Monday, November 28, 2011

Mexico and Mole

Mexico was every bit the culinary adventure that I had imagined. In the days leading up to the trip I had semi-pornographic mental images of pulled pork tacos dripping in succulent salty fat, zesty fish ceviches, and mind-blowingly complex and spicy nuanced mole sauces.

So different from the Italian food that I know so intimately well, Mexico offered a peek into the wild. Big, bold flavors with no rules or regulations, barely a knife and fork in sight. Was it possible for me to love such a pedestrian cuisine? What I found as I explored the culinary landscape of the Yucatan was that although this is a food "of the people", it is in no way pedestrian. The flavors are well-balanced and layered with the same precision and attention to detail one might expect to find in a high-end city bistro.

The first meal in Mexico was a sign of what was to come, a delicious meal from a hole-in-the wall, made with love and by a family. This little restaurant was located right outside of the bed and breakfast we were staying in Tulum called La Selva Mariposa. The family that ran the place had relocated from Mexico City and brought with them some of their regional favorites. The menu was entirely in Spanish and we had a tough time placing even the simplest of orders, but whatever misgivings we had initially were completely forgotten once our food came out. I ordered the enchiladas mole, my favorite Mexican dish of all time.

Mole is the generic term for sauce, but the mole that I am talking about is red mole. A beautiful symphony of earthy and other-worldly flavors that harken from a tradition much older than all of us gringos. Mole is the delicate balance of two very fundamental Mexican flavors, chilli and chocolate...and about 20 other ingredients. It is very easy to mess up a mole, if it's too sweet, too bitter, too chocolatey, or not chocolatey enough. In culinary circles, the ability to pull off an authentic and properly balanced mole is a technique that takes years of study and a great deal of trial and error, something not often achieved and rarely perfected. Once I tasted the mole at this restaurant I knew that this was a recipe that that family had passed down over generations, something tried and true, done the same way every time. It was incredible. Topped with a little crema and queso fresco, the enchiladas were really only a vessel manifested for the sole purpose to transfer the mole from plate, to mouth.

The first of many culinary adventures on this, my first trip to Mexico, this was a huge success. I was shown, right off the bat, that the food of Mexico is complex, flavorful, and unique. I am now a true lover of Mexican cuisine and will forever be searching for a mole that can rival that from a tiny little restaurant in Tulum.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Turn For The Better

Life has taken a turn in a not-so-unexpected way. After several months of indentured servitude as the pantry chef at Trattoria Lucca I have quit my post in search of bigger and better things. It is completely unlike me to quit a job, I usually don't have the guts to do so. However after a break from the kitchen and a much needed vacation to Mexico with Matt and the parents Pontius I came to the decision that my future does not lie in the restaurant world. I no longer yearn for culinary greatness the way I did in school, I don't want my own restaurant. My goal now is to have balance in my life. To have a successful career that revolves around food and a loving family that I actually get to see.

Matt has a client named Merrit who is a private chef and is looking to expand his business and plans to meet me this week to discuss possible employment. I need to work and I need to learn more. I feel like I am heading in the right direction but I am a little scared.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Dinner of the Critics





I had my first experience with the Charleston culinary elite this past week.


My usual day off is on Wednesday, however this past week I was told on Tuesday night that all of the back-of-house staff were required to be at the restaurant by 9am Wednesday morning in order to prepare for the Critics Dinner. The Critics Dinner is a four course culinary spectacle in which five chefs are selected by the top food critics of Charleston in order to delight and indulge the rich foodie patrons of the low country for the reasonable price of $300 a person.
In a town this size, reputation means everything and who you know means just as much as how good your food is. Therefore the usual suspects were in attendance: Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's was the highlight for most diners, offering gastronomic wonders such as fish fume foam and flounder "head cheese"Jacques Larson of Wild Olive totting along a cacophany of black truffles.
Mike Lotta of the highly acclaimed Fig restaurant, and my Chef, Chef Ken Vedrinsky of Trattoria Lucca. I accompanied my chef and leader, Chef Ken Vedrinsky and we put out what I and many others considered the best course of the night, a thrice-smoked deckle steak with a peanut potato and grilled lobster salad on a puree of parmeggiano reggiano fonduta.There were so many talented chefs at this event I felt more than honored to be able to meet all of them and more importantly to meet their sous and line chefs. After all, the line chefs of the world are ones that really keep things running. I found a great connection with a guy named Mick, the line chef that accompanied Chef Jacques Lawrence from Wild Olive to the event. They prepared a fantastic salad of barley, rabbit confit, and black truffle. the combination was earthy, seductive and aromatically intoxicating. The rabbit was unbelievably tender and it was by far my favorite of the night besides Chef Ken's deckle, of course.The whole event took place on Fort sumpter, a mysterious and desolate island off the coast of the Charleston harbor that reminds us all of the turbulent past of the south and of America as a united nation. The location itself was less than beautiful, a brick facade filled in with black concrete in order to create the illusion of a fully established space. The night went off without a hitch and everyone praised us all for the unbelievable meal that was put before them. For my part, I felt undeserving of any praise , for after all I am only a lowly prep cook and student of masters.
The most amazing thing that came out of the night was the opportunity to get to know some of the biggest names in the Charleston food scene. I got to meet and talk with Sean Brock, who is obviously the wonder boy of low-country food and who is likely to be up there with David Chang and Wiley D. in the next few years. It was a perfect place to let people know who I am and that I am a force in the world of food, little package, pony-tail and all.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Evening In

What does a new chef do on her day off? Cook, of course.

Last night Matt and I planned, cooked, and ate a three course feast to rival any restaurant in Charleston. The food was all Italian of course, starting with homemade farfalle in a brown butter and roasted garlic sauce with button mushrooms, broccoli rabe, homemade sausage, and topped with a poached egg. I started cooking around two in the afternoon, after all I had two doughs to make, pasta to cut, shape, and dry, and a tart shell (I made a tart for our dessert course) to let cool.

The pasta was perfect. The dough came out flawless due in large part to the utilization of my new favorite kitchen toy, the kitchen aid stand mixer. The kitchen aid took all the grunt work out of kneading the dough into submission and gave me a product my little arms could actually handle properly. It was a shame to throw a large part of it away, but after producing an entire tray of little bow ties out of half of the dough ball I didn't have the motivation to completely cover the kitchen in drying pasta.
The dish was inspired by one Matt and I had at my very own Trattoria Lucca a little over a week ago. However, I put my own spin on it and I think it came out almost, if not as good as the original.

The second course was a pan seared tilapia over an eggplant and tomato agrodolce on a bed of sweet pea puree. It was delicate and the flavors worked well together. I think at that point Matt was impressed by my culinary prowess.
The final dish was a fig tart with a marscapone cream filling. For the crust I used a recipe from the restaurant because I admit, I am not a skilled baker naturally. It came out crispy and sweet, I will definitely be reusing that recipe in the future. The filling was a makeshift recipe I came up with myself, with a little advice from Conrad, the guarde manger at Trattoria Lucca. I softened the cream cheese in the mixer and then added the marscapone to it, then I added two egg yolks (should have used three) and some whipped cream to fluff it up. I then added the entire mixture to my pre-baked tart shell and cooked it at 350 degrees for twenty minutes. I then added the figs on top and baked it for ten more minutes. After it cooled we each devoured a large slice and our feast was over.

It was a pretty fantastic evening accompanied by extraordinary food (if I do say so myself)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Beginings

Life has sure changed drastically in a few short weeks. It wasn't long ago that I was begrudgingly returned to the United States, dreading the impending boredom that I suffered the last time I called Charleston, South Carolina, home.

I am pleased to report, however, that this time around everything is different. I am beyond happy in my new surroundings and have already secured a dream job in the kitchen of the best Italian restaurant in town, Trattoria Lucca. The chef stays true to classic flavors but adds his own creative twist to classic dishes, creating a cuisine that is both modern and elegant. My boyfriend Matt and I went to dinner there on Saturday night and came away with aggressively full bellies and huge smiles. Chef Ken will be a fantastic mentor and I can't wait to start work on Thursday.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The End

It's all over, or its all just beginning, I have yet to decide.

After a sad farewell to my beloved Guardigrele, Luca, the Tinari family, and the entire staff of Villa Maiella I boarded a train and headed to Bologna for the weekend. I met up with Pete and we did what we do best, eat, drink, and sight-see. It was a nice weekend that was gone too quickly. On Monday we returned to ALMA for the final chapter of our culinary school story.

It was nice seeing everyone again. Our finals were spread over two days. The first day we got to cook our dishes, the plates we had most likely been obsessing over for the entirety of our stage. The second we were all required to complete the same two dishes, a pan-seared sea bream with julienned vegetables, and a traditional spaghetti vongole (spaghetti with clams). The entire thing concluded with a graduation ceremony and a final gala dinner. the ceremony was great, the ALMA staff made a slideshow presentation with photos of us cooking and of our final dishes. We got a diploma, shook the hands of Chef Bruno, Chef Jessica, Marchesi and Luciano Tona. I got choked up hugging Chef Bruno, it was overwhelming that moment, the end of the entire experience. I still can't believe it's all over. The gala dinner was wonderful, I sat with Pete and his parents and we all had a fantastic time eating and drinking and saying our goodbye's.

After the dinner the entire class went out for one last rager at the pub. We drank, told stories from stage, recounted stories from months past, and discussed where our paths would lead from here. The next morning was truly the end, as I packed up my belongings, said my last good bye's and headed to Milan, hitching a ride fron Tony and his gracious parents who had rented a car.

The hotel in Milan was like my cave for the next two days. I ordered room service, slept for hours, and had many tearful conversations with Pascal and Luca. My last night in the hotel I took the shuttle into downtown Milan and met my friend Henry for dinner. I could not have asked for a sweeter ending to my Italian adventure than this dinner. It was held at Ristorante Sadler, a two-Michelin star restaurant with an outstanding reputation, it also happened to be the restaurant where Henry spent his two months of stage. The food was the best I have ever had, truly. The chef was creative and inventive in a way I have only ever seen on television. His plates were colorful and whimsical and exciting. I could not have shared this meal with a better group of people either. There was Henry and I, his parents, and his roommate from Milan and his girlfriend. They were all such warm and charming people.

By the end of the meal I felt that I was making a huge mistake in leaving the following morning. I arrived back at my hotel around one in the morning, knowing that I would have to arrive at the airport in three short hours. I made one last call to my sweetheart Pascal and began weighing my options if I were to purposefully miss my flight. In the end, I regret to inform all of you, I got on my plane, and have now been in Charleston, South Carolina for over a week.

I have still yet to understand why I did get on that plane when my heart feels its fullest in Italy. I guess it was partly fear, and for that I am mad at myself. I am enjoying my time in Charleston immensely, and I know I will be here for a fair bit of time. However, I am determined to return to Italy, and to stay there. I am never more happy then when I am in that country, amongst its people, eating its food, and speaking its language.

Until then...I have a lot of work to do

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Honey Factory and Hero's Cave

Today was my last day of work at Villa Maiella and I admit I am extremely sad.


Yesterday after lunch service Luca and I went on a little adventure. He took me to the honey factory where they make some of the best honey around, a product we use in the restaurant and a sure local treasure. The place is called Apicoltura Bianco and Luca and I were lucky enough to get a private tour of the little factory. They have over 50,000 bees and make something like 20 varieties of honey.The man who operates the factory was so nice, he took us through all the steps that go into producing the honey and then let us try any flavor we wanted.
They make all sorts of flavors, from your normal millefiori and acacia, to honey made with infusions of nectar from green apple trees, thyme plants, and raspberry bushes. They even had a honey that they infuse with saffron, a concoction they call Oro & Oro, because of the deep golden color of the product and the expensiveness of the saffron itself. The owner even let us try some raw honey straight from the honey comb. It is something that he enjoys immensely but cannot sell to the public due to health regulations. It was truly a rare treat and I was extremely impressed at how good it was.

Luca bought be a present at the factory, a little wooden plank that holds four little jars of different honeys. I then picked out the Fior di Acacia honey that I need to make my gelato for finals, and a jar of the green apple honey because not only is is bright green, it also really tastes like green apples and honey! It blew my mind how perfect the apple flavor was, it completely brought me back to the Rosh Hashanah dinner table and I can't wait to use it this year to surprise my dinner guests (whoever they may be). The owner bagged up my items and then, just for good measure, gave Luca a jar of his favorite flavor, and threw in a jar of millefiori and raspberry honey for me for free. The total cost of it all?? Ten Euros! He practically gave us this stuff. It was so generous and so nice of him, the jaded New Yorker in me couldn't believe it. So now I am literally stocked full of delicious Abruzzo honey to take back home.
After the honey factory Luca took me to a really special place. On the side of the mountain Maiella there is a natural cave that is now the decorated resting place for a fallen Italian soldier from World War I. A hero who gave his life to save the life of his comrade and fellow soldier. The story goes that his brigade was on one side of the river while the enemy flanked the other. The soldiers had crossed the river to attack but were being beaten badly and were forced to retreat. Once back to safety they realized that one of their men were still on the enemy's side of the river. Without thought of his own safety this soldier crossed the river alone to retrieve his wounded friend. He carried him over his shoulder across the river to safety, all the while being shot at mercilessly by the enemy troops. He made it all the way back to his platoon with eight bullets in his body, he was rushed to the hospital and just before he died from his injuries he was awarded the medal of honor. This soldier now lies in a white marble tomb under the mountain, his heroic tale on display for all to see. This cave was breathtaking and completely decorated by friends of the soldier, many of whom were artists and sculptors. I suppose they chose this location because of the natural beauty outside and the natural dimensions of the cave itself.
Everything about this place is so special to me now. I realize that it would take much longer than just two months to really explore it completely. However, as my time here draws to a close, I am so grateful for the time I have had, the experiences I have shared with these people and this town. I feel endlessly blessed for all of it.

My Return to ALMA

My last week of stage brought me full circle back to were it all began. The ALMA school.

I accompanied Chef Peppino on his long journey north to Colorno to assist in his presentation on Abruzzo cuisine. It was not very long ago that I was at ALMA watching Peppino do his demo and thinking, "yea, I could stage with this guy".
The experience was surreal. The car trip started off a little shaky since Chef Peppino and I rarely speak to each other on a normal basis due to the fact that he speaks Guardiagrele Italian and I speak school-learned standard Italian. However, he spoke slow and I payed close attention, and it ended up working out just fine. The ride up was long, but I'm no stranger to long car rides and it was actually nice to get some one on one time with my Chef. We bonded over some of his favorite bands, Pink Floyd and Dire Straights.

We got to Emilia-Romagna around dinner time so he took us to a restaurant for dinner. The place was gorgeous, the dining room was actually outside in a courtyard.
Chef insisted upon the restaurant being Michelin-starred (I think so he could compare his place to theirs). The food was good, and we drank some fantastic champagne that Chef selected after a long examining of the bible-sized wine list. We both selected the fish tasting menu, I had a mixed crudo plate for my starter. There was hamachi, tuna, salmon, tilapia, and a small red prawn, all drizzed with olive oil and sea salt. The star of the dish was the red prawn, I had never had raw shrimp before and this bordered on heavenly. It was extremely sweet and creamy and was unlike anything I have ever tasted before. Next I had a gnocchi dish that was less than stellar. The gnocchi were a little chewy for my taste. The dish took so long to come out of the kitchen that I didn't remember what I had ordered, and unfortunately I couldn't quite figure it out once I was eating it either...not a good thing in my opinion. Finally I ended with a simple seared tuna crusted with sesame seeds and served with lightly sauteed mixed vegetables. It was good, not stellar, but reminded me of Japanese fair so I was pleased. Chef Peppino seemed less than enthused about the meal. The service was painstakingly slow (it took over an hour for our antipasti to arrive), and Chef had ordered everything with no salt (because he had a recent heart attack). Not only did his dishes contain salt, they were finished with sale grosso (fat salt) to boot! This was unacceptable and extremely dangerous.

We finished dinner, checked into the hotel and I headed straight to sleep in order to be rested for the next day. The following morning our lesson began at 11:30am. I was psyched to check out the new class of Americans and of course to see Chef Bruno. Unlike my class, this one was mostly comprised of female students, very unusual. You could tell by looking at them that they were extremely divided and pretty much hated each other, not completely unlike my class however at least ours was full of guys, much less drama than girls are. The demo went smoothly, Chef Bruno was happy to see me and extremely proud to see me working the demo with my Chef with confidence and skill (his words, not mine). He wanted to know how some of my classmates were and how I enjoyed stage. It really was wonderful to see him again. He told me that this class was a challenging for him and I could tell he missed my class, we all got along with Bruno so wonderfully.

At lunch I talked to a couple of the students. One girl in particular gave me all the dirt on the class. She was kind of a know-it-all complainer from Long Island and I could tell she was spoiled and thought she was better than everyone else. She complained about her roommate (a girl who was sitting at our table in fact) and said that she hated everyone and that she couldn't stand how some people didn't seem to want to be there. She also let me know that she had already been to a culinary school before and was offered a free ride to both the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and John's Hopkins, but turned them both down because, as she said, "they weren't going to send me to italy". I did not enjoy her attitude and had a feeling that neither did the rest of her class. I noticed after lunch that she was sitting completely alone during the demo and seemed more interested in talking (complaining) to me than talking to any of her peers. I have a feeling the rest of them were watching her talk to me and thinking "oy! here we go again".

One girl, whose name I forget, was actually really sweet. She came up to me and asked a lot of questions about my stage. Their class had just received their stage assignments the day before and she was assigned to go to a restaurant on Iscia (an Island off of Naples). However, what she had requested was almost exactly what I had, a Michelin-star restaurant that does farm-to-table and deals strictly with local produce, and a place where she will actually learn a lot and get to do a lot in the kitchen. She explained that she had worked in restaurants before and she had also gone to community culinary school before and was eager to go on a stage somewhere where she wouldn't be stuck doing only prep and cleaning the entire time. She heard what I had said already about my stage and how much I love it and how much Peppino love his animals and the farm etc. etc. She was enthralled at what Villa Maiella and Chef Peppino represented and no doubt excited by how happy I was working there. She asked me if she should drop the stage on Iscia (without checking it out at all first) and ask to work at Villa Maiella. My advice for her was to try and get Villa Maiella. The stage she already had may be fantastic as well, but this stage was coming with a high recommendation and it was right up her ally. She seemed really sweet and both I and Chef Bruno spoke to Peppino about her. I'm not sure if he can take her (after all they have two stagistas already for the summer) but I hope they do because this is a really great experience and I would be very happy to know I helped this girl find her way to this wonderful place.

The lesson ended flawlessly and I was so proud of myself for getting through it. I forgot to mention but for the first half of the lesson, Chef Bruno wasn't there so the Chef that filled in (Chef Cristian) asked ME to translate what Peppino said for the class. haha, no pressure there right, considering I just learned how to understand the man on the car ride up. But I did better than I thought I would and what I didn't understand Chef Christian helped me out with.

Overall it was a fantastic day and completely worth the five-hour car ride. I feel like my time has come full circle and I couldn't be more proud of myself.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weekend Recap

So much has happened in just a short week. Since I've been neglecting my blog this post is going to be a long one.

Last weekend was a ton of fun, I'll give a quick recap. Sunday we had a crazy busy service as usual. Mierko and I decided to go to a club after work because it didn't work out the last week. The club ended up being 2 hours away! in a seaside city called Guilianova. It was around 1am by the time we got there, after getting lost a couple of times. When we arrived we were two out of maybe 25 people there. The girl behind the bar promised us that the crowd would pick up around 2, so we got a couple of drinks and sat at one of the lounge couches. This is when things started getting kind of strange. First of all, Mierko wasn't drinking. Granted it was quite a drive there and he had to be the designated driver, but it made me feel uncomfortable because I was drinking. Also, he claimed to love discos and dancing but when the crowd did pick up and the dancing started he sort of swayed from side to side while I was full out dancing my butt off. He seemed awkward and his awkwardness made me feel awkward. I felt like I was on a chaperoned date to a school dance, except that my date was my chaperone.
I tried to make the most of it, after all I was having a blast pretty much by myself. At 2:30am however, just as the club was really getting fun, Mierko said we had to leave because he had to work the next day. This really made me mad, if you have to work the next day, AND if this club is two hours away, why would you think it would be fun to drive all that way for probably an hour and a half of partying (in his case sober). It just makes no sense, I was stuck in a car for four hours total and only got an hour and a half of fun. Even more awkward was that he tried to get me to kiss him on the way home....by asking me. It was just all so awkward. Luckily the night ended quickly and I escaped to my room, regretting the decision to ever go out with this weirdo.

The next day I spent most of my day off in bed, working on my paper for school and just lounging. That night however was going to be a lot of fun. It was Niccola's 40th birthday (the sommellier at the restaurant) and he had invited everyone from Villa Maiella. So around 7 I got all dolled up and got a ride to the disco where the party was being held with Angela and her son Pascal. The party started off a little uncomfortable for me, I got there and knew not many people. None of my kitchen staff guys were there yet so I had to fend for myself. Thankfully a girl named Marta took pity on me. I had met here a few times before with Arcangelo and she graciously took me under her wing, telling me she wanted to practice her English because she has a job coming up and her clients are British.

The party ended up being fantastic. There was a huge buffet of food. There was a salumi and cheese section, an array of foccacia and pizza, lasagna, and a cold rice dish that has shrimp, hotdogs, corn, and olives in it...very strange but actually delicious, there were also various other things to nosh on. Everyone ate a ton! And the question of the night seemed to be "did you eat? Are you eating?". I was asked this by almost everyone I came into contact with that night. Italians have an inner need to feed each other and I guess I looked like I wasn't eating enough because food was shoved in my face left and right.
Niccola, the host/birthday boy was really in his element. He was running around, talking to everyone, going behind the bar and bringing out special bottles. He insisted on me trying all the wines he said were "meglio" which means better. I ended up with four glasses of different wines at one point, good thing I ate a lot beforehand. Half-way through the party an unexpected guest arrived. Luca showed up. He had told me he wasn't going to make it so I was glad he came. He immediately grabbed a bottle and livened up the party with his unnatural amount of energy. Unfortunately he drank and drank until, sure enough, he was bombed. I was keeping an eye on him so I noticed when he disappeared at one point. I went to find him and I did, he was sitting outside the disco, face in hands, looking not so great. I sat down next to my poor friend, looked him in the eye and said "You're going to puke in my face, aren't you?". And sure enough, he turned into the bushes and puked his guts out for ten minutes straight. I felt so bad for the kid. Realizing that I was now the responsible one, I took his keys and went to find Pascal for some help. Pascal agreed to drive Luca and I back to Villa Maiella and then he would pick up Luca's car in the morning.

I think Luca puking and the insane music at this disco were the two best parts of the evening. The music was right out of the 80's, and there was some serious dance train/macarena-style group dancing going on. It was hilarious.


Overall it was a pretty fantastic night. My first Italian party and it was a blast!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Back From The Dead...Sort Of

The sun has finally returned to Abruzzo and spring is back on track.

Today was my first day back to work after two days of being sick. I was stuck in my room, bored to tears, and incubating in my illness (gross, I know). The only person I saw in those two days was Luca. Such a sweetheart, he checked in on me each day and brought me up food for lunch and dinner.

After two days of sickness, it felt great to be back in the kitchen. The morning service went a little slow, both the service and my work pace. My muscles felt exhausted from being in bed for two days, my knives felt heavier and the stairs down to the prep rooms felt steeper than usual. I was dragging ass, in other words. However, I pulled through and made it to my afternoon break. As I mentioned a few posts back I found the roof access for my building, and today was the perfect day to take advantage of it. The sun was shining, there was a cool breeze, and clear skies as far as you could see. I took a blanket and pillow up there, bringing with me my phone and my book to read. I spent about a half hour on the phone with Peter, talking about how much he hates his stage and what we were both making for our finals. I made a preliminary list of all the ingredients I need for my recipes. I'm excited to make these dishes, in an upcoming post I'll detail what exactly I am making but it's too involved to get into right now. After talking to Pete I started reading my book. I got about two pages in before I drifted off to sleep. I have barely been able to stay awake for the past two days so I wasn't surprised that a nap was in order. The sun felt so good on my skin and the breeze was just cool enough to give me goosebumps. The bells from the church next door woke me up just in time for dinner service and I went back to the kitchen my old self, ready to work. What I ended up doing was finely chopping parsley and helping plate most of the night. Not glamorous work, but someone's got to do it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New York State of Mind

The spirit of New York was definitely in the air tonight. Yes I am still in Guardiagrele and yes I spent tonight in the kitchen doing mostly prep work, but my mind was back in the big apple.

not only has the news spread that we finally caught and killed Osama Bin Laden, but I re-connected to my old high school Italian teacher. Signora Longo is pretty much the reason I found my passion and was one of those once-in-a-life-time teachers people always talk about. Anyway I found her in the most unlikely of places, on Facebook! On whim I searched her name, convinced she would never have a Facebook profile, but there she was. I wrote her the letter I had always wanted to write her, thanking her for her influence on my life and the inspiration she gave me. I had been wanting to reconnect with her for about a year now, especially since I started at the Italian Culinary Academy. Every time people seemed curious as to how I, a little Jewish girl from Scarsdale came to be fluent in Italian and passionate about Italian food I always answered: "I had a really amazing teacher"

I could never thank her enough, but I tried, and I'm sure I got the message across. Anyway, she replied and said she remembered my enthusiasm from class and that she was proud and excited about my life and would love to get together when I return to the States.

