Cooking in Italy for a group of cyclist is always a challenge. As a chef who has collaborated on group dinners in the past, I know what its like to have someone in your kitchen that doesn’t belong; someone that has no idea how your kitchen runs, where things are, what they are allowed to use. In this case, someone who does not speak the language. So needless to say all the above applied to me as I entered Chef Luca’s kitchen at Hotel dei Pini in Bormio early this past week. After already having been warned that “he is tough” by some of the staff I began to question what this sharing cooking experience might bring . And having had no contact with him as of yet due to the SAG schedule not syncing up with his work schedule, we were at complete opposite ends of communication.
As I entered the kitchen for my introduction with tools in hand, carton of food to prepare and apron securely fastened I was greeted with a warm smile, handshake and friendly hello. Just to make sure things went smoothly I presented him with a spectacular bottle of wine that he quickly rejected but I insisted. Ah, the beginning of a new friendship. Two chefs, the exchange of wine and the passion for food, here we go.
As I began to feel my way around the kitchen and became acquainted with the location of where things belonged, Chef Luca made me a snack. This is not typical mind you but it was a chance for him to show off a little bit. And that he did. House-made brioche topped with local speck, arugula, local porcini, and a Bormio-version of ementaller cheese. Delicious! Then came a little taster of braised beef cheeks in red wine reduction. Now we are talking! I almost forgot I needed to be cooking!
I was given an area at the end of the hot line to work from and stay out of the way. As service time approached the pace in the kitchen quickened as it does in any restaurant. “Crunch time” was upon the staff. Smooth and cool they rolled into dinner service. I was given the pastry chef, Stefano to assist with plating and the use of the kitchen equipment. Dinner service was as follows:
Antipasti – Selection of local cheeses, charcuterie and fruits Insalata Mista – Local Greens, Sweet Ripe Tomatoes and a Gaeta Olive-Balsamic Vin Trenette Pasta – Tossed with Braised Rapini, Toasted Garlic, Olive Oil and Reggiano Secondi Piatti – Choice of Roasted Chicken with a dried fruit Agro dolce sauce (Italian sweet and sour) or Lamb chops with fennel, Ramps (spring onion) and roasting jus. I Dolce – Local Strawberries and Blueberries with a Nocciola (hazelnut) Zabaglione dusted with Amaretto cookies and mint from the restaurant garden.
After dinner Chef Luca asked to try my dishes. To date this may be one of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my almost 20 years as a professional chef; he asked for the recipe to my agro dolce sauce because it was “so unique and very good”. You can’t imagine the feeling to be complimented at that level by a born and raised Italian chef. True Italian cuisine has dictated most of my career and I have given myself wantingly to it. The food, the wine, the culture, I love it! And here is this “tough” not to mention proud Italian chef who has just given me the compliment of a lifetime by asking me for one of my recipes because he wants use it. Awesome!
As I finished cleaning up, Chef asked if he could make me dinner. How could one say no to that, plus I was finally hungry. So we sat down to dinner in the pastry kitchen at the prep table. Myself, Chef Luca and Stefano. A bottle of wine was opened, a little acqua frizzante, housemade bread and here comes the pasta. Homemade egg Taglietelle with the most delicate parsley pesto, olive oil and cherry tomatoes. No cheese was offered and none was needed. It was truly perfect. As the wine flowed the conversation began. Indeed the language barrier was great, as I know absolutely no Italian other than the names of foods or styles of cooking.
Between the wine flowing and the constant stream of local meats and cheeses and desserts the chef wanted to showcase, communication was irrelevant. Three chefs, lots of food, wine and a passion in common. Heaven! After an hour or so of hand gestures, laughs and broken English with poor Italian out came a local digestivo, Braulio. Braulio and Braulio Riserva graced our table until the decision was made that they are both delicious though different. As the night concluded it was clear that new friends had been made, barriers broken and all preconceived notions laid to waste. My thanks to Chef Luca, Stefano and the restaurant staff for a memorable evening with more to come.