Italian cooking is not the created, not to speak of the “creative”, cooking of restaurant chefs… It is cooking from the home kitchen… Food, whether simple or elaborate, is cooked in the style of the family. There is no such thing as Italian haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead to the home, to la cucina di casa – the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking.
Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Last year, I asked Luca di Vita of Osteria alle Testiere in Venice why the cooking there was so exceptional. His answer was a validation of my own thinking about restaurants. Luca explained that they thought of it not so much as a typical restaurant at all but more as the French concept of an atelier, a kind of workshop or studio in which a master works, with utmost attention to materials and quality.
Nothing could be further from the approach of the typical American restaurant. Here, almost always, quantity wins out over quality. The chain restaurant, in which a restaurant becomes a kind of mass-production factory, is able to produce food all over the country that is the same at every location, even if it lacks any sort of character or personality.
But even in so-called “fine dining” restaurants, the image of restaurant as assembly-line-factory is far too common. One person handles the pasta station, another is assigned to salads, yet another to desserts. As is true in all factory work, the creation of a product is chopped into smaller pieces so that less skilled workers can produce a part of that product even while none of them has the knowledge to produce the whole. Line cooks are notoriously poorly paid, even less than servers in the front of the house. Products become less expensive this way, but at a cost.
A restaurant needs to produce dishes quickly as orders come in, and frequently this means producing certain dishes far in advance and reheating them as needed. For example, perhaps the braised pork I’m eating on Tuesday was made in advance on Sunday, enough to cover orders for the whole week. An order comes in, it gets pulled from the fridge, reheated, and out it goes. Risotto takes 25 minutes to cook, and while most quality restaurants in Italy remind diners of the wait time, it’s far too long for most American diners to wait, so in American restaurants risotto gets pre-cooked halfway in advance and finished off when the order comes in. Efficient, yes, but at a cost.
Profit margins are tight in the restaurant business, usually about 10%. I learned this years ago when a restaurant where I was working was thinking about switching from paper to cloth napkins for lunch service. The laundering bill would be $100 a week, which would require selling $1000 more food per week to pay for it! Most restaurants are dependent on turning tables to be profitable. That is, they need the same table occupied by two different groups each night in order to make money. Guests need to eat quickly and go, to make room for the next. The logical extension of this approach is to expand and open a second or third or fourth restaurant. A successful chef becomes well known and leaves his first restaurant in “capable” hands in order to open another, and then another, and another. Celebrity chefs begin to resemble CEOs more than artisans of a craft. Profitable, yes, but at a cost.
I can’t fault conventional restaurants for embracing these tendencies. It’s a tough business. And the results can still be excellent, despite the shortcuts. But it’s not an approach that appeals to me. Whenever Marcella Hazan writes about a great restaurant in Italy, it’s always a place with a remarkable chef who somehow transmits his personality into his cooking. It is cooking which is dependent on having good taste and judgment, skills which are difficult to transmit to others. It’s not the anonymous cooking of the assembly line, but the personal cooking of a master. This is the kind of cooking I experience from the kitchen at Alle Testiere in Venice, operated by Bruno Gavagnin (business partner of Luca di Vita, who manages the front of the house). In Bruno’s kitchen there are no line cooks or pasta stations or reheated sauces from three days ago. It’s just Bruno, one assistant, and the day’s fresh catch from the lagoon. And the food tastes just like what it is: the careful and personal cooking of a master. Could Bruno train a low-wage line cook to produce the same dishes? Could he open three other restaurants in Venice, leaving Testiere in the capable hands of another professional? He most certainly could, but only at a cost; one which, thank God, he has been unwilling to pay.
People often ask us why we don’t expand our restaurant, assuming that every proprietor wants to grow his or her business. Why do we only do one seating per night? Why do we only seat 16 people per night? Why do we offer only a set, prix-fixe menu? The answer is simple: our little restaurant is as large as it can be without taking shortcuts. How many guests can my wife Dillon, our manager, comfortably serve and properly attend to? How many dishes can I send out of the kitchen and still have time to make sure each one is perfect? We’ve chosen not to hire staff. It’s just the two of us: Dillon in the front of the house and me in the kitchen. This imposes limits on what we do that help us maintain focus and provide exactly the experience to our guests which we want them to have.
The highest praise I receive about my cooking is that it tastes honest and fresh. I’m convinced this is largely the result of the fact that nothing that we cook is prepared far in advance. Pasta sauces are cooked, rest a short time, and are served. Slow-cooked braises spend the day in the oven and come out just in time to serve. Pasta dough is made at 4:00 and served at 7:00. Nothing comes out of the fridge and nothing sits under heat lamps waiting for the rest of an order to be ready. When Dillon and I dine out, we’re always seeking meals that don’t taste like “restaurant cooking”.
In effect, the cooking I do at Old Tioga Farm is closer in execution to good home cooking than conventional restaurant cooking. Of course it is careful and elegant, beautiful and balanced, I hope. But I also hope it is fresh and full of character and personality, that it tastes like it was cooked by a particular person, that it was cooked not for profit but with love. Rather than try to impress guests with extravagant preparations which look beautiful but taste of nothing, I prefer to cook dishes which are straightforward and full of rich but recognizable flavors. These are all traits I associate more with the home than the restaurant, and for us there’s no doubt that Marcella is right to say that one of the highest compliments a customer can pay to a chef in Italy is to remark that his or her cooking tastes “of the home”, even if this sounds odd in America.
This approach isn’t going to make us rich. Restaurant empires are for that. Perhaps this approach – more of an atelier than a restaurant, as Luca says, or perhaps more of the home – will never be the norm, but I like to think of it as an ideal that more chefs could aspire to. I’d like to see more restaurants that see themselves as the expression of a particular person with good taste. But for that to happen, that particular person needs to be the one doing the actual cooking. I like to think that it is an approach that has integrity and that creates a dining experience that is more personal, more intimate, more meaningful, and more delicious than that of a conventional restaurant. Although I never knew her, I like to think that Marcella would be pleased.
Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm