Giuliano Hazan is the son of Marcella and Victor Hazan. Like his parents, Giuliano has dedicated his life to teaching and writing about authentic Italian cooking. Although he lives in the US, he travels to Italy several times per year to offer week-long cooking courses near Verona. He also teaches classes at his home in Sarasota, Florida.
In our interview, we talk about how Italian food has changed in both America and Italy, the differences between restaurant and home cooking, and what it was like growing up with a mother who became the most famous Italian cooking teacher in America.
Justin Naylor: Good morning, Giuliano, and thanks for taking the time to speak today. I’d like to begin by asking what it was like growing up in the Hazan household. After all, before Marcella became famous, to you she was your mother first.
Giuliano Hazan: First of all, I would have to say we ate very well. Mealtimes were always important, and discussions about food were always important. It was something that I grew to enjoy being a part of, very much. As far as her becoming famous – it did happen fairly early in my childhood. The book came out in 1972, and she had been teaching already for a couple of years at that point. I was thirteen years old when the book came out. To tell you the truth, I really don’t remember home life before she was involved in food. That was really the normal thing: she was teaching, and she was writing the books, and so forth. Eventually, my father became involved in that full-time, but I certainly remember very well when he was working at my grandfather’s fur store and juggling both things.
JN: Were there dishes that you remember disliking as a boy, that it was a struggle for your parents to get you to eat? Or did you have a charmed palate from the start?
GH: No, no… liver was certainly one thing that I really didn’t like. I’m not incredibly fond of it, still. Occasionally I’ve had really good, tender calves’ liver that I did like. In our household I learned that I never said that I didn’t like something; I wasn’t ready yet. Raw oysters, raw mollusks in general are things that I’m still not particularly fond of. Other than that, I think I pretty much ate everything. Pasta was, and still is, one of my favorite things to eat.
JN: When did you actually begin to help in the kitchen?
GH: I mostly watched in the kitchen. I seem to remember there was a stool I would sit on; I would just watch what she did. Occasionally I would help out with something; one of the things that comes to mind is risotto stirring. And then, there was this dessert that she always made, called the Diplomatico, which is basically a rum- and coffee-flavored chocolate mousse cake. You have to whip the eggs, sugar, and egg whites to make the mousse. I remember helping out with that as well. Everyone always asks me, “So, you grew up cooking with your mother…” Well, not really. I grew up watching my mother cook, and mostly eating.
JN: These days, people emphasize ‘doing’ so much, but watching can be just as powerful in a certain way. I think watching a master at work doesn’t get quite the respect it deserves. There’s a tremendous amount that can be observed.
GH: I definitely absorbed a lot. If you’re watching something that is of interest, then you’re going to retain a lot more, as well.
JN: Even more than if you’re doing it, sometimes – just to have complete focus on observation.
GH: Yes, definitely.
JN: And of course, one of the most important things about these experiences were the taste memories that you were developing as a child and then as an adolescent – to have a sense from your earliest years of what certain things should taste like. I imagine that was the greatest gift of that experience.
GH: Yes, absolutely. Developing a palate is key to cooking, I think.
JN: One of the other interesting things about your childhood is that you spent time both in the US and in Italy, back and forth quite a bit. Could you talk a little about those experiences, whether as a boy you felt more American or Italian?
GH: It really felt like I was growing up in both places because when my parents moved back to the States I was about 8½ or 9, and at that point I was going to the school in the States, but the entire summer vacation every summer was spent in Italy in Cesenatico with my grandmother, so I was equally comfortable in both environments. This was pretty much through the end of high school.
JN: After high school, you didn’t decide initially to pursue cooking or teaching cooking as a career. What did you end up studying in college and how did you eventually transition to cooking and teaching?
GH: Well, I’d always been interested in theater. When I first went to college I started out as a biology major.
JN: Like your mother.
GH: Like my mother. But I really wanted to do theater as much as I could. There just didn’t seem to be enough time for lab and rehearsal times. And biology didn’t really inspire me that much, as much as I thought it would. So at that point I sort of switched gears. I went to Swarthmore College, and at that time they didn’t have a theater major, so I ended up becoming a French major. I’d studied French in high school and spent time in France as well. It seemed convenient, and I continued doing theater as well. After college, I ended up at a professional theater school in Providence, Rhode Island — Trinity Rep conservatory.
