquire his mastery?

MM: He’s 36 years old, and he’s probably been cooking since he was six. He’s just a good cook, all around. When it comes to making pasta, these are my recipes that I brought to him. He’s the one in there making them every day, it’s not necessarily me. If it’s humid downstairs, he’s going to add a little less water to the dough. He’s figured it out and fine-tuned it.

JN: People are surprised to hear just how differently egg pasta can be made in Northern Italy. In Emila-Romagna they make it one way, in Piedmont totally different. Is your approach to egg pasta whole eggs, or egg yolks, or a mix?

MM: We do a mixture of both. If we’re making ravioli, we do whole eggs because the egg whites give the dough more elasticity. For pappardelle, we’re just using yolks for the unctuousness of it. But yeah, we do a mixture.

JN: Have you had a chance to travel much in Italy?

MM: Never. Never been!

JN: Because you’re working too hard?

MM: I wanted to go this year; everybody gets a week vacation, including me. But I don’t think I could do it in a week. I would need two weeks. So we’re just going to Mexico instead, sitting on the beach.

JN: Because you have this Italian place, taking a week and going to Italy – you need a break from thinking about some of these things! It’s not so much a vacation to do research in Italy, at least for me.

MM: I’d say to myself Wow, I’m doing this wrong, and I’m doing this wrong…

JN: I think you’d actually find the opposite! I’ve often said that they’re doing such a great job in Italy, in general, but the best American places are as good or better. In America we have this desire to really excel and we know we need to improve, which in Italy is not always the case because the general level is already so high. That’s why bread in Italy is generally bad. Some of the best Italian cooking in the world is in the US.

MM: I’ve heard that. People come by the pass and say, “We were just in Milan and this is better,” and it’s like, “Thank you very much!”

JN: I’m not surprised they say that. The chance of having a bad meal in Venice, for example, is really high. But even mediocre places are pretty good by the average American standards. They have this beautiful basic level of good taste that Americans don’t have. I just think the best American places are really nailing it.

MM: I feel like our job is a lot harder, working with the ingredients that we have here, most of the time. I feel like the ingredients and produce over there is way better, right?

JN: Yes, in general, but even there – do you know Katie Parla, who’s based in Rome?

MM: I know of her.

JN: I’m sure she’ll come to A Mano to eat eventually, and she’ll be excited about what you’re doing, I think. She’s documented how in Rome, especially since the economic decline beginning in 2008, places sometimes can’t even afford to buy the best stuff. Like here, it becomes a business decision: do I serve the best stuff I can, or do I pay my bills?

MM: Exactly. Especially when – with the BYOB thing – it’s a fine line, the talent that we can have working here, the ingredients we can use.

JN: I’ve heard a lot of restaurateurs say that they don’t make any money on food; all of their money is made on alcohol sales. It’s depressing.

MM: It’s nice to be able to lean on that. But it’s also nice to not have that around, and to have to figure it out. I like the challenge of that.

JN: Since you haven’t travelled to Italy and don’t have those precise experiences and taste memories, what does inspire you to create the dishes you create? Do you feel like you’re making mostly traditional dishes, or dishes that are completely novel?

MM: We always start with an ingredient, and we never do something that we’ve done before. As the seasons progress, we never put the same dish on the menu that we had last year, because we always want to learn and teach ourselves. At this point, my Sous Chef Nora and I have been working side by side for four years, since I was at Townsend. She knows everything I know now. I’ve given her all the knowledge that I’ve built, and now we’re just learning together.

JN: Does that mean when there’s a dish that someone really loves, and they come back hoping to see it again, they’re out of luck? Is it ever going to come back again?

MM: So far we haven’t put anything back on the menu. We strive to make the replacement better than the thing that was before. If it’s not better, we take it off and we put the old thing back. That’s happened twice. We put a rabbit cacciatori on, and it lasted one week. The same thing with a porkbelly set-up one time. It looked good on paper, but once we plated it and ate it, no – this isn’t as good as the last one, so let’s go back to the drawing board. We took octopus off – people were unhappy to see that go, but when we first put it on, octopus was $3.99 a pound, and now it’s $7.50 a pound. It almost doubled. And it’s on every menu in the city, too.

JN: You mentioned that your menus always begin with ingredients. In the last year or two, I’ve been hearing for the first time some backlash about the term farm-to-table. Not necessarily the concept, there’s no criticism of that, but the term. I talked to Dan Richer about this last month, and he thinks the term farm-to-table is just gimmicky, market-driven. I’m curious what you think about that. Because if you’re doing something special, and getting ingredients from local farms and not Sysco, you want people to know that – without being too over-the-top about it, right? I know Marc Vetri has also criticized the term. What’s up with that?

MM: Yeah, I think it’s a sales pitch to get people through the door. You’re kind of tooting your own horn. If people come in and they sit down and enjoy what they eat, and they can tell it’s fresh, what’s the point in telling somebody that you’re farm-to-table? You should just assume we’re getting good stuff.

JN: So, you would resist putting it on the menu – where this particular meat has come from – the way some places have done? Or is there any value in that?

MM: I think there’s definitely value in that. We don’t resist it or anything. Us personally, the way the menu is formatted, the margins are small. We can’t really put in many extra words. So we just say “polenta,” and use the best we can find.

JN: How often do you change the menu?

MM: We change things pretty much as the seasons progress, one or two dishes at a time. Never the whole menu at a time, because we’re working with such limited space. Changing even one dish moves a bunch of things around, and changes everybody’s work a little bit. There’s so much thought that goes into picking one dish. And, at the same time, we’re always trying to do something we’ve never done before.

JN: How does a place like Chez Panisse change their menu every day?

MM: I have no idea. They do it every day? I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep! I feel like it would be really difficult to operate at such a high level if you’re changing everything every day. There have to be some misses, there have to be some failures. Even when we change a dish, the first time we put it up we’re often putting it up for the servers to try, and we’re eating it at the same time. We’ve eaten everything separately; now let’s put them together on a plate.

JN: The other extreme is a place that never changes. This is admirable in its own way; in Italy, there’s not much changing. You go to Rome, you go to Armando al Pantheon, and the menu doesn’t change, ever. They’re making these Roman classics. That’s admirable in its own way, but it could get stale. There’s a fine line between spontaneity and mastery. So I’m wondering how you know when it’s time to change the menu.

MM: We have a small team here, but you can tell when people have just phoned it in and they’re bored of a dish. If I’m bored, or if Nora’s bored, or if something becomes ridiculously expensive, we’ll just say, We’re done with this. Bibou changes its menu every week. They have a set menu, he’s there in his kitchen every day, Wednesday through Saturday. He takes Sunday off with his wife and his kids, and then on Monday and Tuesday, his team is back in there. On Saturday night, they’re writing the menu for the next week.

JN: We’ve touched on a couple of aspects of the business, like profit margin, alcohol, etc. Is there anything else you wish people knew about the business side of the restaurant? Because people have no idea what the profit margins are, they have no idea about the kind of attention that’s being paid in creating these dishes.

MM: That’s what I wish people knew – the amount of work that goes into creating food on plates every night, night after night. Like the fact that we get in here at 11 o’clock in the morning, but we don’t open until 5. I wish people knew that. The level of attention each person has on their particular tasks through the course of the day, how to schedule your work week in order to accomplish what you need to, so that everything is consistent. Consistency – to accomplish what I think we do here consistently – is really hard, and I wish people knew what it takes. The oregano we get in today could be really different from the oregano yesterday. It’s a balancing act.

JN: It’s not just hard work in terms of hours, but it’s also hard work in terms of sheer skill level, just as it is for a doctor doing surgery. It’s hard because there’s serious skill and talent on all levels, on the service end and on the line.

MM: Yeah, if someone can’t make it to work that day, if their mother got rushed to the hospital and they’re out of work that day, everybody else has to kick it up a notch to cover for that person. The multi-tasking part of it – you’ve got four, five, or six things going on at once, in the oven, on the stove, you’re cutting something on your cutting board, sometimes you have two cutting boards – I wish people knew more about that.

JN: Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to service here? In the kitchen, you have a defining philosophy. Do you have anything similar on the floor? How do you teach or train your servers?

MM: I feel like it’s the same in the front and the back, here. In all the restaurants I’ve ever worked, this is the closest the two teams have been. Often in restaurants, some people work in the front, some people work in the back, and they don’t talk. That does not happen here. The servers we have here have been doing it for years. Our General Manager, Lauren [Harris], she is fantastic, and she hired fantastic people to work here. She does her thing – I’m not the one out there. She gets all the credit for that. But they all have so much experience. It’s just a powerhouse. I have enough on my plate in the back. They do their thing.

JN: Which is more likely to be deficient at a restaurant, the cooking or the service? When you go out, do you find yourself thinking, I wish these dishes were a little better, or do you find yourself thinking, Man, these dishes are great, but I wish they paid attention out on the floor?

MM: It’s an interesting question. One of the best meals I ever had in my life was at 11 Madison Park. I went there assuming the food would be good, but what made it the best meal of my life was the service. They took it above and beyond.

JN: What was different about it?

MM: They knew we were coming from Boston, so they prepared a special Boston clambake for us, just for our table. It was my girlfriend’s birthday; we had a 10:30 reservation, and it’s a three-hour meal, so we were still there at midnight. At midnight – her birthday was the following day – they rolled a champagne cart over to the table at the stroke of midnight. I didn’t ask them to do that! Wow.

The food being of less quality than I would hope happens a lot when I go out to eat – that’s why we only go to places where we know it’s going to be good. I don’t want to spend money on the risk.

JN: What are the defects when you go out?

MM: Lack of salt, lack of acid. Those are the most common problems.

JN: One person I interviewed had an interesting, if controversial theory. She’s a cookbook author, not a chef. Her theory is that a lot of restaurant cooking is actually oversalted. She thinks it has something to do with the fact that restaurant kitchens are still dominated by men, that there’s a lot of ego. She thinks there’s a lot of stuff there that sometimes comes out in food that’s aggressive. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with that idea, but it’s interesting and worth considering, I think. There is the phenomenon of restaurant food where they’re so focused on the first bite knocking you over with pleasure that you forget it’s not just one bite, you have to get through a whole dish – and maybe by the end of the dish, it’s too aggressive.

MM: Yeah, that’s an interesting point; I learned that when I was in Boston. We had a lentil soup on the menu. If you’re making a soup and it has black pepper in it, and you go to have a spoonful and it tastes good – go eat a bowlful of that soup and your mouth’s going to be on fire with that much pepper. The chef in Boston told me that, and it stuck with me. I feel like, yeah, sometimes it’s overseasoned. You have six things working at once, and you forget that you salted that already. It happens. Or something goes unsalted, or oftentimes, especially with young cooks, it’s the stress of making something right. This doesn’t taste right – add more salt. That’ll do it. I think that happens a lot. I did it, when I was younger. The nerves.

JN: Just because you tasted it, and it wasn’t quite right, and the only tool in your box was salt? Maybe it needs acid, maybe it needs more time, maybe it needs less time, but salt is the instinctive reaction. That’s really interesting.

MM: Yeah, I think that’s the main one. I used to do it. But you learn over the years what things need, and when to hold back.

JN: When you do go out, what are you looking for in restaurants?

MM: Honestly, recently I like sitting at bars.

JN: Even though you don’t want to have a bar here!

MM: Yeah, I like sitting at bars and having a beer. As much as I enjoy dining at a table, if we’re going out once a week, I don’t want to get dressed up. I want to take it easy. Cost is a major thing. This industry doesn’t really pay very much. Oftentimes we don’t have time to go grocery shopping. If I’m spending $300 on dinner, what are we going to eat the next day? We still don’t have any groceries.

JN: [Laughter] I love it.

MM: [Laughter] You know? So.

JN: You mentioned the explosion of restaurants in Philly in the last couple of years, and how hard it is to find cooks, for example. How would you describe the Philly dining scene at the moment?

MM: I think it’s fantastic. There are so many places that are just great. My list keeps getting longer and longer, of places that I want to go eat. There’s all different sorts of cuisines from all over the world opening up. I don’t think it’s ever been better, from a diner’s standpoint. Even since I moved back four years ago, from New York, the amount of quality places that have opened has just been incredible.

JN: How would you describe the difference between living and working in restaurants in New York and Philly?

MM: Oh God, I hated New York. It’s 24 hours. I worked at Columbus Circle. Every day, I would get on the A train, and it would be like, am I going to be able to sit, or be jammed, standing up?

JN: Right, because you can’t afford to live close by.

MM: Right, and then the same thing on the way home. Just the grind of it. In New York there’s so many people who don’t live there; it never felt like home. When I moved back here, when I was driving the U-Haul back and I saw the skyline, I got goosebumps. You’re home, man. It was great. And it’s just friendlier here. When we opened Townsend, all the restaurants on the Avenue sent us flowers on the first day we opened, and cards. It was great.

JN: That’s awesome.

MM: In New York, A Voce was right below Per Se. There was a bar across the street called The Coliseum. That’s where we would go, and sometimes the Per Se team would come. They would just never mingle – it was very impersonal. And, cutthroat – everybody’s gunning for your job there. I like to cook; it’s not a competition for me.

JN: How did you settle on this neighborhood [Fairmount], and this particular building?

MM: This was all Chef [Wentz]. He found the space. It was a grocery store before, didn’t have a basement. He did all the work himself.

JN: That man’s a beast!

MM: It was an incredible buildout, the way this went from a grocery store to a restaurant. They dug out the basement with jackhammers, carried buckets of rocks. The summer before we opened, he was here every day. I was working at Townsend at that point, because I’m the one who freed him up there so he could do this. I’m not certain why he chose this; maybe just because the space was available. I feel like maybe this neighborhood needed another restaurant.

JN: Do you live in the neighborhood too?

MM: No, I live in South Philly.

JN: What is Fairmount like these days? Do you get mostly local people, or do people come here from across the city?

MM: I think from everywhere. In the beginning it was mostly neighborhood people. There was a lot of pushback; they didn’t really like the new guy on the block. It was a quiet little grocery store corner, and now there’s smells of garlic and onions in the neighborhood that I don’t think was very well-received in the beginning. The prices were too high, the portions were too small. But now I think we’ve earned our keep and we’ve earned their trust, so that we definitely have return guests all the time, neighborhood people.

JN: What’s the character of the neighborhood? Is it young, is it older?

MM: It’s quiet, definitely older; it’s families that have owned these houses for years. There’s not too many businesses over here like there are in South Philly, so it’s quieter. There are trees, you know?

JN: Was the open kitchen Chef Wentz’s idea, or was it a necessity of the space?

MM: He wanted it to be open. It’s more approachable, I think. It’s Italian. He wanted it to feel like a house, cozy.

JN: Is it your first open kitchen?

MM: No, A Voce was semi-open. There was a glass partition.

JN: How does it affect your work, having the open kitchen?

MM: Well, we have to stay clean. Not that we wouldn’t be clean if it was a closed kitchen. How does it affect our work? It doesn’t, really. I don’t use much foul language, so it’s not like I have to watch my mouth or anything. Everybody knows what they’re doing. I’m not a screamer. That’s a waste of energy, in my opinion. If I scream at somebody, they can go down the block and get paid $2 more an hour, you know what I mean? It comes down to that. Everyone knows what they’re doing. We often don’t talk.

JN: That’s what I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one – other people have written about it. Compared to other open kitchens I’ve seen, yours seems like the most silent kitchen. Someone described it as “dancing,” in one of those articles. I thought that was exactly right. Kitchens have this reputation for being crazy, out of control, even if they’re not yelling or screaming. Maybe that’s less true of kitchens at a high level, but here it just seems effortless. Obviously that’s an illusion – it comes from skill – but it looks like this effortless dance back there, which I think people appreciate seeing.

MM: That’s good to hear. I can’t relate; I don’t know what it’s like from a diner’s standpoint, for someone who has never worked in a restaurant, but I guess it’s got to be pretty cool.

JN: I think so. People love to see it. Do you have experience with the screaming, yelling type of kitchen, or have you been spared that?

MM: I’ve worked with some madmen back in the day. Chef [Wentz] was never a screamer, but he comes from that era of screamers.

JN: So, it’s a real thing?

MM: Oh, yeah. They’ve got screaming in New York, screaming in Italy, screaming in France. I don’t get it. It’s just dinner! We’re not birthing children here or anything like that, you know? It’s just dinner. Sometimes you get really stressed out, a lot of anxiety, but you have to remember it’s just dinner. There’s no need; people don’t respond to screaming. We’re so laser-focused on the prep day, and ordering, and purveyors, and what we’ll need for the day and the week, that we never get to the point where things are out of hand, that would involve screaming. The problems are usually nonexistent.

JN: But that’s because of management and leadership; it doesn’t just happen.

MM: Yeah.

JN: Especially with your New York experience, were you surprised about all the stuff that has come out in the past year about sexual harrassment in restaurants?

MM: I’m glad these scumbags are going down. It’s disgusting. I’ve personally never worked in a place where that’s going on, but I know of it. I guess restaurants are male-driven – or they used to be, but not anymore at all. I respect everybody who walks in the door, no matter who you are.

JN: Do you think that this cultural moment is going to lead to real change in restaurants, or do you feel like it’s just a blip? Because it’s kind of a toxic brew – you’ve got high stress, low pay. In a way, I’m not surprised that restaurants have really suffered from this. Do you think we’ve turned the corner?

MM: Absolutely. I mean, I would hope so. I’m just glad people are getting called out for that. No one should have to deal with that when they go to work. We’re all here to work.

JN: Thanks so much. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk today!

a conversation with Dan Richer

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Dan Richer is a baker and chef, the owner of Razza Pizza Artigianale in Jersey City, NJ, and formerly owner of Arturo’s in Maplewood, NJ. After a life-changing trip to Italy,  Dan dedicated his life to bringing the flavors he had discovered there back home. In 2011, Dan was named a James Beard Award Semifinalist, and shortly thereafter transitioned from the tasting menus which had earned him that recognition to the more specialized pursuit of creating pizza of the highest quality. He was named a Semifinalist again in 2016 and 2017. In addition to being a first-rate baker and pizzaiolo, Dan is a beautiful and kind person, and I have benefited from his generosity on more than one occasion. He is an inspiration to me and many others.

In our conversation, we discuss the importance of taste memories, why natural fermentation produces better bread, and how to make a meatball which melts in your mouth.

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Justin Naylor: I’d like to begin by asking about something you’ve mentioned in other interviews. You skipped your college graduation and flew to Italy, and you’ve said that the food you tasted there was nothing like what you knew of Italian food growing up in New Jersey. How would you describe that difference, and how did it affect you?

Dan Richer: The Italian-American restaurants I had experienced growing up were not formal, not fine-dining. We’re talking about places where you get a plate of pasta for $10.

JN: Right, not places like Babbo.

DR: Exactly. But it was all I knew. So, when I went to Italy, even the most basic foods – pasta and tomato suace, or pasta with meat sauce – blew me away. These are things I ate growing up, but it wasn’t until I went to Italy that I really saw a difference between gnocchi in the US versus gnocchi in, say, Florence. As a 21-year-old, it was like listening to a new piece of music for the first time. You’re experiencing the whole thing, all of its parts, mingling and not really being able to pick apart the dish. I didn’t know, for example, if there were carrots in the sauce or onions. I was experiencing the thing as a whole. I just knew it was different and I enjoyed it more. It was so delicious, so balanced. Just better, and at that time I couldn’t say why.

JN: How do you understand it now?

DR: It’s all about ingredients and technique. As cooks, we have ingredients and technique, and that’s all we have control over. We’re always trying to find better ingredients and to hone our technique, whether it’s for sauce making, or pasta making, or pizza making.

JN: In the case of the gnocchi, what do you think was the disconnect between the Jersey gnocchi and the Florentine gnocchi?

DR: Pure technique. [In Italy] they knew what it was supposed to taste like, and what the texture was supposed to feel like in your mouth. When you know what it’s supposed to be like, it’s easier to recreate it. I say it’s all ingredients and technique, but there’s one more thing: having a blueprint for what it should taste like.

JN: Right on. What Marcella Hazan called “taste memories.” She didn’t cook a day in her life until she was well into her 30s, but because she had a lifetime of taste memories she was able to figure out what to do.

DR: So, that first trip was really the beginning of creating taste memories for me. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew that I wanted to bring that to New Jersey. I wanted to understand why it was so good, and I wanted to bring that home with me.

JN: How do you think Italian-American cooking lost that connection to the taste memories of cooking in Italy?

DR: It’s like the telephone game thing, where over time things just change, especially when you mingle a lot of different cultures together over a long period of time. I’m not a food historian by any means, and I can’t trace its lineage. Honestly, it’s not my lineage; I’m not Italian-American.

JN: So, you wanted to bring back something of what you had tasted in Italy, but first you had to learn and put in a lot of time in other people’s kitchens, because you had no experience.

DR: Right, lots of time. But not even that much in kitchens. I had worked in restaurants since I was 15, as a busboy. Even then, I liked watching in the kitchen. But when I got back from Italy I learned mostly from books, TV, trial and error. Mostly trial and error, cooking every day of the week.

JN: Any particular book or TV show that made a major impact?

DR: It’s really hard to say. I was watching a lot of Molto Mario at the time.

JN: That was such a great show.

DR: Yeah. Phenomenal. It’s like super-controversial to even be talking about him these days.

JN: I understand, but I think it’s important and I’m happy to talk about it.

DR: I am, too. It’s part of my story. I was watching a lot of that show in college, and it was so influential that it convinced me to fly to Italy instead of going to my graduation.

JN: [Laughter] So it was that show that did it! I’m not surprised!

DR: Yes. Also, my cousin had an apartment in Rome and I had a place to hang out.

JN: Eventually, you did learn and develop and you became quite accomplished. Before you opened Razza your focus was on preparing elaborate tasting menus, and you received significant recognition for that. But now you’re focused on foods as simple as pizza, bread, and butter. How did that evolution happen?

DR: Well, they’re not simple; they’re so complicated! I spent about a month in Japan in 2006, learning about the culture and learning about the food. That was where I really saw specialization: taking pride in doing one thing and doing it really well. So, I don’t look at it as going from complexity to simplicity. Everything I do is absurdly complex, though on the surface it seems very simple. As you’re able to focus your time on doing one thing, you’re able to expose the complexities.

JN: What convinced you to focus on bread? By bread, of course, I mean pizza as well.

DR: I got into bread because I got interested in pizza. I started my first restaurant in 2006. I actually bought a failing restaurant. It had two wood-fired ovens, and it had a pizza recipe which I inherited from the previous owners. My focus there was on the tasting menus. We would close down the restaurant twice a week to do these tasting menu dinners, 6 or 7 courses. It was a lot of fun and I loved it. But it got to the point where pizza was at the core of the businesses, because we were using these two ovens the other five nights of the week. I wanted to make that great, and focus on that.

JN: Because you can’t do everything, which is a hard lesson to learn. One that I haven’t really learned yet, but it’s important.

DR: Honestly, it was after I got my first James Beard Semifinalist award that I stopped doing the tasting menus, right at the height of their popularity!

JN: Cool.

DR: The James Beard announcement was in March or April, and we were booked until August. But it was at that moment I said, We’re done. This is it. Let me focus on the core of what we’re doing.

JN: You also mentioned to me, when we met a few years ago, about the influence of Anthony Mangieri.

DR: Yeah, he owns Una Pizza Napoletana and was the best pizzamaker in New York at that time. He came to the restaurant and I was just so ashamed of my pizza.

JN: He didn’t come to a tasting menu?

DR: No, the regular restaurant, [with] the terrible pizza recipe I had inherited from the previous owner.

JN: [Laughter] Priceless. Did that make it clear to you that the pizza you were making didn’t represent who you wanted to be? Everything crystalized and you’re like, Now we gotta get serious about the bread.

DR: Exactly. I was just so embarrassed by what we were serving that I wanted to learn more. It all stemmed from a curiosity to understand things and a desire to create a better product.

JN: Had you had powerful pizza experiences in Italy at that point, or did that come later?

DR: I still haven’t had many powerful pizza experiences in Italy! Some, but not many.

JN: Maybe this is a good time to ask you to describe how pizza in Italy is different from pizza in the US, for those who have never been to Italy.

DR: Well, all pizza is essentially a flat bread with some kind of condiments on top.

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JN: In that sense, pizza’s been around as long as there’s been bread.

DR: Exactly. Throughout Italy there are a bunch of different styles. Of course there’s Neapolitan pizza. There’s super-thin-crusted pizza in Rome, rolled out with a pin. There’s pizza al taglio [by the slice].

JN: In terms of flavor, did you have the same kind of experience with pizza on your first trip as you did with pasta?

DR: I had some pizzas that were certainly delicious, but I wasn’t as obsessed with the pizza on that first trip.

JN: So, was Anthony [Mangieri]’s pizza a major inspiration?

DR: I knew mine was not good enough, so I started studying bread because I knew pizza was bread with condiments. At first, I changed the condiments: I got the best tomatoes I could, the best olive oil. It wasn’t getting better, so I had to focus on the bread. I started studying fermentation, reading every bread book I could find, scouring Internet forums about fermentation and breadbaking. Now, this was 12 years ago…

JN: So there weren’t that many resources.

DR: Now it’s exponentially bigger.

JN: Did you consider going to Anthony Mangieri himself for help, or did you not know him well enough?

DR: Absolutely not. I knew him, kind of, but I would never ask him a question. He’s influenced me indirectly because of the embarrassment I felt about my product, but I’ve never learned anything from him specifically. I would never ask. Remember, this was 12 years ago. People were guarded about their information. If you wanted to know what kind of tomatoes someone used, you’d have to dig through their garbage, which is ridiculous. I would never do that. Instead of relying on specific information from others, I wanted to understand ingredients and techniques. With tomatoes, I came up with an evaluation system by speaking with tomato growers, canners, and discovering what characteristics tomatoes inherently possessed. You know, acidity, sweetness, texture. The seeds and the skins. Positive flavor attributes. Negative flavor attributes. I started rating tomatoes based on this system rather than relying on a specific region – like, the best tomatoes are from San Marzano – or on what kind of tomatoes a guy like Anthony Mangieri uses. I would never ask those questions or rely on that for what I would do. I’d use my palate and empirical data. You figure out what makes a good tomato and then do double-blind taste tests to determine which is the best.

JN: What about fermentation? 

DR: For me, I wasn’t dead set on it being 100% natural fermentation and I’m still not. Every day I do side-by-side comparisons. We usually have two or three batches of dough [at Razza]. One is 100% natural fermentation; one or two usually have varying levels of commercial yeast. All are less than the amount the French government says bakers can use and still consider the bread naturally fermented.

JN: Really? I didn’t know you could use any commerical yeast in France and still call it natural fermentation.

DR: You can, but we use much less, about 1/100 of a percent of the flour weight.

JN: Like sulfites in wine, where good producers use way less than the amount they can use by law.

DR: Yes.

JN: For those who don’t know the first thing about commercial yeast versus natural fermentation, how would you introduce that concept?

DR: There are a few types of commercial yeast, but they’re all a single strain that metabolizes the starch in the grain – the starch being sugar. The yeast converts that sugar into carbon dioxide, which leavens the bread, and alcohol, which produces a little flavor but then burns off in the oven. With natural fermentation, we’re relying not on the single monoculture strain, saccharomyces cerevisiae, but on diverse wild yeasts and bacteria which we keep going through feeding a starter on a routine basis. I cultivated mine from wheat which I had grown for me in New Jersey. I got whole wheat berries and milled them by hand and mixed them with water, and I’ve been feeding them continuously for over 10 years now.

JN: The key word being “yeasts” in the plural. Unlike commercial yeast, you have not a monoculture but an ecosystem.

DR: Yes, and bacteria which live in symbiosis with the yeast. Keeping that culture – or ecosystem – healthy is the key to what we do here.

JN: How would your bread be different if you followed the same process you use now, except you used only commerical yeast?

DR: I don’t enjoy bread made exclusively from commercial yeast. I don’t think they’re delicous.

JN: What are the flaws?

DR: For me, it’s flavor: so much less complex using commercial monoculture yeast. When we do our side-by-side tests every day, and taste the 100% naturally leavened pizza compared to the batch with just a tiny tiny bit of commercial yeast, there is a dramatic difference in the flavor. Even the tiny amount of yeast we use can outcompete the yeasts and bacteria in the naturally leaved dough, and produces less flavor. However, it does produce more gas, and so we use a little bit.

JN: So it’s a trade-off.

DR: It’s a trade-off from a texture standpoint, because the one with a little commercial yeast always has a better texture – a little bit airier, a little bit crispier. We’re constantly having the discussion about the tension between flavor and texture.

JN: For those who don’t know, how common is it to find a bakery that works with natural fermentation?

DR: Extremely rare. Certainly, 99% of pizzerias out there use exclusively commercial yeast. Over the past decade it’s increased, and that’s awesome, but it’s still a tiny percentage.

JN: Sometimes people ask me at my own bread classes why there is not even an attempt to capture the rich diversity of a natural starter in a commercial, dried product. Why is it a single monoculture strain?

DR: I think that culture, in general – all culture – is fragile. Commercial yeast is very vigorous. It’s a vigorous gas-producer, it’s reliable, strong. It performs a function that is very important; it provides vigorous, reliable fermentation. Under low temperatures it doesn’t die, it’s great. Natural cultures, by contrast, are very fragile, and they need to be nurtured. If we’re talking about the culture of an organization, the culture of society, or a culture of micro-organisms, they need certain things. They have to be nurtured. There’s no possible way, in my opinion, to have this magic pill that captures all of those good things without any of the bad. The process of keeping a starter alive is not difficult, but it does require attention. All you have to do is feed it once or twice a day. It needs food and water. That’s it. So, we try to teach people about that.

JN: When you make bread without the strain that’s in the commercial yeast, as you mentioned, it has fantastic flavor but it’s lacking a little bit of airiness. Why is that strain lacking in the natural culture?

DR: You can get great gas production with 100% natural fermentation, don’t get me wrong. That’s the main job of a baker, to get great gas production from natural means. About the commercial strain not being more present in the culture… that’s a question for a microbiologist. I do know that that strain of yeast is non-reculturable. It doesn’t reproduce very well. So you can’t take it from batch to batch; eventually it dies out. Because the specific yeasts and the specific bacteria that are in our starter culture live in symbiosis together, they provide for one another.

JN: For those who are ambitious, and want to do some natural bread fermentation at home, what tips do you have?

DR: For natural fermentation, it requires constant attention. You are taking care of your culture, so if you don’t have the time to feed your culture, you should just not do it.

JN: What about those who say, No big deal: throw it in the fridge, feed it once a week? In my experience, that produces a crap culture without vigor.

DR: You can do that; if you feed it and then put it in a lower temperature, it’s fine for a week, a month, two months – but before you bake again, you have to feed it, you have to make it vigorous. I’m a big believer that if you don’t have time to do something, then don’t do it.

JN: Assuming that someone is willing to take that on, and they’re willing to feed it every day or keep it in the fridge and then take it out and feed it a few days before –

DR: Three feedings, the more time apart the better. In an ideal situation – and this is not possible in a home baking situation – I would feed it three times a day at eight-hour increments. You can do it twice a day at twelve-hour increments, you can do it once a day, but the amount of old starter that you add to the new flour and water should be very low.

JN: Any other tips to anyone at home who is trying to do natural fermentation, from your experience, that you haven’t seen in books? For me, the turning point was when I realized that the usual standard for commercial yeast – that you ferment until it’s doubled in bulk – was totally irrelevant for natural fermentation.

DR: Completely irrelevant, yeah. There are so many things. I’ve been doing this since 2006, and I made my first pizza in 2003. It’s a lot of time of trial and error. I’ve learned so much.

JN: Do you have a particular book that you recommend?

DR: If you don’t have the time or dedication for natural fermentation, it’s Jim Leahy’s books: My Bread, or My Pizza. It’s super-approachable for the home baker. For natural fermentation, Tartine Bread is the baseline. If you want to spend the money, Modernist Bread just came out. I just bought it on Prime Day yesterday. It’s more expensive than my car! But totally worth it. I know the authors, for one thing, and there’s so much information in there. Just two chapters of it changed so much about how we make our bread.

JN: That’s the mark of a real master: the more you learn, the more you realize that you need to learn, right?

DR: Yeah!

JN: I know this might make you a little uncomfortable or embarrassed, but was it last year that the New York Times said that you were the best pizzeria in New York?

DR: That does make me a little uncomfortable.

JN: Congratulations! But I understand; you’re a humble guy. Plus the idea of there being a “best” is kind of ridiculous; I get that.

DR: Completely ridiculous.

JN: But look at it this way: why do you think they honored Razza with that distinction?

DR: There a couple of different reasons. Number one: if you did a double-blind taste test with our pizza and anything else happening in New York, I think you would see why, from what I’ve tasted. Of course, in New York there are so many different styles of pizza. Are we talking about a slice from Joe’s, are we talking about a slice from Prince St.? Is that what we do? No. There are so many different styles, so it’s difficult to rate. When I was coming up with our product, I took the data and the scientific approach and I came up with a list of about fifty characteristics about pizza that I love, and I worked every day – I continue to work every day – trying to be great at those fifty characteristics. It’s everything from the way the cheese melts, the way the cheese browns, the way the cheese spreads, to the sauce – all of those characteristics that we talked about in terms of tomatoes, those are part of the evaluation system for pizza. That’s what I think of as the best pizza, these characteristics. I also think that the writer of the review was trying to debunk the myth that location dictates whether your product is good, or not. A lot of people in New York have lots of not-so-nice things to say about us, just solely because we’re located in New Jersey. Whereas I feel that products are defined by their ingredients, their techniques, and the blueprints.

JN: This is ironic, too, because a lot of these same people, when they go to Italy, are the very ones who say, We went to this place in this nothing of a town, and it was the most amazing thing! Why aren’t they applying the same principle here? If it’s good, it’s good.

DR: Because people have a lot of pride. People have a lot of pride in New York, and New York has been one of the epicenters of pizza in the US. We have very strong feelings; we think that if a place has been open for a hundred years, that must be the best pizza. There’s something to be said for being open for a hundred years, but every day is an opportunity to make a great pizza or a not-so-great pizza. There’s no resting on your laurels; every day is a little bit different. That’s one of the things I love about pizza: every day is a little bit different.

JN: I know you don’t want to speak ill of your colleagues, but why do you think others are not putting in the time and effort to make their product excellent, as you have done?

DR: For a long time they didn’t have to. That’s one of the great things about the New York Times review: it got a lot of people thinking about it. When customers don’t demand a better product, there’s no reason for them to produce it.

JN: It goes back, doesn’t it, to the idea of taste memories? If you don’t have the taste memory of an excellent pizza, you won’t demand it. Why is charcuterie in the US so crappy compared to Italy or France? Right? Italy has mortadella…

DR: While we have baloney.

JN: Right.

DR: I’m a big believer in the idea that location doesn’t make your product good or bad. You can have great pizza in Phoenix and you can have great pizza in Japan, and you can have great pizza here in Jersey City.

JN: Speaking of great pizza, Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana, who so inspired you back in the day, is back from San Francisco and making pizza again in Manhattan. How excited are you that he’s back?

DR: So excited. I went to the friends/family opening, and it’s phenomenal. It’s very Neapolitan, so different from ours. It’s better than any Neapolitan pizza that I’ve had in Naples.

JN: How would you describe the difference between Neapolitan pizza and yours?

DR: We are anti-Neapolitan, actually. Everything about Neapolitan pizza, we are not. Neapolitans are generally looking for something that’s baked in 60 to 90 seconds, which ultimately leads to a softer crust. They’re looking for something that has a little bit of resistance in your teeth, but that is light, airy, and soft.

JN: I always compare it to the Indian bread naan, charred but soft.

DR: Sure. Americans like crispy. We like crispy pizza. We eat it with our hands. Neapolitan pizza is soft and wet, you need a fork and knife. There’s something beautiful about that, and mopping up the soupy bits with your crust. That’s a great thing. But in the United States we slice our pizza into triangles typically, and we pick it up with our hands and we want it to shatter when we bite into it. We want it to be sturdy enough to not sag or droop when you pick it up. We’re part of an American artisanal pizza movement that’s happening here in the United States.

JN: Does your pizza differ from Neapolitan pizza in ingredients as well as style?

DR: Yes. Neapolitan pizza uses only Italian products: bufala mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, Italian olive oil. That makes sense in Naples. But we’re in the United States, so we’re going to use tomatoes from the US – sometimes from California, but right now we’re testing the first Jersey tomatoes.

JN: Those are the ones you were tasting when I arrived?

DR: Yes, we were testing the specific gravity to see how the density would be and how they’d flow on the pizza. We’re taking the Italian ideologies and mentalities surrounding pizza and food in general, but applying it here. We’re using the ingredients that are right here. Use the ingredients available in your area, because that’s what makes sense, from so many standpoints, but certainly from a flavor standpoint. We don’t use buffalo-milk mozzarella because it’s meant to be eaten the day it’s made or the next day, so by the time it gets here it’s flat-out old. We don’t use 00 flour. It’s typically milled in Italy, but they don’t grow enough wheat, so they import the wheat, often from the United States. So [the US] ships it there, they grind it, and they ship it back. It’s a massive drain on our environment. I see something wrong with that. Why don’t we just find the mill closest to us, which happens to be 15 minutes away from here? That just makes sense to me.

JN: What are you using for mozzarella these days?

DR: We’re making our own.

JN: So you buy the curd and stretch it?

DR: Yeah, we have to. We’ve tried everything on the market.

JN: What happened to the bufala producer in New Jersey?

DR: They went out of business, even though the product was phenomenal.

JN: And you were using it?

DR: For all of last year.

JN: So that’s the second US producer making an excellent product to go out of business; Woodstock Water Buffalo was the other. Why can’t they make it? Is there no market?

DR: Oh, there’s a market. But the climate is too cold. They like heat; that’s why they’re all down near Naples in Italy. This past winter was really tough on the herd in Jersey. A lot just didn’t make it, and that was it.

JN: Could you say a little about the flour you’re using, the one that’s milled locally?

DR: We’re using a blend of two or three different flours right now. Our product is a living, breathing thing. Our process is always changing. There’s no saying, This is how we do it. Sometimes we’ll do it this way for a stretch of time, and then we’ll want to learn something else, so we’ll change one variable, like one of the flours in our blend, the water content of the dough by 1%, just to see what it does. We’ll change the fermentation temperature from 78 degrees to 73 degrees. We’ll change the feeding schedule of the starter. One variable at a time over a long period of time. So there’s no definitive answer about how we do it.

JN: Although you have a great mill close by, have you ever thought about doing any in-house milling, as Marc Vetri in Philadelphia has begun to do?

DR: I’ve grown a plot of wheat a couple of years ago, and we got a few bushels which needed to be hand-milled. But I don’t have the time to be a miller, and a baker, and a business owner. Milling grain is a complete science unto itself. I want to let the master millers do that. I could also make my own plates, as a potter…

JN: [Laughter]

DR: You know, I could do that too. But would I do it well? Probably not. I could even harvest the clay from some soil here in New Jersey, make the plates, and serve my pizza on it. But I’m probably not going to be good at it.

JN: So you’re not milling like they are at Vetri, but like Marc Vetri you’ve been critical of the term “farm-to-table.” Could you explain your opposition to that term?

DR: I don’t like it because it’s a buzzword now, like the word fresh was ten years ago. It just becomes meaningless. McDonalds started using the world “fresh.” It’s just a stupid term for a philosophy that for me is ingrained in what I do. It’s the way things are supposed to be. If you want to eat food, eat food grown close to where you live. What’s foreign to me is putting all the farms in the middle of nowhere, growing one or two crops, and shipping the food to where the people are. It leads to so many detrimental things. It’s so terrible.

JN: Is there a word or phrase that you prefer, or do you object to any description of the model you’re talking about? Because you want people to know that you’re doing something unusual, no?

DR: I’d rather have them not know it. On our menu there is no mention of a specific farm or anything like that. We might talk about it. For example, if I get some strawberries from my neighbor and drive them up to the restaurant and put them on a salad, having never seen a refrigerator, we can talk about that with our customers. But we don’t have to say “farm to table” restaurant.

JN: You’d rather have them just enjoy the product?

DR: Yes.

JN: I guess it’s a little bit like European wineries eschewing the term “organic” on their label, even though they are organic.

DR: Yeah, exactly. It feels like a marketing ploy. The most important part of what we do is creating a great product. It doesn’t matter where the ingredients come from. Everything else is secondary. The quality of the ingredients is the most important factor, and for me the best ingredients are local ingredients, but it’s not about being dogmatic. Everything else – the story behind it – comes second.

JN: So, local is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

DR: Exactly. I don’t care about the marketing behind it. For example, my social media is almost non-existent. I’m not trying to sell us as a restaurant.

JN: As in, you don’t have social media accounts or you just don’t care about it?

DR: I just don’t care about it. I do it myself, but rarely, because it’s just not important to me. What’s important is the product and giving our guests a real product that’s genuinely delicious, and serving it in a way that is hospitable, caring, and warm.

JN: Is your feeling about social media just a personal one, or are you making a broader generalization? In general, do you think social media has been a blessing or a curse to the food world?

DR: I don’t think I’m smart enough to comment on it. All I know is that it doesn’t make me happy. It makes me happy to have my hands in dough, making pizza and serving that pizza to real guests in a real way on an everyday basis, not just snapping a picture of it and having people “like” it on my social media. That does nothing for me. Having a lot of followers does nothing for me. What makes me happy is the smile I get when a customer enjoys my pizza, and having a conversation with them about the pizza and about life in general. That’s what makes me happy.

JN: I’d like to talk about the #MeToo movement as it relates to restaurants. We mentioned Mario [Batali] earlier, and about how many people don’t even want to talk to him or about him, as if he’s dead, which doesn’t seem to me like a healthy thing. Having worked in the business for some time, I’m curious if you have anything to say about this cultural moment?

DR: Yes, it’s terrible. There are good people and bad people everywhere in every industry. The restaurant business is a high-stress environment.

JN: Right. Low pay and high stress: not a good combination.

DR: I think bad people should be called out, and when they make bad choices they need to be called out because it’s not acceptable to speak to someone in the wrong way or insinuate certain things. This stuff is ridiculous. I can’t even believe it’s a thing. It’s sad.

JN: Do you think the cultural moment we’re in will lead to lasting changes in the industry?

DR: People simply don’t want to be yelled at, or harassed, or any of that. We try to take care of each other and be there for each other. It’s amazing to me – I mean, I can’t even fathom people talking to me that way. I would never talk to anyone that way. It’s terrible.

JN: We have just a few minutes left, but I can’t believe we’ve talked a whole hour without getting around to talking about butter. To some people, you’re just as famous for your butter as for your pizza. Could you describe how your decision to make butter came about?

DR: Yeah. It came about because I was studying fermentation, and I wanted to ferment everything I could possibly find. I started making my own yogurt, then I realized I could make my own crème fraîche. I was making amazing bread and so I thought, Why am I not making my own butter? As we said at the beginning, pizza is bread with condiments. In a way, what is a simpler form of that idea than bread and butter? It’s like an even more simple version of pizza.

JN: Interesting.

DR: Obviously there are differences, but it’s the same idea. So I started sourcing the best cream I could find, a grass-fed cream from Pennsylvania that was just phenomenal. We use an heirloom Scandinavian culture, and it’s very similar to the sourdough bread process: we take a little of the fermented cream, add it back into the next day’s fresh cream to start the fermentation, and it begins to bacterially ferment the cream, lowering its pH and giving it a mild cheese-like tang. And then we churn it. So the butter really is alive and constantly changing. We keep it at room temperature, so even during the night we’ll see a change in its flavor from the beginning to the end of restaurant service. That’s something I love: the variety and variability.

JN: Absolutely.

DR: It’s always delicious but it is subtly different. There are massive seasonal differences based on the grass and the diet of the cows the cream comes from.

JN: Just to be clear for those who don’t know, culturing butter is extremely rare these days. Except for some of the imported European products, butter is made from cream which has never been inoculated.

DR: Definitely. But in the past, before pasteurization, this is how all butter was made. The raw milk had naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in it which are killed by pasteurization, which is why we have to reintroduce them.

JN: Why do you take the extra trouble to culture your butter?

DR: Once you’ve tasted cultured butter, it’s hard to go back to sweet cream butter. There’s a massive difference in flavor profile.

butter

JN: When you started, was anyone else doing the same thing that inspired you?

DR: There is now, but there wasn’t then. I mean, I certainly didn’t invent the idea. I’m sure people were doing it, but nobody I knew. For me it was just an organic, natural progression.

JN: It really reminds me of what you said earlier about applying an Italian approach to an American practice. No one in Italy serves butter as a condiment for bread, but Americans do, so why not adopt an Italian mindset to an American practice?

DR: Yes, without a doubt.

JN: My final question is about meatballs. You and I share an affection for meatballs of high quality, and yet even in Italy it can be hard to find the best examples. Yours are some of the only I’ve had that really inspire me. Could you tell us what meatballs mean to you?

DR: So, I grew up eating meatballs in a certain way. My mom made them. Were they phenomenal? Not really, but it’s all I knew.

JN: [Laughter] Sorry, mom!

DR: Yeah, exactly. When I was in Parma, Italy, I went to a little take-out deli-type place. It had no tables, so we ordered some meatballs and they wrapped them up for me. I sat on a street corner in Parma, and I tasted this meatball that I had never tasted before. It was tender and melted in your mouth. It wasn’t dense. It was light and airy, not this compact, all-meat sort of thing. That meatball completely changed my view of meatballs. After that trip, I immediately started practicing meatballs, really picking it apart. How do you get that texture? What is a meatball? A meatball is a great way to use up some spare parts of meat that you have. Grind up whatever you have: beef, pork, whatever. Because meatballs are a dish of poverty, we take leftover bread, and that’s what lightens it up. So for our meatballs, since we have some day-old bread from our bread-making and since we have buttermilk from our butter-making, it’s just a natural thing to soak the day-old bread in the buttermilk and incorporate that into the meat that we have. Then we throw them on a tray and throw them in the brick oven because that’s the heat source we have.

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JN: Where do you think most people go wrong? Is it the common practice of using pulverized dried bread crumbs instead of fresh, soaked bread, or something else? I mean, it’s so sad that something that can be so delicious is more often so dreadful, even in Italy.

DR: I think people typically don’t use any or enough bread. We use really big chunks of our bread…

JN: So it has some texture too?

DR: Yes, and the bread is super airy, so it creates this negative space in your mouth. Like in a black and white photo. In the meatball you have the meat, but you need something for contrast. The bread is that negative space. When your teeth bite through it, you perceive that airiness — that negative space — in your mouth.

JN: That’s such a great insight. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’re amped up to talk about?

DR: I’m amped up to talk about anything! Especially food-related, science-related. I think that stuff’s awesome. But I’m so hyper-focused on one specific thing – making pizza – that I don’t feel qualified to comment on really big important things. I leave that to people who are really smart – like our friend Katie Parla. I can comment on pizza and flour and tomatoes.

JN: Where do you like to eat these days when you’re not working?

DR: I have a one-year-old and a two-year-old, so right now I’m eating at home pretty much every night!

JN: Thanks again for your time, Dan. Can’t wait to return in a few minutes for dinner. There’s no place I’d rather eat right now than Razza. It’s just so good!

Marcella’s thoughts on using starchy pasta water

It’s become more and more common to see in contemporary Italian cookbooks what used to be mostly a restaurant technique: finishing pasta in a saute pan with its sauce and some of the pasta cooking water. The idea is to emulsify the dissolved starch in the water with the oil or butter in the sauce to create a creamier sauce which adheres well to the pasta.

It’s a useful technique, and I use it a lot. But I’ve always kept in mind Marcella Hazan’s thoughts on the subject. It’s an important topic, so I quote her at length from her wonderful book Marcella Cucina — perhaps her most splendid book — written at the height of her powers after almost three decades of teaching and more than a decade living full-time in Venice:

“Home cooks have long known that the water in which the pasta cooked contained some dissolved starch, and they used a spoonful of this water as a thickener, adding it to the sauce, to which they gave a very fast blast of heat and a swirl or two before tossing it with the pasta.

Restaurant cooks have gone further. They drain the pasta when it is quite underdone, add the pasta and some of its water to a skillet containing the sauce, and toss it over high heat for a minute or so…. Today, in restaurant after restaurant, it imparts the same tedious, faintly gelatinous texture to what otherwise have been fresh and lively sauces [my emphasis]. When used occasionally it is to impart a special consistency to a dish. When the practice becomes routine, it ends by being boring.”

Marcella’s advice, it has sometimes seemed to me, is often more revered than followed. This is a great example, as I’ve never see anyone refer to her thoughts on the issue. Of course, Marcella was a great cook and a great teacher, but she wasn’t infallible. Just because she thought something doesn’t make it so.

Still, I think she’s on to something here, and it’s an issue that deserves thought and attention among serious cooks. For me, the main advantage of the technique is that it keeps the dish piping hot until the moment it is transferred to its serving bowl. And as Marcella mentions, sometimes it imparts a special flavor or texture. Specifically she recommends it when making spaghetti with clams, because the pasta absorbs the super-flavorful clam juices as it finishes cooking.

So, it’s not that the technique is wrong. But as Marcella says, when it becomes routine it becomes boring. If every sauce has that same, starchy, creamy texture, we lose the delight that comes from variety. Most importantly, as she says, it loses the “fresh and lively” character that many of us find so appealing in Italian cooking.

Many journalists and cookbook authors have presented the technique as the “secret” to cooking pasta like an Italian. But don’t be fooled. Not every pasta sauce has to be creamy any more than every plate of potatoes needs to be crispy! Keep it as a tool in your arsenal, to be used judiciously and with good reason, but don’t employ it unthinkingly or by rote, just because restaurant chefs do it!

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The classic Roman dish Spaghetti aglio e olio, made without starchy pasta water for a more direct and lively flavor and texture.

 

 

Chickpea salad with leeks and celery

It started in Bologna. At Ristorante Da Fabio, they serve a salad of celery and parmigiano. That’s it. Dressed every so slightly with olive oil and lemon juice, it is the most exposed dish one could possibly imagine. When I take clients there, it always makes the deepest impression of any of the dishes. How could something so minimalistic provide so much flavor?

I had a similar experience recently at Razza, in Jersey City. I was with my son Peter, who loves chickpeas but is not an adventurous eater, and we ordered a little appetizer of chickpeas with scallions and parmigiano. Like the salad at Da Fabio, every aspect of the little minimalistic dish was perfect.

Both dishes inspired me to create a chickpea salad that would feature celery. It differs quite a bit from the dishes that inspired it (no parmigiano for example), but the defining concept is the same: a minimal number of ingredients assembled in perfect balance and harmony. It’s the sort of thing that inspires me most as a cook.

Here’s the version we settled upon for service at the restaurant last month. Perhaps it’s not quite as minimalistic as the dishes that inspired it, but it’s close. A big part of its success is dependent on the fresh celery we grow on the farm. This is not the mild, watery celery from California. It has intense aroma and a profusion of leaves, perfect for chopping fine and including in the salad. If you know anyone who grows celery, using fresh, local, aromatic celery will certainly enhance the dish. But if store-bought is the best you can do, be at peace with it. Ditto for the chickpeas. The best are bought dried, soaked overnight, and boiled until tender. But if you need to use canned chickpeas, don’t beat yourself up! Just make sure to get a good brand. To me, Goya is the best: perfectly seasoned and properly tender.

If you don’t owe a scale, go buy one now! It’s the best $30 you can spend for your kitchen.    Makes things simpler and more accurate.

Chickpea Salad with Celery and Leeks (makes 6 appetizer servings)

If using dried beans, soak them overnight if possible to reduce the cooking time. In the morning, replace most of the water with fresh, add salt, bring to a gentle boil, and simmer very gently until tender. Make sure to season the beans properly!! 1 pound (450 grams) of dried beans requires about 1 tablespoon of salt and will yield about 2.5 pounds  (1125 grams) of cooked beans. I cook my beans covered and then remove the lid near the end and reduce the water until it’s just above the level of the beans. If soaked, they should take 2 to 3 hours to become tender, but you need to check to be sure. Don’t go by the clock.

If using canned beans, rinse in fresh water. If they’re not tender enough, boil them for a bit. If not seasoned properly, fix it.

To make the salad, combine about 375 grams cooked chickpeas with 50 grams chopped celery and 50 grams chopped leeks (or scallions). Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 heaping tablespoon lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried hot pepper, 50 grams olive oil, and a generous bit of chopped celery or parsley leaves.

The salad can be served at once or allowed to steep for several hours while the flavors meld. It could be refrigerated if necessary, but I would only do it as a last resort. Just before serving, taste and correct for seasoning (salt, lemon juice, etc.) and garnish with a drizzle of fresh olive oil and possibly some freshly ground black pepper.

Chickpea salad

Another way with asparagus

IMG_2503As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was a problem:

I only cook them one way: briefly boiled and sautéed in something savory. There are surely other ways to do it, but sometimes when one way works it’s all you need or want!

This, from my post on asparagus a few weeks ago. It was true. It really is the only way I’d ever really cooked asparagus. But as I wrote I thought: How lame is that. A cooking teacher and chef who only cooks asparagus one way!

It spurred me to action. I resolved to roast some asparagus, allowing the dry heat to work its magic on the asparagus, concentrating its flavor and hopefully slightly charring the exterior.

Many chefs and home cooks love roasting vegetables of all types. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been slow to adopt that method. I cook almost all of my vegetables with moist heat on the stove top. Of course, it’s simpler on the stove top if the oven’s not on, and quicker too.

But it seemed like time to begin roasting, and asparagus is what I had. The first attempt, following a standard roasting time of about 10 minutes at 400 degrees, was only semi-successful. With our just-harvested asparagus, the cooking time was too long and the asparagus was mush, a good reminder of how even well-intentioned recipes can go astray based on faulty assumptions. A second attempt with a 5 minute cooking time was just right. With week-old asparagus the 10 minute cooking time was better, showing just how much freshness affects not only flavor but also time needed to cook.

The asparagus was delicious, more moist than I would have thought from the dry heat and perhaps not that different from boiling and sautéing, but with just a slightly different character. If the oven’s already on, you can’t beat the simplicity. Season carefully with salt and pepper and first-rate olive oil and throw in the oven, the kind of minimalistic cooking I love so much.

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Back from the cliff

The kids and I listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car. Currently, it’s the final book in the Emily trilogy of LM Montgomery, more famous for the Anne of Green Gables series. In the book, Emily, after a major life disappointment and illness, becomes engaged to an older man, Dean, whom she’s always looked up to as a friend and kindred spirit, even though she’s always given her heart to a younger man, Teddy, who doesn’t seem to reciprocate her affections. She figures that it is Dean who has been true to her, Dean who has always loved and heaped affection upon her, and Dean with whom she is most comfortable and at ease. They get engaged. They buy and furnish a house. They set a date for the wedding. It is all eminently sensible and desirable.

Except it’s not. Emily finally faces the truth: she loves Teddy and not Dean. She can’t explain it. She knows Teddy doesn’t reciprocate her affections and that she’s dooming herself to a life of lonely solitude. But she rejects what is comfortable, safe, and reasonable – but dishonest – in favor of what is risky and inexplicable, but true.

I had my own Emily moment this week. After a glorious start to our CSA season in May, the last week has been tough. We lost our first crop of cucumbers to the spider mite (a first!) and our first two plantings of carrots – an essential staple in our CSA – have been stunted and malformed (another first!). The cool weather has kept our tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant from maturing on schedule. And on Saturday I hurt my back. As I woke up on Monday morning at 6:00 am to harvest – back too stiff to work without soaking it in a hot bath, and lacking two major CSA staples – it began to seem like I’d reached a breaking point. The farm was keeping me from my family, from keeping the house clean, from studying Italian, and from any sense of relaxation. I wasn’t sure we’d have enough vegetables to harvest for the CSA in two weeks without the carrots and cukes. I told my wife that maybe it was time to finally admit defeat and suspend the CSA mid-season.

It would have been a comfortable, safe, and reasonable thing to do. I would have time for daily writing, time to make real progress in my Italian, time for the kids, and time to just take it easy a bit. Perhaps my farming life would have seemed crazy in retrospect. My wife would likely have been relieved.

But like Emily, it would have been comfortable but dishonest. Like Emily, I’m animated by a desire I can’t quite explain, one that nourishes and feeds me while being completely impractical. If I’m honest, I’m never happier than when I’m farming. The creativity, the connection to land, the production of something healthful and useful… all of these explain the attraction, but only imperfectly. Like Emily, my passion for farming is ultimately inexplicable, but no less true for being so.

I realized it later in the day talking to my extension agent, who had come to diagnose the trouble with the cukes and carrots. Even looking those disasters in the face, talking to him about the farm revived me. Thinking about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future reanimated me. Walking the fields thrilled me. I knew the sacrifices were real and needed to be continually considered. I knew I was taking the road less traveled and the road more torturous, but I knew that if I were honest I had to admit that it was the farm that most fed me and my passion for farming that was the great passion of my life.

Like any decision which one almost makes – walking away from a difficult marriage or an imperfect job – and later realizes would have been a disaster, the decision to continue on with the CSA come hell or high water has been a relief. It has breathed new life into what was becoming tedious drudgery. I came back from the cliff, and like a literal near-death experience, I’m left feeling more alive than ever.

on growing and cooking asparagus

May is one of my favorite months. The work of vegetable production in May can be oppressive, with never enough time to accomplish everything that must be done, but the month is redeemed by glorious weather and the presence of fresh asparagus.

I had always cooked and enjoyed asparagus, but it’s only when I started to harvest our own about four years ago that my enjoyment turned to obsession. Asparagus is one of those vegetables that is so different when freshly harvested that I’d rather go without for 11 months of the year than settle for the old, pale imitation one finds in the store. There aren’t many vegetables I feel that strongly about, but asparagus is one.

When it’s grown in fertile soil, freshly harvested, and cooked with care, asparagus has such a clean, fresh flavor; the opposite of the store-bought, strong-tasting, slimy asparagus that must be peeled and cooked with great care to make it delicious.

Much of the advice about selecting and prepping asparagus is all wrong, at least for freshly-harvested asparagus. Everyone says to look for the slender, delicate spears. But in my experience, it’s the biggest, fattest, meatiest ones (the kind you never see in the store) that provide the most pleasure. Most people say to partially peel the asparagus, especially on larger spears, but it’s completely unnecessary when the asparagus is fresh. I’ve seen moist cooking (steaming, boiling) times of 4 to 6 minutes, but even the thickest spears for me are ready in 2 minutes. Most say to trim off the woody bottom end, but that’s only necessary with asparagus which has begun to dry out or which was harvested too low to the ground instead of snapped where it’s naturally tender. Some people even buy the extraneous kitchen device known as an asparagus pot, where the spears cook upright in boiling water with only their tips out of the water so they don’t overcook. Good grief. No wonder some people find cooking asparagus intimidating!

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Big, fat ones are the best!

I always encourage people to grow it if they can, but it’s a vegetable that requires patience and skill. The plants need about three years to establish themselves during which time they can’t be harvested much at all, but once established they continue to produce for up to 20 years! It’s the ultimate test of commitment, a long-term relationship second only to marriage. And like a marriage, inadequate preparation of the plot reduces chances of success. Soil must be fertile, high in organic matter, and weed-free. Keeping on top of weeds is the hardest part, and also like a marriage, small problems left unaddressed can fester into catastrophic failure!

But all the hard work is worth it once the asparagus is in the kitchen. I trim them all to a uniform 8 to 10 inches (depending on the size of my pan) and roughly sort them by size. I only cook them one way: briefly boiled and sautéed in something savory. There are surely other ways to do it, but sometimes when one way works it’s all you need or want!

Asparagus season is almost over here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but there’s still a week or so to go if you know someone who grows it or someone who sells it fresh. Maybe  you’ll even be inspired to add it to your own garden! Just make sure to do the prep work. You’ll be in it for the long haul!

Sautéed Asparagus with Pancetta

  1. Begin by trimming the asparagus to uniform lengths which just fit in your pot when laid horizontally. I trim to 8 inches and use a high-sided sauté pan. You could also use a soup pot of some kind, but whatever I use I only fill it with enough water to cover the asparagus by an inch or so.
  2. In a separate pan I brown a little pancetta, or bacon, or guanciale in a little high-quality olive oil. The amount of meat, of course, is at your discretion. It can be a small flavoring or a major component of the finished dish. It will render fat perfect for sautéeing the asparagus, but if there’s way too much, pour off some of it.
  3. When the meat has been lightly browned, remove from heat. To cook the asparagus, bring the water to a vigorous boil and salt it like pasta water (1 to 2 tablespoons for every 4 quarts). In my sauté pan I use 2 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon salt. Add the asparagus spears. They can be crowded in the water, but they do need a little room to move around and they should come back to a boil within 30 seconds or so when covered. In my pan I can cook up to 12 thick spears at a time.
  4. Even my thickest spears cook in 2 minutes. When lifted from the pan, a spear should just slightly bend or droop. Just slightly. They’ll continue cooking while they cool. For me it’s always 2 minutes, but every kitchen is different.
  5. Remove the asparagus to a cutting board and slice in half to yield 4 inch pieces. This is not necessary, of course, but they fit a little better on little plates this way. Immediately return them to the pan with the browned pancetta and toss quickly (just 15 seconds or so). It’s done off heat so it’s not really a sauté I guess, but it’s the closest description I can think of!
  6. Even though cooked in salted water, the cooking time is so short that the asparagus will probably need a little more seasoning. I rarely salt any dish just before serving, but in this case I do, using coarse flakes of Maldon Salt.
  7. Finish with a little drizzle of high-quality olive oil and freshly grated black pepper. Or perhaps go in a different direction with a little hot pepper and/or grated lemon zest.

ASparagus

 

an interview with Alana Chernila

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Alana Chernila is a food writer, author, and cooking teacher based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of three cookbooks: The Homemade Pantry, The Homemade Kitchen, and Eating from the Ground Up, all published by Clarkson Potter. She teaches classes through Craftsy and blogs at Eating from the Ground Up. You’ll also find her at the Indian Line Farm stand at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, a gig that first sparked her interest in cooking and food writing.

In the interview, we touch on her life-changing experience at St. John’s College, how to approach food without fear, and why so much restaurant cooking is disappointing.

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Justin Naylor: Thanks so much for making the time to talk today. I’m really excited, among other reasons, because we both went to the same college, St. John’s, which is famous for changing lives. Could you briefly describe St. John’s for those who are unfamiliar with it, and how your time there has affected the person you are now and the work that you do?

Alana Chernila: St. John’s is a Great Books college, and it’s really the only one of its kind in the country. The curriculum covers the history of thought in Western civilization from the Greeks all the way up until the 20th century. Everyone is committed to the exact same curriculum, so the whole school can have conversations about the same works, from philosophy and literature to math and science. Before St. John’s, right out of high school, I went to NYU for theatre. I dropped out really fast, after a semester. After a lot of twists and turns, I was waitressing at a restaurant in my hometown, and I had a friend who was about ten years older than I was. She said, “I went to Harvard, but I really wish I had gone to St. John’s.”

So I went and ended up doing well, but it was really hard and I struggled a lot, especially with math. I remember leaving junior year math tutorial every day and just crying. I hadn’t taken calculus and it just seemed so impossible. But somehow I got through it and ended up being a sort of model Johnnie in my senior year. I actually ended up winning an award at graduation!

After I graduated, I felt like a whole different person from who I was before. I thought of applying for a Fulbright and becoming an academic. I thought about going to medical school, or becoming a lawyer. Like a lot of Johnnies, I walked out and just felt like every option was open because I learned that even if we think we’re one kind of person, if we give ourselves the chance to work through something we can really be any kind of person. And I don’t think I could have ever gotten that lesson without St. John’s.

JN: And that’s the the main takeaway from SJC in regard to what you’re doing now?

AC: Exactly. I felt the world was so opened to me. But then a month later I got pregnant. My husband is also a Johnnie, and we graduated together. We met senior year, so we were newly together, but we had decided already that we would get married. We got pregnant, and then somehow what ended up happening was I had to apply all of that Oh, I can do anything, to OK, I can have a baby and be a mom. And it was the right lesson for that also, you know?

JN: Absolutely. After graduating, how did you end up focusing on food?

AC: It was a pretty wandering path. For about five years, I did all sorts of jobs. I had our second child less than two years after our first, so I did anything that would allow me to be with them and make some money. At one point, I opened a school out of my house for homeschoolers that was a mini-St. John’s, so I was teaching things like Euclid to high schoolers. I did that for a while, then I worked for a film director and traveled around the world with a film. I did all sorts of strange things because I was just open to whatever came to me.

JN: Did you travel with the kids?

AC: No, they were a little bit older, so I could leave. Then I worked for my stepfather, who is an architect, and started studying green building. I was just trying to figure it out; I was going all over the place. Through it all, I was also working at the farmers’ market, just as a job.

JN: Back in Massachusetts at that point?

AC: Yes, we were back in Great Barrington, and I was working at the farmers’ market, just sort of struggling. I was having that thing that people often have in their late twenties when they feel like they have to figure out what they’re doing in the world. I really, really loved working at the farmers’ market because I was talking to people about recipes. I didn’t really know how to cook; I grew up around food, and my mom is a great cook. I wasn’t a great cook, but I was having to teach myself how to cook all these different vegetables, and I loved having these kinds of conversations with people, like, Seven things you can do with a radish. It took me a while to realize that I was coming home from the farmers’ market totally charged and pumped. One night, I’m having a drink with a friend and I’m like, Woe is me, I don’t know what to do with my life; I love the market… and she said, “Well, you should start a blog, and then you can start writing your recipes down.” This was before everyone had a blog; this was 2008. I left the restaurant, and in the car ride home it took me five minutes; I was like, I’m going to start a blog when I get home, and it’s going to be called ‘Eating from the Ground Up.’ I came home and I started a website right there, and I wrote my first post. That became kind of my lifeline. I was starting to keep track of these recipes for vegetables, and I found that writing about food opened me up and gave me a push to be able to write what was going on in my life —  parenthood and marriage and all the things that I lived with. It was like things would magically come together and I would sit down and I would just write. I had about two readers, but even those two readers made me feel like I wanted to create something for them.

I started to get really into this idea of making my own food staples. I started with yogurt, and because I had this forum on the blog to actually talk about it, it inspired me to keep going until I could really get it down. I did yogurt, I learned how to make cheese, granola, just simple things. These posts were the things that people really liked. I thought, What can I make next? How can I make a Ritz cracker? It got really fun. My kids were little, they were 3 and 5, so it was a fun time to be cooking. I started searching around – I feel like this is the origin story for so many books, but this is what really happened – I started searching around for books that could help me figure out how to make more things, and I found that there were very few resources. I was thinking about that, and somebody, again, said, “Well, why don’t you write the book?” and I was like, What? That’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how to make this stuff! One of the jobs I had had was working for someone in publishing, and I brought the idea to her, and she was like, “You’re going to do this. This absolutely needs to happen.” She connected me with a few agents, and one of them was crazy enough to take me on, even though I had two readers and no platform.

JN: That’s really interesting to me, too, because so often aspiring cookbook writers are told that they won’t even be considered without some massive platform.

AC: Well, I got lucky because I connected with a really amazing human being. He’s still my agent now. When people come to me who are feeling excited about trying to write a book, and they get sad because maybe they don’t have a million followers on Facebook, or whatever, I always say that I actually think that even though we hear that platform is everything, the truth is that editors and agents really want good books. They’ll fight for good books, even if it’s someone where nobody knows who they are. I’ve seen that over and over again, not just with me, but with other writers too. They want it; it means that publishing is alive. It’s not just about numbers. When you find something that speaks to you, you fight for it. You have to talk that line, about the platform, but I always tell people not to be scared or intimidated by that. I think there’s a lot of space for writers who might not be coming at it with that sort of platform behind them.

JN: In your first book, The Homemade Pantry, your writing has a really nice balance of confidence and self-deprecation. You’re honest about what you don’t know, and there are a lot of funny stories about that kind of thing in the book. Was it a conscious choice to balance these two things, or is it just who you are? I find it very effective and appealing.

AC: Good, I’m so glad! I think it’s really who I am, and it goes back to my St. John’s days. I think I did well there because I always asked good questions. You know the person at the table who’s like, “Hold on, can we go back? What’s going on?” And then half the room would be like, Oh, thank God somebody asked. [Laughter] So, it’s sort of the same thing, I think, in my writing recipes. There are things that I know, and there are things that I do well, but there are so many things that I don’t know and I don’t understand. I feel like I can often get to more understanding through practice and exploration, but I feel like it’s so important to come to the kitchen with a sense of humor. Because the fact is, the worst thing that’s going to happen in the kitchen is that your food is going to come out terrible, and if you have any sense of experimentation and adventure in the kitchen, it’s going to happen quite a bit – or at least, sometimes.

From the very beginning, it always felt good to me to be writing from a place where people felt like I was in the kitchen with them. You know, I always say, Here I am, I’m right at your shoulder. We have a couch in the kitchen, so say I’m sitting on the couch, I’m drinking a glass of wine, and I’m telling you what you should be seeing or not seeing, or if you mess up, how to fix it – just coming from a place of that sort of beginner feeling and sense of humor, and just not taking yourself so seriously. That always felt like where I wanted to be in the kitchen, and that was always the attitude that I wanted to share.

JN: Do you feel like a lot of cookbooks you see take themselves too seriously?

AC: I do, I do. And I feel like it doesn’t often do a service to the reader, because it so often excludes them from the promise of the book. I feel that way often with a lot of cheffy, restaurant-y cookbooks. It’s like a party that you’re watching from the outside window, you know? It’s not just about the humor; I feel like a lot of my responsibility to the reader is also to be really thorough and clear and really good with my instructions. They’ve taken the time to read my book, and I’d better make it worth their while. I feel like that’s the other side: yes, I’m there with a sense of humor, and I’m trying to make sure that they don’t take themselves too seriously, but I also don’t want to let them down. Hopefully I can give them the tools, all the different words and descriptions that are going to help them learn how to create what they want to make.

JN: I can imagine that a lot of people who see the book think, Oh, I don’t have time. I can’t make pop-tarts from scratch, I can’t even find time to make ricotta, or whatever. What kind of compelling case would you make for why people might really try to find the time to make these things at home that can be so easily purchased?

AC: First, I think it’s important to come to that question without a sense of guilt. I think a lot of people, when they think about making things at home, feel guilty already that they don’t, or they feel self-righteous that they never would, or judgmental of those who do. Because there’s all these self-protections and insecurities. There is this image of that parent, or whoever, who’s home all day and has the luxury of endless time, and just makes everything. Their pantry is a perfect assortment of homemade jars of this and that, there’s the chickens out back, and the garden that all gets preserved in Mason jars. That is a real aspiration, but it’s easy to judge, because it’s like, who has time for that, right? So, I often encourage people to step out of that idea of what they should be doing, or their judgments of things, and then to think about one thing that they might want to create – if there’s one food that they love so much and they feel excited at the idea of making it themselves. Often, yogurt is a really great gateway.

JN: And it’s one where, I think, you actually would save money.

AC: It actually is cheaper, yeah, and it tastes great. Sometimes bread is the gateway for people, because it’s so satisfying to make. Everyone has their own food like that. Then, I see it over and over again: you make that one food, and when it works and you love it, the sense of satisfaction and buzz around that one recipe is so powerful. It’s like, all you need is to make your own granola and you feel self-sufficient. You feel like a pioneer! Whatever it is, it is deeply satisfying. Sometimes all you need is that one thing, and you just stay with that one thing. That’s enough. Or sometimes one thing leads to another, and then because you love to make it, you make the time. I think you have to start with the love, and the time comes. If you try to create the time, then you’re sort of going about it backwards, because you’re always going to find other things to do.

JN: Right! That seems really important to me. I had someone point out to me once that we tend to do the things that we are good at. People always say that they don’t have time to cook, but I always thought, What are you talking about? You find time to work out every day! If you can get someone to feel competent – to actually enjoy something, like you say – then they’re willing to spend time on something that they feel empowered about. But if it’s the other way, it’s not going to work. I think that’s really important and interesting, and I haven’t heard that point made very often in public. So, I’m glad you’re making it.

AC: Yes, and it’s the way that I operate. As humans, we’re so funny: we don’t ever do the things that are good for us. You know what I mean? We all know we should be meditating, and doing this, and doing that, but why are those things so hard to do? Well, because there are so many other things we want to do! If we can start with the want, and just find that one thing that gives us pleasure, then that’s such an easier gateway into that process.

JN: Something else we don’t feel like we have time for, which you also write about in your books, is socializing over food. The potluck, the dinner party, this sort of thing – it has really died, for a couple of reasons. Time is one, but even if people do want to visit with friends over food, it tends to happen at a restaurant and not in people’s homes, for some of the same reasons – they feel insecure, they don’t know what to cook, they don’t feel like their cooking is good enough, etc. It seems like you guys have really prioritized that. Do you have a weekly event, or a monthly event?

AC: Yes, for a couple of years we had a group that met every week, every Tuesday.

JN: Could you talk a little bit about not only the value of cooking for ourselves and our families at home, but the value of sharing our cooking with our friends? What can we do to foster that, in a culture that feels like there’s not time to even cook a simple meal for ourselves, let alone carve away a whole evening to visit with neighbors and friends?

AC: Yeah, I think it is hard to make time for that. Again, it’s so easy to fill our lives with other things. This Tuesday group that we had for a couple of years was started by a friend of mine who was so driven to make it happen – and that really helped, we had this taskmaster. Unfortunately, he moved away, so now we meet every so often, but I’ve actually been thinking that we need to bring it back. I’m starting to feel motivated again. A big part of its success was that you had to go. There was a theme every week, so that would help guide your cooking. But you had to cook. There was no bringing, like, bread and cheese or anything – you just had to do it. Everyone had to host equally; when it was your turn, it was your turn. Unless you were sick, you had to go. There was no backing out. That was really helpful, because the thing is, so often, it would be Tuesday and it would be six o’clock, and I’m struggling to pull my dish together, and then I drag myself there, and all of a sudden my life is just totally different. I’m sitting and drinking a glass of wine with friends, and I’m in this enchanted world because I’m sharing it with people. I would never have been able to pull myself out of my life that way.

JN: How, if at all, is it different from just meeting your friends at a restaurant or a bar?

AC: There’s a couple of reasons. One is that it’s free, which is really important. I mean, it’s not free, since you have to buy the food, but, you know, it’s expensive to go out. We live in the Berkshires, and it’s really expensive to go out. So it’s certainly not something that you do every week. But the thing is, I find that food cooked by friends at home always tastes better. Maybe it’s just because I know a lot of good cooks, but I find that things are fresher and more delicious, and I always enjoy the food more. Also, the experience of hosting is so important, because we, or at least I, get so wrapped up in this idea of having a perfect house and having it be really clean and this and that. It’s important to remember that when you just open up your space to people, people are so happy to be invited over, always. You can invite people over and give them peanut butter and jelly for dinner and they’re going to be so excited that you invited them over and they’re at someone else’s house and they’re not cooking at home and watching Netflix! It doesn’t matter what you cook. It’s really good to remember that. In the end, we might not get together too often these days, like you said, but everybody knows that it’s good to do it – because when you do it, you’re like, This is the best!

JN: You are one of the few people I’ve ever heard say that home cooking is actually more satisfying and more delicious than most restaurant cooking. Because my background is in Italy, I got that lesson early on, mostly from Marcella Hazan, who said the home is always the standard, and that in Italy the best compliment you can give to a restaurant is that its cooking tastes of the home. I’m really interested and excited to hear you say that; very few people seem to believe that. A lot of ambitious home cooks seem like they’re chasing after this restaurant perfection, so I’m wondering why it is that you think that home cooking is not only more satisfying but actually more delicious.

AC: It’s so interesting, what you say about Italy. My theory as to why as to why restaurant food is not so delicious… you know, sometimes I feel – this is a little controversial – sometimes I feel like women make better food than men. So often, the chefs are men in restaurants. Some people get really mad at me when I say that, and I totally understand why. It’s a very gendered stereotype. But occasionally, I’ll find an all-women-owned restaurant, and the food is usually really good.

JN: I tend to agree. What’s the difference, do you think?

AC: I feel – again, I’m going to work on some stereotypes here – that based on my experience, there’s a real ego that men tend to have in the kitchen when they’re in restaurants. I think ego makes food taste bad. You can taste it! And it often comes out as oversalting, or things like that. Weird things. Often, I think there’s less ego from women in the kitchen. Actually, when I went to Italy recently, I got the opportunity to interview this really amazing Italian female chef who teaches kitchen leadership all over the world. She was talking about the difference between men and women in the kitchen in Italy. She was talking about how a lot of it is how you treat your staff, how you relate to your staff, and how the food comes out differently when your staff feels love in being in the kitchen. She said, “I do not scream, and that’s the difference.” So I do think there’s a real gender divide, and it’s palpable in the flavor of the food. But I also think, on a more basic level: say you’re coming over for dinner, and I’m making you dinner. I’m tasting as I go, and I’m making food that I want to eat. So, maybe I know what you like, or maybe we’ve talked and I’m excited to share something in particular with you, and I’m really looking forward to sitting down at the table and eating it with you. I’m tasting it, I’m making sure that it meets my standards. It’s a different process, and I think that process creates better-tasting food. That’s just not what happens in a restaurant.

JN: I don’t think people realize the kind of assembly-line, premade nature of so much restaurant cooking. This is overly harsh, but so much restaurant cooking is basically reheated leftovers.

AC: It really is! Everything has been prepped twelve hours earlier. It’s very different [from home cooking]. Yeah, it’s true, everything was cooked yesterday and then you just, like, put it in the Salamander.

JN: On a different subject, you write in yours books, convincingly and powerfully, about body image and health, especially for women, but it obviously applies to both genders. Specifically, you write about not being afraid of food – you have a whole chapter about that in The Homemade Kitchen. Could you talk about your views on this subject and how they evolved over time?

AC: I’m a mother of two daughters, who are now 13 and 15. I came from a family of round women and inherited that myself, of women with bellies, Eastern European people. And as most people do, I grew up with all these conflicting ideas of what I was supposed to look like and what I was supposed to eat. I went through my own difficult times of trying to control and exercise too much. By the time I realized I was settled in thinking about food, it became a real priority for me to do whatever I could to create a different world for my girls to live in. I just feel like the amount of energy we put into thinking about what we eat and how it makes our bodies look is way too much – this a generalization, but it’s true for most women and probably most humans. It’s so much energy, and it’s such a diversion from what’s important. It sucks up all the energy. I just didn’t want that for them.

I feel that especially in our contemporary food culture, with all these diets and health trends, there are so many people telling you exactly what you should eat and how it will make you feel like a superhero. Making certain foods evil – sugar is evil, dairy is evil, pick your poison – just increases that feeling of obsession about what we eat and what it does to us. I also feel like so many of those diets, although they are really helpful for some people, sort of parade as one thing — but often, weight loss is at the bottom of them, [implying] that if we just could eat this perfect way, we would be so thin and so glowy, and have endless energy. I think it tries to get around the fact that human bodies are painful and mortal, and sometimes dimpled and not smooth, sometimes shaped differently than we wish they were. But also, they work so well, and they have such a capacity for pleasure and good things. I wanted to tap into that. My writing has always been about the pleasure of food, because I think that’s how I can negate [the other attitude]. I eat the things that make me feel joy and pleasure, and I cook the things that make me feel pleasure. It’s hard to live in this world where everyone is a size 0, but it helps to tap into the things that feel good in our bodies.

JN: You write in one of your books that enjoyment itself might be a nutrient, which I think is a great way to put it. But if I could play devil’s advocate for moment, what about someone who takes it too far, as in, I know it’s not good for me, but I really enjoy fast food? I really like having lunch at McDonald’s every day, because it’s quick and it’s cheap and it’s tasty. Where do you draw the line, or when might someone decide to make some changes for the sake of health?

AC: Yeah, I’m married to a fast-food lover. I think that the process of learning what feels good, and eating for pleasure, can help strengthen the skill of intuitively feeling what feels good in your body. Even the most fast-food-loving people that I know, including my husband, can feel when it’s too much. Place and circumstance have so much to do with how good things are. Maybe it’s a Friday afternoon, and I was so hungry after work that I got a cheeseburger from McDonald’s and I sat and ate it, and it was the most amazing thing, and I’ve never had something so delicious. That’s great, but maybe the next day it feels like, Two cheeseburgers in two days? Too much. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, saying that, but I really do think that we have the ability to moderate ourselves if we trust ourselves. Yes, dessert is delicious, but wait, I ate too much dessert and now I don’t feel well. So if we can tune into it and not feel guilty that we ate too much, we can just think, OK, next time I’m pulling back a little bit.

JN: I’m really happy to hear you say that about fast food, because – maybe this isn’t fair – my guess is that most people who are making their own granola and tofu, and so on, probably have a much more judgmental attitude about fast food.

AC: Totally.

JN: I really don’t want my kids to be afraid of any food either, and as long as they can learn to moderate their choices, there’s really no food that is without some merit at some time and in some place.

AC: Yeah, why deny yourself the thing that is perfect in that moment? I have this memory when I was working at a coffeeshop when I was eighteen. I remember there was this woman who used to come in every day with her kid who was four or five. The mom would say, “Do you want a cookie?” and the kid would say, “Yeah, I want chocolate chip,” and the mom would be like, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” and the kid would be like, “Uh-huh,” and the mom would be like, “Are you sure?” – “Uh-huh,” – this mom was teaching this kid not to trust what they wanted! I just thought, I’m never going to do that.

JN: Right on! That’s great.

AC: I just feel like we’re good at understanding what feels good if we can trust ourselves and not feel guilty. I think everything has its place. Gosh, I love a good Five Guys burger and milkshake on a roadtrip. That’s the best! So, yeah, I am very much about every food having its place. Leave it to the person to figure out what feels good for them. That’s definitely what I try to live by, myself.

JN: How successful have you been with your daughters, communicating that message to them? Have they been able to adopt that way of thinking?

AC: I’m so proud of who they are and how they both navigate through the world, so I feel like in that way, yes, I feel successful. But I think, like I said, it’s hard to be in a human body, and even harder to be in a teenage one. They are both their own people, who are navigating food in their own way, but they both really love to cook and they both enjoy eating food and they have things that they love. They both like sharing food with other people and cooking for other people. That feels like success. But especially around parenting, I never can get too cocky. It’s the most humbling experience.

JN: Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you get punched in the gut.

AC: Exactly! But they’re just such neat people. My older daughter loves to cook more, my younger daughter is a really amazing baker. They love that, and I love cooking and eating with them. They’ve both been cooking since they were little, and that’s a really nice thing. I’ve written about this a lot, but I always felt really intimidated by all the writers who talk about cooking with their kids, because I found that I couldn’t cook with my kids. Especially when they were little, it would just drive me crazy. My only way of dealing with it would be just walking out of the room and saying, I’ll help you if you need it; just call me for help.

JN: So, they cook on their own, with space and autonomy, and whatever comes out, comes out.

AC: And they own it. That’s been really successful for us.

JN: Do you have any advice for parents who are struggling with kids who are really picky eaters and reluctant to try new foods?

AC: I have one adventurous eater and one less-adventurous eater. I guess my only piece of advice is, don’t listen to the advice. [Laughter] Every piece of advice I ever got around picky eaters was just not true. It was like, Keep putting food in front of them, they have to taste it twenty times… none of those things ever worked for me. The truth is, my younger daughter – who certainly eats more and more as she gets older – certain textures just gross her out so much. That’s just not going to change. She’s very sensitive to that, so I trust her. I try not to gross her out. So much of that advice just makes people feel guilty. Like, if they were doing it better, then their kids would be eating quinoa.

JN: It makes parents feel guilty, and it makes kids feel guilty too.

AC: Right, and it puts too much focus on the food, and then at dinner it’s like, Well, just have one bite… argh!

JN: If we could shift focus again… I learned to cook from books, but I often feel that as a result it took me a lot longer than it would have if I had been able to cook at the side of an experienced cook. I love cookbooks, but in some ways it seems like a strange way to learn to cook. Since you also teach cooking, maybe you could reflect a little bit about that.

AC: Actually, I learn really well from cookbooks. I’m someone who, if I watch a video on how to do something, I am lost. It’s funny, because I actually teach with Craftsy, which is an online cooking platform. I have about 4500 students. People love it. But I’ve tried to take Craftsy classes myself, and I just can’t watch someone do something and then feel like I want to do it. For me, I need someone to talk me through it and I need to do it with my own hands, and then I learn it. So, I think it all depends on how you learn. I’m also not someone who would ever take a cooking class, even though I teach them! I need to work through something myself. I have sometimes taken cheesemaking classes to learn more skills – I’ve certainly taken classes to learn things that I didn’t know how to do — but it’s useless for me if I’m not doing it every step of the way.

JN: You have this feauture in many of your recipes called “Tense Moments”, which is fantastic. For one thing, it’s funny. It also really gets at the heart of cooking, because there really are so many tense moments where you’re not sure if it’s right or what to do. You’re making this custard, and it says, Cook it over medium heat for five minutes. It doesn’t tell you anything about what should be going on, or what happens.

AC: – what happens if it curdles! Exactly!

JN: Why aren’t more cookbook writers including that kind of information, their own tense moments? To me it seems really rare.

AC: Because it shows so much vulnerability.

JN: Yes, that’s right. People want to pretend it’s the recipe that makes the dish and not a cook, a human being.

AC: You have to admit that your recipe might fail. Sometimes people are coming to these recipes being like, I am bringing you a golden recipe that will change your life and will never fail. But every recipe takes a different form in every kitchen, and you have to give people the tools to get through it.

JN: Which really goes back to what you were saying before about ego in restaurant chefs; people don’t want to be vulnerable. Even back at St. John’s, in class, people don’t want to be vulnerable – and yet, if you have the kind of confidence to express some vulnerability, people love it, because everyone’s in the same boat whether they want to admit it or not.

AC: Right, because they see themselves, and they feel invited into your experience.

JN: Speaking of ego: social media. I know it’s a huge subject, but could you give us some brief reflections on the pros and cons, especially surrounding food?

AC: Well, I have to be totally honest with you: if I didn’t have to be on it, I would be out of there so fast. Of course, I don’t have to be, but I sort of have to be. From my own personal experience, I feel like the moment I start to think about how to report about what’s happening in this moment, I’m gone from the moment. So, say I’m in the kitchen, and the light is just right, and I’m stirring something, and everything’s just perfect. And instead of saying, Oh, what a moment, I’m like, Oh, I should share this moment with my readers. It just takes me completely out, and I don’t like living that way. So I try to be pretty careful; I try to shut it off sometimes. But the upside is that it is lovely to be able to connect with people in that way. Social media is often so unrehearsed and unscripted. It goes back to that vulnerability — I think in the best moments, we can connect with people’s lives and feel kindred with them through those moments, and the connections can be really beautiful. I’ve experienced that as well. But I think that I certainly focus, myself, on trying to show “un-beautiful” food. Aspirational living is a trap that is easy to fall into, and I think Instagram really propagates that. I run into that, myself, even beyond social media. In my first two books, there are all these photographs of my family and my house, and people are like, Do you live like that? In a way, sure – that’s my family, and it wasn’t like there was a big movie crew that came in and created our life – it’s snapshots. But no, you know? I don’t live that way! I’m always trying to remind people that stories are coming from a certain angle, and my publisher’s job and my job is to sell a life, but I need that life to include imperfection, because it feels dishonest otherwise. Even so, it still looks beautiful, because it’s on the pages, you know?

JN: I’d like to wrap up by asking about your newest book, Eating from the Ground Up, which has just been recently published.

AC: I started to tell you the story of the farmers’ market. That’s actually when I started this current book. The first two books were sort of diversions. This book is named for the name of my blog, so this is the book that I’ve been working on since the beginning, which is really satisfying for me. It shares much less of my life and my family; I feel like I’ve learned how to write a recipe, and I get to share that now. It’s been an education, and I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can really write that book that I started back then.

JN: So, if the first book filled this niche, where you couldn’t find books about how to make these things from scratch, what do you think is the need out there that this book is trying to fill?

AC: Right now there are so many vegetable books out there, because vegetables are certainly having a moment. But I feel like most of the vegetable books are showing us how to elevate vegetables and make them cheffy, or hide them and turn them into rice or noodles, or call them something else, or purée them into cinnamon buns and sneak them into our kids’ bellies. It’s always like, You need to eat more vegetables, here’s how to do it. It’s so painful!

JN: As if eating vegetables is a chore and not pleasure.

AC: Right, we have to call it a noodle or else we’ll never eat zucchini. This book really came from this idea, where I think that most people cook a few vegetables really well. I make really good steamed broccoli; that’s what my mother made for me when I was a kid. I was a super-picky kid. When I make it, I steam it just the right amount, and then I add tamari and olive oil. People love to eat it, and they’re like, How did you make this broccoli? Or somebody makes really great roasted cauliflower. Everyone has those recipes that they make. And so, I wanted to collect those super-simple vegetable recipes that show how to cook vegetables well, so that we weren’t hiding them or elevating them, but just preparing them in a delicious way. You could think of it as a book of techniques and recipes, so you could just look in your fridge – I have kale and Swiss chard, so what am I going to do? I had ideas for cooking them well, and I wanted to just get back to that simplicity, which is how I like to relate to vegetables. They’re just good!

JN: It’s been super fun to talk, thanks so much!

AC: Thank you so much!

an interview with Rachel Roddy

Rachel Roddy is a British food writer, blogger, and the author of Five Quarters (in the US, My Kitchen in Rome) and Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome, as well as a weekly column in The Guardian. Rachel has lived in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome for 13 years, and that neighborhood has been the inspiration for most of her writing. More recently, she and her family have been spending time in Sicily as well, based in the town of Gela, where her partner was born and still has relatives.

Rachel was gracious enough to be interviewed over lunch at one of her favorite trattorie in Testaccio, La Torricella, and the dishes we enjoyed feature prominently in our conversation. In the interview, we talk about what Rachel finds so compelling about Testaccio, why she prefers Roman trattorie to more formal restaurants, and the challenges and joys of raising her son in Italy.

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Justin Naylor: Thanks for making time for this interview today, especially over lunch at this beautiful trattoria! What struck me when I saw your first cookbook was that it was very personal, while many cookbooks these days, however gorgeous, lack a strong sense of personality or identity. That was the thing that first drew me to your writing. I was wondering if that was intentional or just a subconscious expression of who you are?

Rachel Roddy: I began as a blogger, so that was where it came from. Sections of Five Quarters are lifted directly from my blog. Everything was edited, and bits were rewritten, and the recipes were tested, but essentially I was a blogger. I arrived in Rome in 2005, and began writing the blog online in 2008. Before that, I was keeping notebooks, and sort of mimicking the food writers that I like. I’ve always read a lot of food writing, as opposed to just recipe books, so I was very inspired by Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, who always had a sense of narrative. Also Nigel Slater, whose book The Kitchen Diaries is a kind of cookbook in diary form. And the blogs I was reading were mostly American blogs. I still keep an eye on a young woman called Molly Wizenberg, who was a chef. It was narrative, telling a story into a recipe. That’s what my blog was based on, and that’s the strongest vein in Five Quarters. It’s a diary form, with recipes, and history, and geography woven in.

JN: Could you describe what the neighborhood of Testaccio is like, what brought you here, and what has kept you here for thirteen years?

RR: Well, I always say it’s shaped like a piece of cheese. It’s a very distinct geographical shape. This wedge, which is like one quarter of a wheel of cheese, is one of the quarters that I refer to in the title of my book. In 2005, I had been in Sicily and was living in Rome up near Termini, and I’d been going to language school. My best friend came to visit, and she wanted to come to Testaccio. I had read the name in books, but I had never been. I remember looking at it in the book, and I remember thinking of this cheese shape. So, we came to visit. We went to the old market, we sat in a bar called Zia Elena. I was still undecided about what I was going to do, whether I was going to go back to Sicily or go back to England. I was very undecided. She said, “You should stay here for a while.” That afternoon I went to an estate agent, and they had a small studio flat in the block that we had just been near, which was a block from the old market. I had to take a contract for a year, and I thought, Well, OK, I’ll do that.

JN: What was it in that day that was so powerful that made you immediately commit to staying for a year?

RR: Certainly the old market was wonderful. A new market has taken its place now, but the old market was strange, a sort of fortified bus shelter. It had been a street market, and then they covered it in the 1960s and ’70s – it had iron uprights and a glass roof, completely covered in leaves – it had a very incredible light, an almost Caravaggio-esque light, didn’t it? Did you ever go to the old market?

JN: I never had a chance, unfortunately.

RR: It was a wonderful old market, lots of farmers selling their stuff there; lots of butcher stalls, of course, because of the legacy of the slaughterhouse in Testaccio; fish stalls; it was just a very lively, atmospheric market. Lots of local shops; it felt like a little village in the middle of Rome. I think other villages do exist, but it was the first time that I really felt a sense of it, that this was a place, and people lived here. It’s very linear, Testaccio, with straight roads, unlike most of Rome. It’s on a grid system. It’s modern, only 130 years old. So, my initial impression was one of almost shock. But then quite quickly you get the sense of community; there’s lots of schools here, there’s local shops, there’s the market. I see people still every day that I probably saw that first time, thirteen years ago. I suppose you can get that anywhere, but it had a very strong sense of place, and I thought, I like that, and I’ll stay here. Thirteen years later I’m still here, and very settled.

JN: You’ve written that in the first few weeks here you met more neighbors and shopkeepers than you had met in London in five or ten years, which is remarkable. I can understand the appeal of that sort of place.

RR: And I’m quite chatty! I mean, I’m very aware of my own romanticizing of a kind of “something else.” That’s something I do struggle with. As an outsider, the Rome you “want to find” – I found that Rome. But, yes, I did – it’s like a small village really, and it has that mentality. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, particularly as the area changes, but yes, that’s the strongest sense I think you get from Testaccio. And it’s a very inclusive area, it’s always been an area of stranieri [foreigners] – it’s not the real Rome, these were all newcomers. It’s now a lot of third-generation Testaccini, like Augusto here who owns this trattoria.

JN: When you first started meeting people, as a foreigner and guest, you felt welcome, there wasn’t a lot of awkward suspicion of an outsider? Because, as you say, it’s always been a neighborhood of outsiders and foreigners.

RR: Yes, maybe. I suppose there was – there always is – a level of suspicion of newcomers, suspicion of your motive, maybe. But I just didn’t care! Especially when I started writing about it – because I suppose in a way I made my foreignness useful, and gave myself a purpose, didn’t I? So, from quite early on I was observing Testaccio, even though I was living here. My foreignness was a part of it, that became an advantage. And now, of course, it’s become my job. It’s my job to be curious – maybe, in a way, to be an outsider who’s inside. I’m more aware of that than ever, especially since [my son] Luca, who isn’t an ousider, was born here, which is interesting.

JN: What sorts of changes have you seen in the neighborhood in thirteen years?

RR: Lots of changes. Lots of renovation. Lots of shops that have closed, or changed completely.

JN: Gentrification?

RR: Yeah, there is; I don’t want to be kind of “doom, doom,” about it – Italy is struggling at the moment, and there’s a housing crisis in Testaccio. Prices have really gone down. Testaccio has a quite interesting demographic. There’s a lot of council housing, still – and it’s a lot of council housing in the hands of grandchildren. So, grandparents would have rented the house, then they would have had children, one of whom would probably have grown up to live there. Now, there are a lot of empty flats in Testaccio that are lived in by one grandchild. People are finding it’s difficult to sell. There’s quite a lot of empty property; very, very high rents here. So, in a way, I think Testaccio is struggling – but yet, you know, trattorias continue to thrive. Probably most of the trattorias I’ve known and loved for thirteen years are still here. Better ones are evolving. But certain shops still thrive. We live above a bakery called Passi, which is this wonderful Roman forno. That’s still one of the busiest bakeries in Rome, and I think one of the best bakeries in Rome. It’s a working family, opened in the 1970s. And that thrives, and it’s lovely – people drive from Prati to buy their pizza bianca. So, it’s lovely to see traditions. And I join in; I always feel a bit of a cliché, but I do – I absolutely relish these traditions and celebrate them and am happy to spend my money and live, and for Luca to grow up eating pizza bianca and mortadella and carciofi when they’re in season. It’s lovely. It feels important; it feels precious, really.

JN: So when you first arrived, you were learning Italian, and probably working here and there to pay the rent. What led you to start the blog in 2008?

RR: I was keeping diaries, and a lot of those were focused on food. But it wasn’t even a really conscious thing. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I played around a bit. Some posts were just a recipe; I just wanted somewhere to record them. A friend of mine who worked for Marie Claire online said, “Start a blog.” I had never heard the word before, and it took me a couple of years to do it. But I was reading blogs, and it was a combination of factors. I had always enjoyed writing, I had always written, but I suppose in a way starting a blog taught me to write. I had studied English, but then I had gone to drama school. I had quite a lot of experience writing, but not formal experience. I hadn’t gone to university to study English, which was initially what I thought I would do. I felt like a bit of a failure in that sense. But having a blog taught me to write. I still struggle with believing that I’m a writer, really. I don’t really consider myself a writer; I suppose I consider myself somebody who writes recipes with stories. I still struggle with that. But it was quite an organic thing, I think, starting the blog. I read some of those [old posts] and I go, It’s just embarrassing. But it was a document, and I just wanted to write these things down. I was fascinated by the food, and it was such a good way to look at the city; I thought, I have to write this down.

JN: At what point did you realize that people were paying attention, and how did that affect how you thought about the project?

RR: I learned from other people; I copied, I mimicked what other people were doing. Of course, then people start commenting. Quite early on, people obviously saw potential because quite a few people got in touch with me and said, You should write something, you should write your memoir, you should write more recipes. Food is at the heart of it, the recipes and the history and the geography. My number-one inspiration has always been and remains Jane Grigson, who was wonderful. She died [in 1990], but her work lives on. She wrote these beautiful essays about food, and they had everything in them: history, geography, politics.

JN: In moving from the blog to the book [Five Quarters, aka My Kitchen in Rome]: did you work hard to make connections to make that happen, or were you approached with confidence from an agent or publisher to take it to another level?

RR: The book was pretty much done in the blog; there were loads of articles. Initially it was a bit more general, but I was really starting to focus in on Roman food, and it was Testaccio-centric. In the beginning, it was like a black hole. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. Back then I didn’t have a guide book, I didn’t have a smartphone. It was like I was plunging my hand into something without looking. But I was getting a sense of discovering Roman food, and I’d covered a lot of classic Roman recipes, I had a nice narrative around it. When I was approached about doing a book, I still didn’t have a title. I was still doing my blog very devotedly. I wrote a blog post, and it became the introduction to the book.

JN: Someone noticed your work and had confidence in it.

RR: It was Elizabeth Hallett, my publisher, who is just wonderful, wonderful. She’s quite visionary, and she saw it. But it was all there.

JN: I think you imply in the introduction to the American edition that you weren’t that crazy about the title of that edition [My Kitchen in Rome]? Five Quarters is a wonderful title, and it’s exactly right. But I understand why an American publisher would want something different.

RR: Yeah, they were worried. But there are five reasons for calling it Five Quarters. There was the reference to the quinto quarto tradition in Roman cooking; the reference to the shape of Testaccio; the reference to the general resourcefulness of Roman cooking per se; there was a reference to the five parts of an Italian meal; and then the most important fifth quarter is you, because you’re going to cook the recipes.

JN: You mentioned the quinto quarto tradition, and you also mentioned that when you first came to Testaccio, you knew nothing about Roman cooking. Can you tell us about your first impressions of Roman cooking and the cooking of Testaccio, and what you eventually found compelling about it?

RR: I just thought it was so… salty! I thought it was so salty and fatty. I mean, not in a bad way. I always remember being in a restaurant in Trastevere, sitting one very warm night — it must have been the first summer. I had gricia, an old-school gricia. We’d been in a bar before and we’d had peanuts, and I think we’d had prosciutto that day – I remember feeling like a dog! Just so much salt and pork. Then I remember talking to a friend later, a really good cook, and them saying, “Well, that’s the thing, it’s the pecorino, it’s the guanciale, it’s these elements.” But yes, it was so beige! Now, of course, I sit and I tell people, Have a gricia, have a carbonara, Amatriciana, etc. At the time, they were just kind of coming. I remember having artichokes, which were just very, like, that kind of dull khaki – wonderful, but very overcooked. Puntarelle I really like anchovies, all those strong flavors. I couldn’t – it just seemed so kind of plain and functional. I quite liked it, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. And then, of course, there’s the quinto quarto and pajata, which I was interested in. Roman food can be a bit dirty in a way – I mean that in a good way.

JN: I know what you mean, yes. Not literally, but —

RR: It’s gutsy, isn’t it?

JN: Yes! Literally gutsy.

RR: For example, those kind of stracotti stews, and really cooked vegetables. Then slowly, slowly, I started eating in people’s homes, as well, and then I started eating at a little tavola calda called Volpetti. That was really a vital part of my education.

JN: Your first reaction to Roman food was, This is salty, it’s porky, it’s beige, it’s plain. How would you define it today if someone asked you, What is Roman cooking like?

RR: Salty, porky, beige. [Laughter] Romans do have wonderful greens because it’s so temperate. Things like puntarelle, the kind of misticanza with little cherry tomatoes in it, the vegetable side dishes. The wonderful spinach.

JN: So the beige starts to turn to green, if you dig a little deeper.

RR: Yes, and then I started to understand the minestra. Because in the beginning, there’s pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci, all these beige soups. It was almost like I could start seeing detail. There was also something about me being able to start seeing detail in the city I was living in. Before, remember, I didn’t speak any Italian, so it was all a big blur. It was all a big salty blur! Things just got a bit clearer. I think that was how I understood it. I remember thinking about the different sorts of pasta e ceci, some with the anchovies in the bottom, some without, as if things suddenly had color. The artichokes could be cooked differently: they were beige, but they’re kind of purple before they’re trimmed. And then, of course, being very inspired, starting to have courage – I’m quite a capable cook – being able to make recipes my own. For example, the soup I made today; there are many versions of how to make this broccoli soup. I like something quite brothy. I’m constantly inspired; in fact, I’m more inspired than I ever have been by Roman food. I just find it wonderful: I love the ingredients, I love the simplicity, I love the way that Romans make minestra or a broth, whether it’s bits of fish suspended in a broth, or egg yolks and breadcrumbs for the straciatella, or whether it’s the way they do wonderful things with artichokes, or the way they treat anchovies, baked anchovies. I just feel I have more to learn than ever about it.

JN: Could you take one or two traditional dishes that you especially love and say a little more about how they’re prepared?

RR: I do love that whole family of bean, legume, and lentil soups and stews, the various ways to make them. They say there are as many ways as cooks, but with pasta e ceci you cook some chickpeas so you get that nice, cloudy broth, and then in another pan you make a little soffrito. You could use carrot, celery, and onion, or you could just do garlic and anchovies, with the garlic just squashed, so it’s just a very sunny fragrance, as opposed to an angry one. And then, a bit of rosemary.

JN: Almost always rosemary in pasta e ceci in Rome, right?

RR: The thing about herbs is, you do find these recipes all over Italy, and the defining ingredient is often the herb. So, in Sicily you’d put oregano in, in Tuscany you’d put sage – I’m generalizing – and in Rome you often have rosemary. It’s amazing how that can completely transform a dish. Romans use lots of rosemary, lots of mint. So, you’ve got your soffrito, and then maybe a couple of tomatoes or a spoonful of concentrate, and then you unite the chick peas in their cloudy broth, and let that bubble for about twenty minutes.

JN: Using the broth from the chickpeas, as opposed to a separate vegetable or meat broth?

RR: You could make a meat broth, but the fringe benefit of soaking your own beans is that you get this broth. Unite the two, and then in the last ten minutes, throw in a handful of pasta, so you’ve got this enriched, herb-scented broth. You could purée some of the soup to make it creamy, you could pass it through a food mill, you could have it brothy, you could put in more tomato if you want it blushing more. The possibilities are endless. Very similar for pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans – and the same with pasta and lentils. You could, of course, have guanciale in the foundations, if you wanted. I love those.

Of pastas, I love carbonara, Amatriciana. But probably my favorite is cacio e pepe, which is pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper.

JN: There are different ways to make cacio e pepe; it can be a disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing. The technique, compared to a lot of pasta dishes, is really difficult and important.

RR: It’s really difficult!

JN: Can you walk us through how you make cacio e pepe?

RR: Cacio e pepe is an absolute bugger. In fact, I’m writing about it for The Guardian now, and I’ve been asking around in restaurants. It’s pasta, cheese, and black pepper, and then you emulsify it with the pasta cooking water. It’s really tricky to make. I think the best way to do it is to make it for two. Because the cheese goes into clumps, the best way to do it is this: you get a warm bowl, you cook your pasta and drain it and you save the pasta cooking water. You put a ladleful of pasta cooking water in the bottom of this bowl. You then throw on your cooked pasta – a fresh pasta like tonnarelli, because that’s got very starchy water, and fresh pasta’s got lots of semolina clinging to it. Then you put loads of cheese. You want it grated fine; not using a micro plane, you want that old-fashioned bugger of a grater.

JN: When I first started making it, that’s exactly what happened: I would just used the regular micro plane, and it would clump. It’s really the powder grater that you want, so I’m glad to hear you say that. It’s such a important detail, because without that, maybe some people can do it, but not me. The powder is the essential part.

RR: It’s the bastard side of the grater that you never want to use. So, use the bastard side of the grater. In Felice, a very famous trattoria just where we live, they do it at the table, they do individual servings. So, you toss – more cheese, maybe a bit more water – and a spoon and a fork is the very best for tossing. I want to do a little film; I’ve resisted writing about about it, actually, because it’s really hard to do well.

JN: And it’s hard to learn from a book. I learned to cook from books; I didn’t learn to cook growing up, I didn’t learn to cook in Italy. I mostly benefited from the writings of Marcella Hazan.

RR: Yes, I really like her too.

JN: That’s how I learned to cook. But as much as I benefited from that, it’s no way to learn to cook. Even though I love cookbooks, and obviously you love writing, learning to cook from a book is a very strange way to learn to cook, as opposed to learning to cook at the side of someone who knows what they’re doing.

RR: And of course, here, Romans eat Roman food. Of course, there’s other things, there’s wonderful Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese food, though not like London. But essentially, Romans eat Roman food, and it’s what’s around, so people are still making these dishes and they have very strong opinions about it. I’m quite self-conscious, I think, because I’m aware that writing for a newspaper and feeling like I say the same thing every day, that I do maybe lean into cliché. But I do go to the market every morning; it’s my job now, it’s my privilege to do that. I go to the same stall, I buy vegetables and every time I buy something there’s some advice, either from Filippo, the guy who sells me vegetables, or somebody shopping. Chances are, the people shopping there will be making Roman-style cooking. Now it’s carciofi [artichoke] season, and everyone’s cooking. Romans cook carciofi alla Romana, and everyone has an opinion. I suppose it’s like the traditional cooking of anywhere, but it still reigns supreme here. I have to remind myself; I’ve had a lot of just going back and listening to people, letting people show me how to cook things. I haven’t done enough of that lately, and I’m about to start doing more again – just going and watching people cook. It’s funny – sometimes people have shown me how to do things that I knew probably better than they did, not because I’m better than them, but just because I make them more. But it didn’t matter, I just need to shut up and watch, because you always learn something.

JN: By the way, this carciofo we’re eating is delicious.

RR: I love this trattoria; not everyone does. It’s never going to be a perfect trattoria, or particularly trendy.

JN: Those who aren’t as enthusiastic about it, what is their criticism?

RR: Sometimes it can be a bit school-dinnerish, maybe, especially if it gets busy, and Augusto can be a bit brusque in his manner if he doesn’t know you. The menu never changes. But I think he does certain things very well. I think his artichokes are delicious, his anchovies. He goes to my fish guy. Really old-fashioned ways of cooking, though, like boiled cod and potatoes, and certain things on certain days. But I like it very much, we come here a lot. Luca’s six, he’s grown up coming here. I think his fried anchovies are some of the best.

JN: Speaking of Luca, as you said, he’s not an outsider. You still feel like an outsider, but he was born and raised here. What have been some of the joys and also some of the challenges of raising your son here? Did you wonder, when he was born, whether you wanted to return to England?

RR: I suppose it did cross my mind, whether we would stay or not. I never really imagined that we would leave. It’s how I imagined: he’s born into this little villagey world. We live in a very geographically clear area, the boundaries are clear. He now goes to school on the Aventine Hill, so we go out of Testaccio. It’s beautiful; he goes to the most beautiful school right in front of the Giardino Lidia Paranchi. It’s a state school. We walk up there every day, we walk back down, we cross via Mammarata. We come to Testaccio, and the first thing we see is the piazza. The streets are punctuated with bars that we go to. I suppose, like me, he’s been born with this sense of place. We cycle and walk everywhere. He’s very clear about the boundaries, he knows the area. There’s a local library. I suppose children have a clear sense of their surroundings, but he must be very aware of where we live, where the forno is – I think life here, especially around food, is very traditional. Children, of course, often appreciate it more than adults. Children are very welcome in restaurants. They’re expected to behave well, but you know they just are. The children will be fed first – the first thing they say is Red or white pasta for the child? And it will be there. Children are accomodated in that way, so I think Luca has grown up with that sense.

JN: And he’s an adventurous eater? He’s only six…

RR: He’s being a bit of a pain in the ass at the moment, but I’m hoping it’s a phase. But, yeah, he is. Luca loves going to England. He has no snobbism about that and I don’t either, but he says, “Mum, these oranges have no sunshine.” You know?

JN: Is there anything that he can’t get here, that you wish he had, that he would have in England?

RR: I worry about his school; I worry about the traditional nature of the education here. He’s quite rebellious, Luca. I think if you’re good, you can thrive. Luca is quite cheeky, he’s quite naughty, he’s quite rebellious. A good English friend of mine runs the English school; when he met Luca – this was as a friend, not as a headmaster seeing a potential student – he said, “Please send Luca to me.” His view was, Luca will struggle in the state system here. He’s quite a little – he’s a cheeky monkey. And also, he’s bilingual, so he’s struggling. And he’s not reading yet; he’s six, so actually I’ve got all sorts of concerns about that but I’m not letting them get out of perspective. Schools are struggling economically here, massively. They don’t have facilities. I go back and I see my sister’s kids at a school in London – a very, very good one, but a state school – and it almost makes me weep, the kind of facilities the kids have there. But at the same time I know that Luca has other things here, and we have such a good quality of life here. We live a good, good life, and very happy. I don’t find life in Rome stressful, the way I found life in London. The pace of life here is completely different. It’s not just my choice to live a different pace of life, it’s the way life is here.

JN: Because your partner is Sicilian, you now spend quite a bit of time in Sicily. Could you say a little about how Sicily is a contrast to your life in Testaccio and what convinced you all to start spending more time there?

RR: Vincenzo was born in a town called Gela, which is on the south coast, a very industrial town.

JN: I think you said in your book, “…known for the Mafia and oil refineries.” Just to dispel any romantic notions!

RR: Really, really shocking. Interesting town – one of the first colonized towns [by the Greeks]. Kind of disappeared under the Roman empire, but then was very important during the Arab reign and then during the Normans. In the 1950s, they built an oil refinery and it became the tenth-biggest town in Italy in the course of about five years. You can see that – the town exploded. It’s kind of a tragedy, really, Gela. It’s been used as a case study for economic development without any growth whatsoever.

JN: So, the kind of place you usually think of people wanting to flee, whereas you have decided the opposite, to actually make a commitment to that place.

RR: Well, the thing is, Vincenzo’s grandparents were there; his grandfather was a tomato farmer. They farmed, they were incredibly traditional. In a way, they were a typical Gelese family. His mum and dad both went to work for the oil refinery – in a way that was their escape, but in a way it killed the town. The house was empty; all the cousins own the house. It’s an extraordinary town, Gela. I just feel I’ve scratched the surface. We’ve taken over the house. We’d like eventually to live in Sicily, I think. I think we’ll probably move there full-time. This is kind of the starting point. We opened up the house; I want to write more about Sicilian food, Vincenzo wants to spend time there, see some of his elderly relatives. Even though he came to Rome when he was twelve, he grew up with long summers in Sicily. So, yes, we’ve been looking after the house, which is quite a struggle.

JN: That’s remarkable to hear, that as much as you’ve come to love Testaccio, the pull of Sicily is strong enough to even move permanently.

RR: The idea is that we’ll always have a base here. We have this little studio flat here. We’ll hopefully buy something in the country, and start spending more time there. I’d like a garden. Maybe not in Gela but probably on that coast. The temptation is to explore a bit more.

JN: You mentioned the Mafia influence, which of course is a sad reality in many parts of Italy, sometimes on the surface, sometimes hidden deep below the surface. How have you personally come to terms with that aspect of life there?

RR: My experience is very much seeing how a town has been damaged by the last hundred years. I don’t think I’ve done justice to Gela yet, honestly. Good lenses to look at the city through are, for example, what’s happening with tomato farming. Sicily is like a fairground mirror on the whole of Italy: everything is exaggerated, including corruption. The south coast is where all the boats are arriving from Lampedusa; there’s a huge amount of immigration. In Gela, we hear these terrible stories, but in fact the Gelese are extraodinarily accomodating. My brother-in-law, who is such a simple man, such a good man, he’s working with young refugees, and they’ve got them at the house. They’re the ones welcoming boats. Yes, there’s a lot of hostility about refugees but at the same time the Gelese are coping with it every single day. There’s so much happening there, but good and bad.

JN: What’s an example of the corruption in the tomato farming? Is it in the exploitation of labor?

RR: Yes.

JN: So that Romans, or whoever, can have tomatoes cheaper than they should be?

RR: Absolutely. The demand for small, sweet, on-the-vine tomatoes, all year round (by Italians, mainly) has completely transformed farming. It’s an area of intensive greenhouse farming. I was reading in The Guardian about Romanian women being kept in almost slave-like conditions.

JN: And that’s where the Mafia comes in, because obviously it’s against the law to do that, but they find a way to circumvent the law.

RR: Exactly. The Mafia is so part of the fabric of society, and has been since the 1960s and ’70s. Gela was known as being completely controlled by the Mafia, and Vincenzo’s parents left because of it. They will never go back. Sometimes you can look at Gela – and I’m looking at a very negative side of it – when I say I love the town, there’s lots of relatives that live there – but actually when you go, there’s nothing hopeful. There’s no hotels in Gela, there’s all these half-finished projects. You realize that, to keep the status quo, anything that could possibly involve making money is sabotaged. It’s as though people keep things at a base level.

JN: The control comes first, as it might in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – keeping the status quo, as you say, is more important than anything else.

RR: On one level it’s really upsetting. On the other, there are lots of young people, and there are new initiatives, land that’s been confiscated from the Mafia. There are these new laws by the rather charismatic mayor of Palermo. There are things happening. I have felt, much more than Rome, the need to understand things better there. It feels like such a vanity, but I would like to understand a bit more. The way that I can do it is to write some pieces about tomatoes and oranges – taking the lens of food, but as a way of understanding more [about Sicily]. And also, immigration. It seems now to be the point in my career where I can start trying to understand things better, but rather than trying to understand the whole story, looking at it through a specific lens. Tomatoes seems like one, because Vincenzo’s parents were tomato farmers. Through storytelling: that always seems the best way.

JN: This soup we’re eating is delicious, and you mentioned a few times that what defines Augusto’s cooking here is that it’s no different from the cooking that he or his nonna are doing at home. I wonder if you can talk a little about the importance of home cooking in Italy, and how home cooking differs from restaurant cooking. Maybe in the best cases, it doesn’t differ – that’s my perspective, that I learned from Marcella.

RR: I suppose you would look at the different sorts of places to eat, and their history. In the way I understand it, Rome has always been a city where people have come and needed shelter and something to eat, because it’s a city of pilgrims, particularly in the last 300 years and after the unification of Italy. Osterias, the way I understand it, were originally a bed and a place for your horse. You would probably get something to drink, and you might get something to eat. That was where the osterias came from, and they were essentially places to drink. I’ve always said it’s better to compare osterias and trattorias with pubs and cafes than restaurants. Because they are really functional places. My granny had a pub, a wonderful pub in Manchester. Trattorias remind me much more of that than of a restaurant. Trattorias were, essentially, people’s homes where people had home restaurants in the beginning. They were absolutely extensions of people’s homes; it would be mom or dad in the kitchen, or grandma, and mom or dad out front. They would essentially be serving traditional, local, pub-style, homestyle food, and that’s the spirit that lives on in places like this. And it’s the reason I love La Toricella. It’s still Augusto in the kitchen – with his wonderful Bangledeshi chef, whom he treats brilliantly, another reason to love this place – and he makes homestyle, Roman and Abruzzese food for anyone who cares to come.

JN: Of course, some people in the US might wonder why one would go out to eat if it’s the same sort of food one would cook at home.

RR: Yes, some would say that. I follow a lot of food people in London who are going out to these fancy restaurants and lots of ethnic restaurants. I love that you come here and there are tableclothes and proper glasses, but I don’t mind that I’ll get the food here that I would make at home. There are about four trattorias we come to and I’ve been coming to this one forever, and I love the fact that I eat the same sorts of things.

JN: Sure. Even a talented cook wants to go out and relax and have a night off, and yet enjoy the comfortable flavors of home. And it’s hard to cook and entertain at the same time, of course. A moment ago you coined a wonderful phrase that I think I have to start using: “chef-y” food. How would you define or describe “chefy” food?

RR: Well there are certain techniques. I think of home food as being the most simple and basic preparations, while for a chef the food would be elevated to a more elegant level. There might be double-filtered broths, or instead of poaching a whole fish as Agosto has done here they might pan-fry fillets of fish for a more elegant presentation. That kind of food is lovely, but it is rarely how I want to eat. And [my partner] Vincenzo hates it.

JN: What about it is off-putting to him?