JN: What drew you to theater and made it so captivating for you?
GH: I enjoyed both the directing aspect of it and acting too. I liked the creative part of it, especially from the director’s point of view. I was always fairly shy, and being on stage kind of allowed me to be out there in a safe way because you were playing somebody else. You weren’t yourself.
JN: Absolutely. I think that’s true for so many actors.
GH: That was the draw of it, for sure.
JN: Yet you decided not to pursue it as a career. What were the factors in that decision?
GH: I did realize that the odds of really making it in the theater were pretty slim. I’d been exposed to cooking schools because my mother’s school in Italy started when I was 17, and I’d been involved in that every summer. When I was in Providence, I started teaching classes at the Barrington Community School, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I always tell people I started in theater and switched to food, but in a way I never really left theater because I think teaching has a lot of the theater in it, and my theater background has also helped me a great deal.
JN: I believe you also spent a gap year after college with your grandmother in Cesenatico.
GH: Yes, I wanted to spend more time in Italy. I’d gotten used to being there and had friends there and wanted to see what kind of work I could do there. I ended up doing interpreting and language work there. I worked for the tourist department in Bologna. Actually, that’s when I first met Matt Lauer.
JN: Oh yes.
GH: He was one of the anchors for a show in Providence, and they were doing a segment in Italy. So the producer who was familiar with my mother and knew me from Providence as well, asked me if I’d go along and be their interpreter in Italy.
JN: Although you spent many summers with your grandmother in Cesenatico, living with her for a year must have given you a wonderful opportunity to know her better.
GH: Vey much so. I was very close to my grandmother. She was an incredibly sweet, generous, and wonderful nonna. She was a very good cook, and she really encouraged me to cook too. She let me do a lot of the cooking and appreciated the things that I cooked.
JN: Was there anything you learned from her that you hadn’t already learned from your mother?
GH: I’m sure there were, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what it was. Little things you learn along the way and absorb. But definitely she was an influence.
JN: Before you settled into teaching and writing as a career, you also made a foray into restaurant cooking. I’d love to hear some stories from that time.
GH: This was when I was in Providence, after I’d completed the two-year theater program. My mother had been asked by a group of ex-students who were investing in a restaurant in Atlanta to be a consultant. The restaurant was Veni, Vidi, Vici. So she did, but she was always a bit hesitant about this sort of stuff. She said, “Well, I’d really prefer it if my son were part of this project, to be on-site since I can’t be.” So that’s how I ended up getting hired to work in that restaurant. I had no restaurant experience, so I was kind of thrown into it. I ended up setting up the homemade pasta station. I also did desserts for a little while, though doing desserts has never been something I really enjoy. I like cooking much better. But then they didn’t really know what position to put me in. I was sort of a chef’s assistant. Mostly my responsibilities were to work on creating the daily specials and regular menu, making sure they were in the same style as my mother’s cooking.
And then, I went to my second restaurant directly from that. There was a call that came in and the chef was not in the kitchen. I answered, and it ended up being a head hunter. They asked who I was, and they knew my mother, and they said, “Maybe we want to talk to you instead.”
GH: So I ended up being hired to open an Italian restaurant in Portland, Oregon as executive chef. So I sort of zoomed from having no restaurant experience to being executive chef in just over a year. Both of these experiences I learned a lot from. There’s a lot about producing food in a restaurant that’s different from home cooking and useful to know if you’re producing food in larger quantities. I learned a lot from the experience, but I also learned that I really didn’t enjoy the restaurant life. I really enjoyed much more having direct contact with people, the kind you get from teaching. It was during my time in Portland that I wrote my first cookbook. When that was published I decided I wanted to devote myself to teaching full time instead of doing a restaurant. So I just wrote to a bunch of cooking schools across the country, and pretty much everyone said, “Yes, come and teach.” So I started doing the traveling teacher gig.
JN: One theme your mother wrote about extensively was how it was the cooking of the home, not the restaurant, which gave Italian cooking its soul. This fascinated me early in my own cooking education. Could you describe the difference in your mind between restaurant and home cooking, both from the point of view of the kitchen but also as an eater?
GH: A lot of it is the demands of a restaurant, especially in the States where everything is expected to happen instantly. You have to find ways to adapt so you can make things in a way that allows you to put out an order quickly when it comes in. In Italy, it’s not always as much. People are used to being a little more patient. That’s definitely one of the challenges in restaurant cooking.