RR: He loves delicious food, but not anything that looks messed around with. I know I’m going to sound like a twat; I love the efforts and the skill of chefs, but when it looks tortured on the plate, it just doesn’t give me any pleasure. I want lovely food and I want it to taste delicious, but not fancy. People sometimes say I’m a sort of pretentious reverse snob, but I can’t stand food that is exclusive.

JN: I get it. There are some people who enjoy wearing tuxedos or evening dresses, but most of us would rather not dress that way, at least not often. I certainly like to dress nicely – not sweatpants or ratty old t-shirts – but you can do that without going to the point that the clothing seems or feels stiff or excessive.

RR: That’s nice, yes.

JN: And of course with both food and clothing there’s a continuum and the edges blur. You used the word “tortured,” which is perfect. It’s just not at ease.

RR: Which maybe has to do with us, doesn’t it? Just our preferences. And I like the tuxedo metaphor. I just happen to loath food snobbism, and in England at the moment there’s a bit of backlash. Of course we need to address food banks and the fact that people are starving, but there’s a great polemic lately. For example, recently there was an article about a place selling “cauliflower steaks”, essentially slices of cauliflower. There was uproar about it, because it did cost about three times what it should cost. It opened up a whole polemic with people being very righteous about the fact that we should be preparing our own vegetables. Then of course, people came in and said, Well, what if you’re old and arthritic? Like any discussion, there were many, many sides to it. Of course I say to people, Prepare your own vegetables! Of course, there are gray areas. There’s my grandma: she’s an old woman and loves buying individual portions of cut-up vegetables. There’s just all these opinions about cooking from scratch. You have to be so careful. I firmly believe home cooking from scratch is a skill we should all be encouraged to learn and teach and share, and I think it’s something that still exists here in Italy. This basic, intuitive cooking.

JN: I completely know what you’re talking about when you describe this sort of cooking as “plain.” But at least in America, if I talk that way, there would be misunderstanding. In America, for example, “plain cooking” might imply something like poorly seasoned, flavorless or tough steak and potatoes. Or overcooked pasta with canned sauce. Or maybe the old stereotype of dreadful, bland English food. That could be described as “plain” too. So how do we distinguish between that and Italian cooking, simple but delicious?

RR: I suppose if you look at traditional English cooking from 200 years ago, you might find it to have more in common with Italian cooking. But one difference is the sheer abundance of types of ingredients in the Mediterranean. There were olives and grapes, grains, sugar from the dried figs and raisins. The riches here are quite extraordinary. It has evolved into having good taste, which is so characteristic of Italians. I see my son being taught it at school. It’s completely different from England. I mean, the kids at school here are given a five-course meal. They have pasta, and it’s red or it’s pesto, and they have their bread and their napkin.

JN: So it’s every day, and it’s five courses?

RR: Yes. You see these little creatures are learning to eat with bread and a fork. They’re learning that bread is always on the table, and water is there, and their pasta will be red, white, or pesto, and they’ll have their secondo, meat or fish, or a frittata. My son says “Fa schiffo la frittata,” [“Frittatas are disgusting,”] but they learn. They’re getting chicory, they’re getting fennel. In some English private schools, they might have wonderful food from organic kitchens, but maybe they’re not taught about food culture the way they are here. And now Luca eats just like Vincenzo. Where’s the fork, where’s the napkin? That’s not me teaching him; it’s his school. And they don’t always like it – chicory for example – but they keep giving it to them. It’s not perfect – I mean, there’s the obesity in the South – but the attempt at developing a healthy food culture and healthy rituals begins at home and is reinforced in the schools.

JN: I wasn’t aware there was obesity in the South. What’s up with that?

RR: I suppose it’s the industrialization of food which is causing problems.

JN: More in the South?

RR: There’s always been a huge dependence on carbohydrates in the South – think of pizza in Naples – but it’s also industrial snacks. Sugary snacks and drinks.

Fish Soup

Photo of our fish soup, taken by Rachel

JN: To wrap up, I’d like to ask about salt. The soup we’ve been enjoying during this interview has been seasoned perfectly. If Augusto did everything else right by choosing the best ingredients and cooking them with care, but if got the seasoning wrong, the dish wouldn’t be pleasurable. I think of this a lot with cookbooks, too. No matter how carefully you write a recipe, if your readers don’t use salt correctly, the dish won’t meet its potential.

RR: Absolutely. For me it’s salting in small amounts but often. That’s something I learned here. When I do my initial soffrito, I’ll always add a little pinch of salt. And I’ll salt all throughout the cooking. I have three types: a very fine salt, a coarse one for pasta water, and English Maldon salt for finishing. I think it’s true: it’s how you bring out flavor. When you salt lentils, it makes them taste more like lentils. It’s a magic moment. I know you admire Marcella Hazan, and she’s such a good teacher on this. When I’m working on something, I might check out the versions from ten different books, and Marcella is always in that group. There’s a good chance I won’t follow any of them, but I’ll look.

JN: Of course.

RR: Her books are especially inspiring, and I’ll often look at her writing if I want to be inspired.

JN: Like your book, her books are personal. You get a strong sense of who she was. A strong voice. And it is inspiring.

RR: She’s a pragmatic writer, but there’s real beauty in the writing as well. There’s no pretention or froth, which makes me seem a little bit frilly in my own writing. But nothing gives me more pleasure than reading cookbooks, both for the recipes and the stories. To see what different cooks think about bay leaves, and what they want to say about bay leaves. It’s always been my favorite sort of reading.

JN: That’s a great place to wrap up, I think. Thanks again.

an interview with Josh Eisenhauer

Josh 3

Josh Eisenhauer grew up on a farm in Columbia County, PA, just a short drive from our own property. After working as a sommelier in some of New York City’s finest restaurants, he moved to Piemonte, Italy with his wife Sara, and he currently manages the restaurant of the boutique hotel Villa La Madonna.

Josh visited us at the farm last November on a visit home to see family, and we had an opportunity to not only conduct the interview but drink some special wines together as well.

In the interview, we discuss what it was like working in some of New York’s best restaurants, how he adjusted to living and working in Italy, and what makes the wines of Piemonte so special.

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Justin Naylor: Good afternoon, Josh. I imagine you might be the only resident of rural Columbia County, Pennsylvania to have moved to Piemonte in order to pursue a career in food and wine. Could you start by giving us the highlights of this remarkable journey?

Josh Eisenhauer: Sure. I did my undergrad at NYU; I had grown up on a farm and my dad was an organic beef farmer in the mid-1980s, really ahead of his time and really into food. Other than that I didn’t have a lot of exposure to restaurants or wine, and certainly not to Italian culture. During college, I approached a lot of restaurants in Manhattan with a cover letter I had written about my passion for food and my desire to learn about it. I said I’d do anything! But I had a bunch of bad luck and no one got back to me. These were all Michelin-starred restaurants. Then I got lucky at Babbo. I met Gina di Palma, who was the pastry chef, and she told me to come back the next day. It was amazing because Babbo was five minutes from my dorm, while most people were commuting from the boroughs. They kind of threw me in the cellar as the cellar rat, just putting the bottles away and doing deliveries. But I was really curious. I was going to college, but drinking and tasting a lot of wine. I was so excited. Some of the sommeliers were Italian, and they were giving me tastes of wine – which I guess maybe they shouldn’t have been doing, but they were – and I didn’t know anything, I mispronounced Dolcetto… I was tasting these wines that no 18-year-old should be allowed to have. They saw that I was passionate and promoted me to wine runner. Through that experience I met Paul Lang, who was at that time the wine director at Il Buco, and he gave me my first sommelier job. I was working five nights a week at Il Buco while finishing up my senior year, and then I went full-time.

JN: Without any formal training, how did you get to the point where you felt confident taking a sommelier job at Il Buco?

JE: I had good teachers. I had really good teachers. Obviously, wine doesn’t teach itself. You have to be exposed to it through someone, whether in a formal setting or on-the-job training, and what was so exciting to me is that I found these people who were really happy to teach me: to take me out to dinner, do blind tastings, take me to importing tastings frequently. And in New York City you just have this constant exposure to these products. I sometimes joke that it seems there’s more Italian wine in New York City than in Italy.

JN: After Il Buco you ended up at Del Posto, the crème de la crème of the Batali/Bastianich restaurant group, at least in certain respects.

JE: It certainly was. In New York, one thing that counts as much or more than the Michelin guide is the New York Times 4-star restaurant list, and Del Posto was, and still is, the only Italian restaurant to have 4 stars. It was a big deal. I was 22 and they hired me. So I was really nervous. Really nervous. But it ended up being a great experience. I had never worked in fine dining at that level before. Babbo had a Michelin star, but it was totally different in its style of service.

JN: In your first weeks there, did you feel overwhelmed and inadequate, or did you feel up to the task?

JE: After two brief panics, I was fine. I wasn’t worried about my wine knowledge, but it was just such a rigorous style of service. It was over the top. Every little thing, every gesture was critiqued. They wanted you, literally, to move your hands in certain ways, which is very simple to learn but if you’re not used to it, it can be unnerving. But it was a really great skill set to learn. That environment was so special, because you have a lot of really important wine personalities coming in. Antonio Galloni, before he was ready to break off from Parker, did one of the first Vinous tastings at Del Posto. He was a regular; all these collectors… so, just all this exposure to wine that a 22-year-old sommelier had no business being exposed to, which was ultimately invaluable.

JN: Why do you think you gravitated to the wine side of the industry rather than the cooking side?

JE: [Laughter] Cooks don’t make too much money in New York City unless they’re the chef, so that’s probably the main thing because I love cooking. Also, I’m pretty social. I like speaking to people and explaining the little things I’ve been taught or learned, and to share this. After a few trips to Italy, after starting to wrap my head around what is Italian wine and culture, I was happy to share even my juvenile understanding with people who knew even less. I liked that contact.

JN: Yeah, definitely. But there are two basic approaches, I guess, to being a sommelier. One is to be a champion for remarkable but obscure winemakers, where you see your job as helping these beautiful artisans sell their wines. The other approach is to focus on making sure people drink wines they enjoy, which may or may not be from great vignerons. How did you and do you balance those two possibly conflicting approaches?

JE: Well, maybe I don’t always do a good job of balancing it! But a good sommelier is like a good DJ. A good DJ isn’t just going to play the top 40. A good DJ is going to mix that stuff in, but a good DJ will also play a song that’s going to catch your attention so that people say, Whoa, what is that? A good DJ on the cutting edge understands, first, who he’s playing to and what’s making people excited. A great sommelier is like a good tennis player. You don’t just take what they give you. You hit it back.

JN: Yes, but it starts with listening, right?

JE: Yes, because it’s a service job. You’re not a crusader or Malcolm X or someone who’s going to change the world. You’re a server. So you’re there to give your customer what they’re looking for, not what you think they should drink. Then you find the people who’ll let you be creative and play, who trust you. And those people you can take on a little journey, maybe aesthetically away from their preferences and what they’re used to. It may or may not be successful, but you can try.

JN: Turning to food, what did you learn about good Italian cooking at Babbo?

JE: Babbo was open in 1998, and I started working there in 2006, so the restaurant was still young. Mario [Batali] was one of the first people to cook real Italian food in New York. Before him, in the early 1990s, Italian in New York was still just red-sauce joints. It still is, in a lot of ways: linguine with clams, pasta with vodka and these strange things…

JN: Sure. The Italian American classics.

JE: Yeah, and some of that is lovely and amazing food, but it has nothing to do with regional Italian cooking. Mario was really a champion of regional Italian cooking. He was the first TV personality, the first really big celebrity, to talk about this and it began to catch people’s attention. In New York, for a restaurant to succeed it’s not enough to have good food. You have to have that something else. So he was doing all these recipes that Americans in the late ’90s didn’t associate with Italy, and it was based not on his interpretation of the culture, but on research, on him actually going there and staying. It was one of the first times a chef was able to do that. They were usually too busy working to take three weeks off to go study for their next book, or whatever.

JN: Yeah, I believe he actually quit his job and spent three years in Italy, at La Volta in the tiny town of Borgo Capanne, in the mountains south of Bologna.

JE: Right. Now these authentic dishes are commonplace in good Italian restaurants throughout America, but he was one of the first ambassadors of dishes like spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’ Amatriciana. Everyone knows what these dishes are now, and everyone in Italy always did, but no one was cooking those in the US in the late ’90s, at least not at his level and with his degree of celebrity exposure. It was one of the hottest tables in New York City. For years, Babbo and Nobu were the two restaurants nobody could get into. It was exciting for me because I was keenly aware of that. Also, using parts of animals that in America we had forgotten about – cheek, offal – these sorts of things. This is what Batali celebrated. We were living a kind of post-1990s, lower Manhattan Wall Street – and these guys just wanted steaks. They didn’t want beef cheeks. And here’s Batali telling you, No, try this. So that was a big lesson for me.

JN: I imagine there was also a big risk for him. In retrospect it worked, but it must have been scary at the time, and I really admire that aspect of his career.

JE: Yeah, and it reminds me that one of the exciting things about working there was that to sell that kind of thing to the public, you have to have a very prepared waitstaff. We would have a service meeting every day that would last about a half hour, and it was about telling stories about Italian culture. About what cotechino is, for example. We had a lot of Italians on staff, and they’d tell us about their culture and where these recipes came from. So that when guests asked us, we had those stories to tell, and I was excited to tell these stories to people.

JN: Do you think Babbo has maintained its character and quality?

JE: Well, the menu is virtually the same. The chef, Frank Langello, has been at the restaurant since it opened, and has been executive chef since 2002, and he’s a partner now as well. He’s been doing that food his entire adult life. I’m most certain that things are going quite well because they actually lost their Michelin star back in 2007 or 2008, and they got it back two years ago — that’s an impossible thing to do.

[NOTE: Shortly after our interview, both Mario Batali and Frank Langello were accused of sexual harassment and have stepped away from Babbo and the other restaurants in the Batali/Bastianich Group.]

JN: So, you ended up working as a sommelier at Del Posto, which for most people would be a position to keep for the rest of your career. Yet you went in a different direction. What led you to leave and end up in Piemonte?

JE: A woman.

JN: [Laughter] It always is, isn’t it?

JE: There are two reasons men cross oceans: war and women. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t war. Yeah, I met my future wife Sara in New York, she was from a town in Piemonte near Acqui Terme. After two years being together, we were starting to think that maybe this wasn’t just a relationship but maybe a partnership for life. We started thinking about what kind of life we wanted to live. We were making good money in New York, but we always had a small apartment. If we had two days off, it’s like, Where we gonna go, Connecticut? So we started thinking that maybe we should try to work the truffle season in Piemonte. Sara got in touch with a family who had a Michelin star restaurant near Barolo, for the better part of the last century. They said, Sure, we’ll take you on for the season and try it out. So we did, and we stayed there for four years.

JN: What was your position?

JE: Sommelier.

JN: Was it a restaurant which catered to Italians or tourists?

JE: It was in a Relais Chauteaux property, this five-star luxury hotel called Relais San Maurizio. It was very international in terms of clientele, especially during truffle season, October/November. Then during the rest of the year it was a reference point for Piemontese food, a well-known family who know a lot of people in the community; so we were open 12 months of the year, but with more Italians during the non-truffle part of the year.

JN: What was it like as an immigrant working with the Italian clientele? Were they skeptical of taking an American sommelier in their country seriously, or were they receptive and welcoming and all of those things?

JE: Eighty percent of the people were really nice and encouraging, but my Italian was really bad when we first moved there, and as a sommelier you try to be really specific with language, and so it’s really embarrassing at the beginning to be saying things like “a really full red.”

JN: Sure, sure.

JE: So it was difficult linguistically and culturally. Most people were so kind, and I told them about my wife, and they were so happy. But twenty percent of the people were kind of rude, and I remember I had these two old guys and maybe they didn’t think I understood, and they said something like, The Americans sell us wine now. Think about that. They said it right in front of me. But this type of response represented a small minority.

JN: Even though you learned a lot about regional Italian food and wine in New York, when you arrived in Piemonte, did you feel like the things you learned were confirmed, or did you feel like you had to start over again?

JE: A little bit of a mix. Sometimes I had an experience where I realized, Ah, that’s what that means. There are things I’d learned but not really internalized. You see it in practice and you understand it better. And then there are certain dishes and traditions which just wouldn’t work in America.

JN: What would be an example of one of those?

JE: Bollito misto. There are places in New York that do it, but it’s never successful. We had the hardest time selling it at Babbo.

JN: Yeah, I have some friends, actually, who told me once about ordering it at Babbo and Mario himself came out, he was so full of gratitude.

JE: Yeah, same thing with tripe and these kinds of dishes. You can only ever approximate these dishes in the US. Ingredients are just so different. You know this better than I do. It comes down to flour and the eggs and the water in so many cases. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or underprepared, though. I certainly had a very good idea of the cuisine.

JN: How would you characterize the personality of Piemontese cooking?

JE: It’s interesting because, in Italy, Piemontese cooking is regarded as one of the highest forms of cooking in the country. There’s a lot of meat, and a specific Piemontese beef/veal breed that is very lean but very tender. Vitello tonnato, for example, uses that veal with a sort of tuna emulsion, we might say. The agnoletti al plin are a sort of ravioli filled with that meat. And then, braised meat.

JN: Because Piemontese was a more affluent area which could afford the cost of meat, unlike some other regions?

JE: Yes, and that’s still the case today. One thing they didn’t have was access to saltwater fish. But as you mentioned, Piemonte has always been an affluent area and so they could have preserved fish. This is one way they could show wealth. So they could buy canned tuna, but they didn’t know what to do with it.

JN: [Laughter] Sure, it was a foreign ingredient.

JE: Yeah, but they said, Let’s smear it on the veal, you know, and this was a way of showing the neighbors, Hey, we have fish here. You find salted fish like anchovies and baccala in Piemontese cooking quite a lot. Some people say, Well, we’ve always had eel or river trout, but I find that not to be a really big part of the culture. And not a huge amount of vegetables.

JN: What about bagna cauda?

JE: Well, while bagna cauda is very traditional, it is the exception to the rule. Bagna cauda means hot bath and it’s an assortment of seasonal vegetables; you dip them in a garlic, anchovy, and oil bath.

JN: Is risotto quite traditional, as well?

JE: Yes, you have a lot of big rice production in the flatlands, and so lots of risotto eaten. Of course the most famous Piemontese food is the white truffle of Alba – the most expensive in the world. This is shaved over pasta or risotto. You don’t find much dried pasta in Piedmont, mostly fresh pasta with a high percentage of egg yolks, sometimes 45 yolks for 1 kilo of flour. So it’s very rich, eggy pasta. And one of the traditional shapes is tajarin, which could be translated as tagliatelle, but it’s not as wide.

JN: How does that high egg-yolk pasta differ from the whole-egg pasta of Emilia Romagna?

JE: It’s a fresh pasta that can be more al dente, with a lot of spring. That’s the big difference – but also the color, of course.

JN: Moving on from food, how would you describe the culture and character of the Piemontese people?

JE: It’s a big region. Towards Lombardia, it’s flat with a lot of rice production and milk. In Southern Piemonte where I live, there’s a lot of rolling hills and beautiful landscape. We’re close to the Alps – thus the name Piemonte [foothills] – and they look like they’re right on top of us. So you have these rolling hills covered in vines, a little piece of woodlands here and there. Really a quite dramatic landscape and one of the most beautiful places in the world, with these little sprinkles of medieval architecture with these castles looming in the distance. I’m not just saying this because my wife’s from there and I’m living there. It really is one of the most special places I’ve ever traveled to.

JN: How about the people?