JN: What would be an example of a shortcut like that?
GH: Well, precooking pasta, which is an awful thing. Or risotto. There’s just no way to cook it halfway and then try to revive it. That really doesn’t work. To me, doing restaurant food successfully meant choosing the right things to serve. For example, slow-cooked braised dishes, things like that. Those are perfect because they were work well to be done ahead of time. Whereas other things are a little trickier.
JN: When you dine in restaurants today, even in high-quality ones, does the food often taste like “restaurant cooking”, for lack of a better term? Do you feel like you can taste that in a restaurant?
GH: More than that, there’s the fact that in restaurants there’s a feeling that you have to put a lot of different ingredients into a dish, otherwise it’s too plain. People here [in the US] expect restaurant cooking to be more sophisticated, whereas in Italy a restaurant where you can say, “My goodness, this is as good as it is at home,” is the highest praise.
JN: Do you think that’s still true in Italy today, that restaurants are still trying to match the standard of the best home cooking?
GH: It depends what kind of restaurant. The small family-run trattoria, that’s still the goal. But as an effect of globalization, there are high-end restaurants in Italy where the food is expected to be much more sophisticated than something you would make at home. That’s not to say that kind of cooking can’t be very good.
JN: What are some other ways Italian cooking in Italy has changed in your lifetime, either in restaurants or in the home?
GH: I don’t think there’s been a huge change. One thing is an emphasis on preparing raw fish, which you didn’t see as much in the past. An increase in famous chef restaurants. And then the very sad trend toward finding more and more fast food. I believe you talked to my father about the closing of Fiaschetteria Toscana?
JN: Yes. Burger King is taking their place, which is the perfect symbol of some of the sad changes taking place, even in Italy. I tell people all the time that it’s not just tourists eating fast food in Italy. It’s very much Italians.
GH: Yes, it is. One of the sad things about Italians is they really try to emulate and imitate particularly American customs. The great example is the outlet: in America they try to create the Tuscan, Mediterranean look, which then the Italians imitate the Americans imitating the Tuscan look.
JN: That’s so sad!
GH: It’s very funny and sad at the same time.
JN: So how about the state of Italian cooking in America today?
GH: You find the more sophisticated, high-end type of Italian cooking, but you still don’t find the down to earth home-cooking type of cooking that you’d find with family-run trattorias.
JN: Yes, and when you do find it, it’s invariably of the Italian-American style.
JN: Speaking of Italian-American tradition, where did that cooking tradition come from exactly?
JN: It’s a real puzzle to me, the way Italian-American cooking is often the exact opposite of Italian cooking in Italy. For example, Italian lasagne is light and delicate, while Italian-American lasagne is heavy and… whatever.
GH: I don’t pretend to have an authoritative answer to it, but you can have my opinion. Mostly the Italian immigrants had come from a life of poverty in Italy, where they couldn’t afford meat or the sauce for pasta was precious. When they started being able to afford more, kind of as a reaction to that, the reaction was I can add more meat, thus the meatball on pasta. I can afford more sauce, thus the drowning of pasta in sauce. A lot of it had to be with being able to have more.
JN: And as you said a moment ago, though we Americans tend to idolize Italy, Italians are often more interested in imitating Americans, and I think you see that in the Italian-American cooking tradition. So, if you’re an impoverished immigrant from Naples in 1905, you’re more interested in embracing the new American abundance than in preserving the “cucina povera” of your past.
GH: Absolutely. You’re trying to get away from scarcity, and so you get a reaction.
JN: What are some restaurants in the US that you admire or enjoy eating in, either Italian or otherwise?
GH: Rather than naming places, I think I ‘d rather talk about what appeals to me in a restaurant. It’s really when you find true, genuine flavors. The skill in finding the best ingredients and just bringing out their flavor without covering it up, without feeling like you have to have a whole bunch of ingredients to make it good. It could be Japanese restaurants where the freshness of the fish in the sushi just melts in your mouth, and you have this feeling of freshness and purity of flavor. Purity of flavor is the key.
JN: When you travel and spend time in Italy, do you find it hard to find restaurants that meet your expectations or standard? For example, in Rome or Venice or Florence, do you feel like you have to pick restaurants very carefully, or do you think there’s a high and consistent standard?
GH: It used to be you could go almost anywhere and have a good meal. I think it’s gotten harder nowadays. You do have to search out places more carefully, talk to people and get recommendations. And in big tourist cities like Venice, unfortunately, it’s harder because of all the tourists. The restaurants cater to the tourists, and they find they don’t really need to be so careful and spend so much money on the ingredients as they can be. They can get away with a lot of stuff.
JN: Is it mostly tourism driving the changes, or is even the Italian palate becoming less discriminating?
GH: Italians eat at mediocre places too. I would say there are fewer restaurants that are up there, that are very, very good.
JN: Speaking of tourism, it’s something I think about a lot, because I take clients to Italy and encourage people to visit Italy.
GH: I rely on tourism too.
JN: Right, and it’s a complex subject with no clear answers – no simple heroes or villains. How would you describe, or how might we foster, what you might call “responsible tourism”? How does one approach tourism so that it’s a blessing and not a blight on a place?
GH: I don’t know how you get people to be responsible tourists… but certainly, to encourage respect for the places they’re in and seek out the local traditions, and culture, and flavors, which is really a way to learn about the people and place you’re visiting. That’s what we do with our school in Italy, to expose people to the best expression we can find of that particular place. We take people to food producers because it’s a food and wine course. The producers we take people to are passionate and proud of what they do, and they’re proud to share it with people we bring to visit them. That’s really the best way to learn and experience a place. But I’m not really sure how to get people to do that.
JN: What do you think a place like Venice can do to preserve itself as a real place, and not simply become a theme park, so to speak?
GH: Ultimately, it’s the pride of the people of the place. Sadly, the population of Venetians is dwindling, so it’s hard. But I think they’ve done a good job, considering the masses who descend upon the place.
JN: You mentioned your own cooking school in Italy. For those who aren’t familiar with it, would you like to give a brief overview of where it’s located and what the activities are, for those who might be interested in joining you on one of those trips?
GH: Sure. We’ve been doing this for close to 20 years now. The area is the Valpolicella wine region, near Verona, and we’ve been collaborating with the Allegrini winery, which has grown tremendously in the past 20 years. They’ve really made a name for themselves as a wine producer of the highest quality. I don’t know if you know that Marilisa Allegrini was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator a few months ago, but it was a big deal because not only was she the first woman to be on the cover of Wine Spectator…
JN: Oh, my. Doesn’t speak well for the industry, does it?
GH: If nothing else, it’s speaking a lot about the appreciation of Italian wine as top-quality wine.
JN: So I imagine that every day there’s a cooking class with you at the villa?
GH: Yes, and we take field trips. We go the food market in Padova, which is one of the few thriving open-air food markets still around. We go to visit an olive oil producer. We go to an ancient rice mill, which produces rice exactly the same way with the same equipment since 1648. It’s a mortar-and-pestle system. Rice is placed in these red marble bowls, basically, and these pestles which are powered by water wheels and wooden gears work the rice so that rather than being perfectly polished, as machine-polished rice, there’s a little bit of skin here and there, which adds depth of flavor to the rice and you don’t lose as much of that precious starch.
JN: Is that unique in Italy to this producer?
GH: There are two, but I have done taste tests and this one is the best.
JN: And it’s the one you import, is that right?
GH: Yes, it’s one of the products from Italy we import under the Giuliano’s Classics label.
JN: Also olive oil and vinegar, is that right?
GH: Yes. Another of the field trips is to Emilia-Romagna, where we go to a parmigiano-reggiano factory. You know, there are all these tours that go to parmigiano-reggiano factories; there’s something a little different about when we bring people. I used to bring groups from my mother’s school in Bologna, and so I’ve had a relationship with the consortium for a long time. We’ve been going so long that the person who originally guided us later became the director and has now retired. The cheesemaker there, who is very passionate about the work he does, really appreciates the groups we bring and the importance I give to parmigiano-reggiano when I explain it, so that when they leave they have a newfound appreciation for it. One thing he does that I don’t think he does with many groups is he’ll go and choose a wheel and open it for us. Part of the same trip is going to a minuscule town near Parma where the Spigaroli family runs a farm and restaurant and produces culatello, which you’re familiar with?
JN: Yes, I am, but few readers of this interview will be, so please go ahead and introduce it.
GH: It’s a precious product, entirely made by hand. To give an idea of how precious it is, it’s often four or five times the price of prosciutto di Parma. Massimo Spigaroli, who’s in charge, takes us around and shows us the cellar where they’ve been aging culatelli for 700 years, almost without interruption. You can see the labels which have been pre-sold, with names like Prince Charles and so forth. It’s a special experience. Then we do a tasting and we eat there at the restaurant. When I first met him twenty years ago, there weren’t many people going to visit him. Now there are several groups a day. When I come, Massimo always guides us himself. It’s a mutual appreciation.
JN: How would you describe the difference of flavor between culatello and prosciutto di Parma?
GH: I would say there is a richer and deeper flavor in the culatello. There are also different levels of aging. One thing Massimo has done is rescue historical breeds of pigs close to extinction. When we first started going there were just twelve pigs. Now there are hundreds and hundreds. The black pig of Parma is one of them, and the culatello meat from the black pig is a different flavor than that of another breed. Also it makes a difference whether it’s been aged 15 or 16 months or 39 months.
JN: Let me shift gears a little to ask about your writing. You have several cookbooks on the market today, and of course I’m interested in whether you have a new project you’re working on. But also, if you could reflect a little bit on how cookbook writing has changed during the course of your career, and maybe say a little bit about the state of cookbook writing today.
GH: I think today there is more of an emphasis on the writing part. Cookbooks have become much more personal, with stories behind the recipes. It’s not just a collection of recipes anymore. After all, with the internet, if you need a recipe it’s pretty much easy to find. As far as working on a book, I have a half-idea, but I’ve put it on the back burner. I’ve really focused more on teaching. I do a lot of classes in Sarasota as well.
JN: In your home?
GH: Yes, in our home. It’s sort of a mini-version of our school in Italy, but without the field trips.
JN: I suppose trips to the local supermarket wouldn’t be quite the same.
GH: [Laughter] Right.
JN: But kidding aside, where do you shop for ingredients? Are there farms or farmer’s markets near you?
GH: I shop some at the supermarket, but there are some good local markets, one run by an Amish family that brings in good produce and really fresh fish. During the season, which is the winter here, there is an organic farm that sells the produce they grow on the farm.
JN: Any good options for non-industrial meat?
GH: Not as much. I haven’t found anything particularly satisfying in that respect.
JN: Another thing that has changed during your career is the rise of social media and how it has affected food culture. Instagram, for example, has changed how a lot of people think about and perceive food. Could you say a little about that phenomena?
GH: The fact that it promotes more interest in food is great. There are more people inspired to cook at home, and good, genuine food is becoming more important. Organic and non-GMO to a certain extent may be a little bit of a fad, but it’s also a good trend, and it means that people put more importance on the quality of food.
JN: When I interviewed Samin Nosrat, she stressed that in her book there are no photos, even though she loves beautiful food photography, in part because she has suggested that some people might find such photography discouraging rather than encouraging, because it would be so hard to match. I thought that was an interesting observation.
GH: It’s important to me that the photography in all my books was not there to show how beautiful it is, but as a way to help people reproduce it. I didn’t want the dishes to look like something you couldn’t reproduce. It was a little of a fight with the food stylist because they want to be artistic and go overboard. To me, the most important thing was to reproduce it as accurately as possible.
JN: Let me end with this question: you’re raising two girls, and so I wanted to ask you to reflect on modern parents’ struggle with developing a mature palate in their own children. Any insights into successes and failure about raising kids and teaching them to eat well?
GH: If you expose them to good food, they will recognize the difference and be able to tell the difference between good food and not-good food. You try to set a good example as a parent, just as with good behavior and so forth. At the same time, kids have their own personalities. There’s only so much you can actually control and do. Our two daughters are a good example of that. One is much more adventurous and open to all kinds of different foods and flavors. But at the same time, with the one who is less open – things that she does like, she is really able to distinguish between when it is prepared well and when it isn’t.
JN: Is either interested in pursuing a career in food?
GH: They’re both pretty adamant that they’re not. The oldest one in particular sees that cooking is a necessity if one wants to eat well, which she’s become used to.
JN: Well, thank you, I think our time is up. I appreciate your generous giving of your time and everything you and your family have contributed over the years.