JE: There’s a saying in Italian about the Piemontesi, and I don’t like it, though there’s some truth to it: false and courteous. I wouldn’t say it’s an accurate description, but they are guarded. One reason Piemonte isn’t as commercialized as some other regions is that the people tend to be a little more exclusive; not less accepting, but a little less willing to let people in. They also haven’t sold themselves the way, say, Tuscans have. Piemonte for me is much more beautiful than Tuscany, if we’re talking about landscape. The wine is certainly better. No one’s going to dispute that. Yet, Tuscany remains this food and wine destination while Piemonte remains largely undiscovered. And I think this has to do with the pride the people have that the traditions and secrets are passed down by generations, and they’re very hesitant to let people, certainly foreigners, participate fully in them. Now that’s changing. They’ve realized that Tuscany was quite admirable in how they’ve marketed their region, and there’s been some jealousy there too. I think they’re studying the Tuscan model a little bit, but they’re still hesitate to really open up.

JN: In your case, it was easier to find acceptance because you married a Piemontese woman?

JE: Yes, I was lucky to marry into a family that has been so accepting of an American in the family. It’s kind of a novelty. There aren’t many foreigners living in Piemonte, especially Americans. There are immigrants from North Africa, but unfortunately they’ve been marginalized and are sort of a culture apart. I was really motivated to fit in and learn the language and participate in the culture. I had an easier time than maybe some others would have. In some ways other Italians, especially Southerners, have an even harder time.

JN: How long did it take you to become fluent in Italian, and what made the difference?

JE: Necessity. I actually got in a motorcycle accident two months after I moved and broke my hand. I couldn’t work for a month and a half and I spent a lot of time with my in-laws, who speak no English. So that was a turning point. After six months to a year I felt pretty comfortable, and after two years I felt like nothing was getting past me. But then just when you think you know everything you meet someone from the country who talks in a funny way…

JN: Yeah, that happens here too.

JE: Yeah, I’m sure it happens in Benton!

JN: So we’ve covered the food, we’ve covered the people. So now let’s turn to what’s maybe the main attraction for most people, and that is the wine of Piemonte.

JE: Sure. I had traveled to Piemonte by myself back when I was working in New York, and even before I met my wife or imagined living in Piemonte, these wines were the most captivating. I’m speaking above all of the Nebbiolo grape and its expression in Barolo and Barbaresco.

JN: So let’s go through the list, starting with a red wine from Piemonte that almost no one knows: Grignolino, the little light, refreshing red wine that seems to me like such a foil to wines of meditation like Barolo and Barbaresco.

JE: Grignolino, like you said, is always light in body. Refreshing. Fruity. Some people wrongly like to compare it Gamay, but it’s even fruitier and lighter, and sometimes with a cracked pepper sensibility that you don’t find in Gamay. And what’s great about a grape like Grignolino is that – we mentioned the Piemontesi being proud – there’s this idea that just because it’s growing in my backyard, it’s worth being preserved. Unlike in France, where a lot of indigenous varietals were marginalized for economic reasons, the Piemontesi people are proud of what occurred naturally and evolved in their backyards. Their grandfathers cultivated it and so they cultivate it, not for economic reasons but for tradition. They’re so proud of it. Some people like it lightly chilled. They was a lightly sparking version that was very popular in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a refreshing summer wine. I certainly keep it on my wine list at the restaurant.

JN: Absolutely.

JE: There is one producer of Grignolino for you to check out: they’re called Acornero. They have a vineyard with 80-year-old vines. They make a singular Grignolino that doesn’t really remind you of any Grignolino you’ve ever had. It almost approaches Pinot Noir in intensity, in terms of weight on the palate and in terms of complexity. It’ll totally change your idea about Grignolino. But that’s one wine in thirty people that [make it].

JN: And I love that style; again, like Bardolino, it’s a style of wine that I think actually deserves a lot more respect than it gets.

JE: It’s right for certain occasions.

JN: Exactly, in a way other wines might not be. But now on to the big boys: Dolcetto.

JE: This is my bread and butter. Dolcetto used to be, in the Barolo area, the most cultivated grape, and we’re not talking about a long time ago. We’re talking about fifty years ago. People were making Dolcetto and selling it primarily in Torino. Having a harder time actually selling their Barolo, sometimes they would give the Barolo away if people bought a lot of Dolcetto. Certainly, the farmers – that’s the grape they were drinking on their tables. Everyday wine – really, really dark color, very intensely tannic, which is confusing about it — when you hear “Dolcetto” people think it’s going to be a slightly sweeter wine. Actually, a lot of producers are moving to stop using the name Dolcetto on labels because it’s creating a misperception. For example, in Dogliani, where they make one of the more intense, long-lived Dolcettos, they’ve actually stopped using the word Dolcetto. You can now just write Dolgiani.

JN: What is the history? Was it at one point in its history made into a sweet wine, and thus its name?

JE: The grape itself is quite sweet. The grape itself is one of the more delicious things you’ve ever tasted. As a table grape, incredible – except that it has quite a lot of seeds and tannin. So that’s where it gets the name.

JN: You mentioned the dark color and the significant tannin. What other character does Dolcetto have? What place does it have today? As a sommelier, where do you recommend serving it in the meal?

JE: Unfortunately, Dolcetto is falling out of favor in Italian markets, even in Piemonte, because people see it as the wine that their parents and their grandparents were drinking, because it was affordable and accessible. It’s what a lot of people were drinking at home and in restaurants, so they have this idea about it being an older person’s wine. It’s a great wine, though, perfect but safe for primi courses – pasta, risotto, these kind of things. It has relatively low acidity, which makes it very easy drinking. As a sommelier, you have to be careful where you’re using it, because it has this low acidity, big body. And very tannic. So it works better with richer dishes, but again, when you’re missing that acidity, sometimes then the dish tends to take over, you have too much of a heavy sensation. You want a sense of levity in there. So, Dolcetto can be not as friendly as Barbera, for example. This is a reason that maybe sommeliers aren’t using it so much, which is a shame. I love Dolcetto; I drink it frequently, I order it frequently at restaurants. It’s going out of style on this side of the ocean and on the other. On this side of the ocean, maybe it was never in style; it’s always had a hard time, marketing-wise.

JN: Speaking of Barbera, let’s move on to that next.

JE: As Dolcetto can be a little trickier to pair with food, Barbera is the opposite. It is so friendly, because it has this buoyant, bright acidity, and very low tannin, almost none. It doesn’t fight with foods, it cuts through them. This bright acid stands up to rich pasta dishes. Don’t tell any Italians this, but I like to pair it with pizza.

JN: It’s not too much acidity, the double acidity of the tomato and the wine?

JE: No, I like that. Because, think about the pizza, the dough can be kind of a heavier thing – the Barbera kind of inviting you to eat a little bit more than you would. Barbera is booming. Economically, it’s the most accessible representative of the indigenous Piemontese grapes. Maybe from some of these famous Barolo houses, even their Nebbiolos can be a little pricey, but Barbera will be accessible. That, coupled with the fact that it’s so friendly with food. You can drink it through an entire Piemontese meal. Barbera is having a really, really strong moment, marketwise. Even amongst young Italians – typically, if you see a younger Italian couple at a table, they’ll usually order a Barbera or something if they want to drink local.

JN: For better or worse, unlike Dolcetto, there’s a new tradition – in the last two decades or so – of having the Barbera see some time in barrique, which maybe isn’t the worse thing, seeing as it has this low tannin character, and maybe it picks up some structure from the wood, so maybe it’s not such a bad use of barrique. What do you think of that style of Barbera?

JE: The thing that’s exciting about that is in 2017 producers aren’t as afraid to experiment as in the past, and some are making a barrique Barbera and a stainless steel Barbera and a third one aged in botti, so they’re not tying themselves down to one style. The most age-worthy Barberas tend to be aged in barrique. That tannin which they don’t naturally have, they need if you want longevity in the wine. The complex structure takes more time to break down. So I’m not afraid of those wines, though I don’t like them when they’re young. Just to make a gross generalization, obviously there are producers which make barrique Barbera which you can drink young and others who make barrique Barbera which don’t stand the test of time. Good ones, when they’re young, taste too much of vanilla and these sorts of things, but after ten years of aging, that has fallen away and you’re just left with the taste of the variety. Some are afraid of them because when it started it was so against the tradition – Oh, that’s not what we do here – and some people, for better or worse, cling to that tradition, that uncompromising identity. It’s a problem, but it also makes it interesting.

JN: Sure, and that’s how culture is passed on, right? Without that tenacity or even stubbornness, culture is easily lost.

JE: Sure.

JN: On to Nebbiolo. Let’s start with Nebbiolo, but not from Barolo or Barbaresco.

JE: The grape actually represents less than 10% of vines in Piemonte. So there’s this misconception. Certainly it’s the most important and popular Piemontese red grape, but it represents a really small acreage of vines. In that sense it’s quite rare. The reason it isn’t planted everywhere is that it’s such a temperamental varietal. It’s actually the first grape to flower in the spring and the last to be picked. As such, it’s exposed to the elements for a long period of time, and there’s more opportunity for things to go wrong. It always catches the frost in the spring. Of course, the hail in the summer and the cold in the winter. You can’t grow it everywhere. And Nebbiolo varies dramatically depending on where it’s planted. Barbera, by contrast, is one of those grapes you can plant anywhere and it still tastes like Barbera. When Nebbiolo gets planted in a soil that doesn’t have the right symbiotic relationship and the right nutrients the vine needs, its character will change dramatically. For example, my father-in-law grows Nebbiolo at his home in Bistagno. If you tasted the wine, it’s almost unrecognizable. But if you taste his Barbera you know right away what it is. There are only a few places in the world where you can plant Nebbiolo, for this reason. It has a really temperamental nature. Usually it’s only planted on southwestern-facing slopes because of this problem it has ripening. It needs all the sun it can get. The reason that the ripening is so important for Nebbiolo is that it is naturally so acidic and tannic. Historically these wines were harsh. That’s why the grape needed to be aged before consumption. It was so aggressive on the human palate. You had to wait until they calmed down a little bit. Now that’s changing a little bit with global warming, making the wines a little bit more accessible in their youth, but maybe less able to be aged as long. Of course, the most famous places Nebbiolo is grown are Barolo and Barbaresco, but as those wines continue to increase in price beyond the reach of many, people are looking to other places where Nebbiolo has been grown historically but maybe didn’t have the economic success for a variety of reasons. So regions like Carema, Gattinara, Lessona – cooler climates. Now as the climate is warming up, these regions are emerging as being very interesting for Nebbiolo, whereas maybe 50 years ago it was just too cold. The wines were quite pale and acidic. Now they’re a little fuller on the palate. A little brighter. A little fresher. More satisfying on the palate. People are really starting to invest in these towns. Also, it’s an alternative to these extraordinarily expensive wines from Barolo, which could be $70 or $80. But for a great bottle of Carema you might just pay $35. For someone who doesn’t need to have a famous name, it’s a great alternative. So these other Nebbiolo wines are starting to blossom, but mostly abroad. In Italy they’re really marginalized.

JN: How does the colder climate affect the character of Nebbiolo?

JE: These cooler temperatures generally give a thinner but more elegant body. Also less capacity for aging. They lack the complexity of Barolo or Barbaresco, but they have a greater freshness about them. This isn’t just the climate but also the soil. There’s no coincidence that the white truffle and Barolo grow in the same soil. The soil in the Langhe gives a special thing to the plants, to the fruits, to all the flora that grows in the area. The soil in other areas where Nebbiolo is grown is good soil, but it doesn’t have the complexity. So those wines will never reach the Langhe in terms of intensity, in terms of mystery.

JN: Let’s delve deeper into Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco, in whichever order you prefer.

JE: I hold that Barolo is the finest Italian wine made. That’s because of a couple of things. It has an extraordinary potential to age, that it has demonstrated. In a perfect year with perfect conditions and a perfect human being sculpting these wines, they can last for half a century. It doesn’t always happen, but it has happened and will continue to happen, and that’s something that fascinates wine lovers – the ability to drink a product that’s more than 90% rainwater that fell half a century ago in northern Italy, that’s still fresh, that still gives emotion, that still tastes good. There’s this myth that wines can age. But most wines can’t age. Only a few special ones can. Barolo is one. And this is something that fascinates the wine community about it. That’s one thing.

The other thing is that it’s so different and so strange, aesthetically, from others. If you look at all the big international varieties – Cabernet, Merlot, you know – dark color, round body, soft supple tannin. You see the wine and taste it, its identity is quite complete. It doesn’t surprise you. Pinot Noir might surprise you. It has this delicate color, beautiful bouquet, gentle tannin, high acidity. Whereas Barolo sort of combines the two, almost. It has extraordinary tannin, extraordinary acidity, but very pale color. You look at this wine and it’s perplexing. It surprises you. It changes very much over the arc of its life. And this is another thing the draws people to this wine and fascinates wine lovers. Compared to Barbaresco, Barolo tends to be more complex, and slightly fuller. It will typically come of age not as rapidly and ultimately age longer.

Barbaresco, of course, is very similar to Barolo. Like Barolo, it’s 100% Nebbiolo, and Barbaresco even has some of the same soil as parts of Barolo. In Barolo the are two main soil types, one a little richer and more fertile – these wines tend to be more aromatic. The other type is leaner, with more shale and marl, and these wines tend to be a little more tannic, fuller, more aggressive, and longer-lived than other Barolos. This first type is exactly the same soil you have in Barbaresco. So Barbaresco tends to resemble Barolo from these areas very much.

JN: Then why was the line drawn where it was, to distinguish Barolo and Barbaresco?

JE: Because geographically they’re quite far away from each other, 10 or 15 kilometers. For this reason, Barbaresco wasn’t considered the same. The royal family, the Faletti, were living in Barolo. Vittore Emmanuelle II, the first king of United Italy [c. 1860] had a vineyard in Barolo and was using it as a sort of calling card. He was pushing Barolo. Slowly its reputation built internationally. Whereas the commercial success of Barbaresco we can attribute almost entirely to the marketing genius of one man: Angelo Gaja, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He created more of a brand than a wine, and it exploded internationally. Luxury Italian wine become synonymous with a Gaja bottle, and luckily for the people of this little Italian town, the word Barbaresco was printed just below his name. And so people making Barbaresco today are aware of this debt to Gaja. People always knew there was great Nebbiolo coming from this area, but the market wasn’t there before Gaja.

JN: You mentioned the structural components – tannin and acidity – that contribute to the greatness of Barolo and Barbaresco. But what should one expect in terms of aroma and taste of well-aged Barolo or Barbaresco?

JE: That’s the thing that excites me the most about these wines, that they continue to surprise me, even after years of study and experience. Nebbiolo in general tends to be an earthy grape. It has smells of truffle and mushrooms. Amazingly, if you go to a Barolo vineyard and smell the soil, it has that smell. But it’s a special dirt. Not a stinky dirt but a perfumed dirt. So you have these gentle aromas of violet, something floral to it. Toward the end of the bottle it tends to be more medicinal, maybe spicy. Some people say they smell eucalyptus. Whereas when they’re younger you perceive more floral, more gentle spices. The more it ages the more complicated it gets, and the more the wine will change during the period you have the bottle open. This is one thing that’s so satisfying to wine lovers: that you pour another glass and the wine has significantly changed. It’s floral and delicate. Then at the end of the bottle it’s more medicinal. It doesn’t even resemble the wine you opened an hour ago. So it takes you on this journey.

JN: And though all wines evolve after being opened, few wines evolve like that.

JE: Exactly. So that’s the exciting thing about it. It continues to surprise, even those of us who taste it for a living.

JN: For me, Barolo is one of the only wines I prefer to drink without food, so that it can command my whole attention. Yet it is traditional to serve it at the table. What foods do you think pair well with Barolo?

JE: The best food and wine pairing in the world is Barolo with tajarin and white truffle. When you take a wine and food pairing class, they’ll say, Pair an earthy dish with an earthy wine. And as I say time and time again, there is no earth in the world like the earth of Barolo. So when you smell the Barolo and you smell the truffle, they’re reflecting each other, both telling the same story. They both have this really ethereal quality which not many foods have, so those two things together can make a person quite happy. This is the best pairing.

But also, with the high acidity and high tannin, Barolo pairs really well with meat: with Piemontese steak, braised meats. Although there is a delicacy to Barolo, the intense structure – high tannin and aggressive acidity – demand richness. You can’t pair it with something too delicate. Like Barolo and vitello tonnato – a disaster.

JN: Moving on to a very different grape, could we talk about Brachetto?

JE: It’s typical from the valley I live in, and the surprising thing about it is that it is red, but lightly sparking and sweet. There are not a lot of grapes that fall into that category. But it’s really traditional. In the old days, when they were fermenting the Brachetto, it would appear that the fermentation was finished. They would bottle it, but they’d open it in the spring to find that the fermentation hadn’t quite finished and so now it was lightly sparkling – frizzante. Now, by law, Brachetto d’Acqui has to be frizzante. It’s this lovely, fruity, refreshing grape, not something you find a lot in the international world of wine. There’s not a market for red, lightly sparking sweet wine. While in the valley I live in, it’s the most common dessert wine. It’s one of a myriad of indigenous grapes that the Piemontesi have kept alive. Really special. I like Brachetto a lot. It’s not a serious or overly complicated wine, but a satisfying wine. And then, some people make it into a concentrated passito wine using dried grapes, very sweet. You could age this style for 20 years. It really takes Brachetto to a different level. But there’s no market for those wines, unfortunately.

JN: Even in Piemonte?

JE: Yeah, no one says, Give me a Brachetto passito. No.

JN: Unfortunately our time is coming to an end, but I’d like to talk a bit about the few white wines of Piemonte.

JE: White wine doesn’t have a long history in Piemonte. The commercial wines we think of in Piemonte really only came about in the 1970s, made possible by technology that they didn’t have before. Temperature controlled fermentation. Stainless steel fermentation. People weren’t making wine with these things until the 1970s. This coincides with the first generation of true Piemontesi oenologists. Barolo producers after World War II who were starting to make a little money could send their kids to school to study winemaking. These kids enjoyed a technological boom and had new toys to play with which they didn’t have a generation ago. So they started experimenting with white wines. At first it was the international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Still today, Piemonte has great Chardonnay. But the Piemontesi were always a little unsatisfied with these wines because they were French grapes. There was a lot of money invested from the Regione Piemontese to identify indigenous Piemontese grapes and to see what you could do with them. The most famous has become Roero Arneis, this kind of fresher, fruitier wine. But today the style is a little different – they’re trying to coax a little more salinity out of the soil – and a little more mature. That’s the trend: not to make these fruity, international wines, but to make more saline, mineral wines.

The most interesting trend in white wine in Piemonte is Timorasso from eastern Piemonte, on the border with Lombardia, near the town of Tortona. There’s only about 150 acres of production at the moment, from about 30 producers. The greatest champion of the grape has been Walter Massa, who starting promoting it in the early 1990s. He demonstrated that not only is the grape extraordinarily unique, aesthetically speaking, with this dark color and big body, lots of intensity and minerality – but the more interesting thing is that he demonstrated that it is a white wine which can age, without being aged in wood. I’ve had examples of 15-year-old [wines] which have been extraordinary. People caught on to Massa’s genius and are starting to make really interesting wines. They’re quite unique. They have this big, oily body. Lots and lots of minerality. Sometimes a little bit of petrol. And a bright acidity. You taste them and you swear they’re aged in wood, but they rarely are.

JN: Timarasso is the name of the grape, I assume. So the wine is 100% Timarasso?

JE: Yes. Some people don’t want to use the word Timarasso on the label. I’m not sure exactly why. There’s some marketing confusion there. I assert that the most interesting white wine being made in Piemonte today is the Timarasso from the winery Marina Coppi. It’s a really young winery, only open since 2007, so they’re just beginning to see what they can do. They make this Timarasso called Fausto, only aged in stainless steel. His 2007 – this is a 10-year-old white wine that no one’s ever heard of – it’s just insanely good.

JN: Imported to the US?

JE: Yes, I was trying to connect him to an importer friend, Jan D’Amore, because I was obsessed with the wine. That didn’t work out, but it did get picked up by another importer, so it’s available in the US.

JN: Unfortunately we should end there, but thanks so much for your time.

JE: No problem. I really enjoyed it.