Another reason New York was on my mind tonight was because our last customers of the evening happened to be the family of a chef from New York. They were all from Binghamton and came into the kitchen after their meal to thank us and visit for a few minutes. They were instantly surprised when I said "Nice to meet you!". We chatted a bit about how we both ended up here in this tiny little Italian town. It was so nice to speak English with someone, anyone who could understand exactly what I was saying. It was also nice to have a fellow New Yorker in front of me, someone who knows my beloved city.

With all this hometown love in the air I couldn't help but miss my family. I miss my parents a lot, I can't wait to go to their house in South Carolina and show them what I'm made of. I know they think I'm talented and special and all those other things that parents think of their children. But I want to prove to them that I was born to do what I'm doing. That this is the right and only path for me and that I am going to kick as sin this industry. I'm going to do the whole nine yards, fresh pasta, home-made bread, slow braised meats and hand-rolled gnocchi. They wont eat for a week after I'm finished with them.

So until then I've got to get focused on finals, finish my paper (which is brilliant so far if I do say so myself), and get ready to make my grand return to the U.S.A.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hello, Goodbye

I can't believe it is May already!

I feel like I just got here. Alas, I have less than a month left before I must return to ALMA and do my finals. On the 10th I have to submit my list of ingredients for my final two dishes and I think I'm ready.

Yesterday Arcangelo left for France amid tears from his grandmother and jeers from the rest of the staff. It was sad, Arca was fun to have in the kitchen and he was definitely a leader, eventhough he and his mother often battled for dominance. In true Italian style his parents stocked him with the biggest care package of food I have ever seen in my life. I kid you not that there were 5 wheels of different cheese, 5 different sausages, a whole pancetta, an entire case jammed full of different dried pastas, three loaves of home made bread, six bottles of olive oil, six packages of risotto rice, five jars of different jams, three of honey, two plastic bags full of sugar, and various other treats. It ended up being nearly three huge cases of food. Just a little taste of home I suppose.

Last night I had another adventure. After work the new stagista Mierko asked if I wanted to do something in the evening. Seeing as I spend most of my Sundays and Mondays alone I jumped at the chance and we planned to meet around 9. He came and picked me up and we ended up going to his home town of Lanciano, about thirty minutes from Guardiagrele. The main street is closed to car traffic and was full of people taking strolls and mingling outside of caffes and pubs. We walked around, grabbed a slice of pizza and a glass of wine. After that we noticed that there was a free rock concert going on in the park closeby. We checked it out, there were a ton of people there. The music was decent enough for a free concert, rock and roll, a little bit of a The Killers vibe to the band. I couldn't understand a word they were singing but I don't think the words were the point anyways.

Mierko was getting bored so we decided to hit the road after a little while. did I mention that he said hello to just about everyone on the street. Lanciano is a tiny town and just about every inhabitant was on this one street for a Sunday stroll. We even ran into his mother at one point, a little awkward seeing as I was this strange girl accompanying her son. Anyway we drove for a little while and contemplated driving an hour to Pescara to go clubbing. We were almost decided when we thought better of it, it was already half past eleven and hardly seemed worth it. So instead, Mierko drove us to, get this, a bowling alley and arcade! We spent an hour playing arcade games. He smoked me in air hockey but I got the last laugh in the basketball shoot out. No one can step to an American sorority girls hand-eye coordination. After all, I spent four years honing my skills in beerpong tournaments. Plus, Italians have notoriously poor hand-eye coordination.

We left the arcade around one in the morning and went back to the city center of Lanciano to grab a late-night bite to eat. I ordered a hamburger with ketchup, mayo, and tomato (or at least that's what I ended up with after the lady behind the counter became confused when I requested "il normale" the normal). It was delicious! I miss good old fashioned American food sometimes here. Pizza is fantastic and I have a deep love for pasta but every now and then a girl needs a burger and a coke. We ate our food on the road since we had a long drive back to Villa Maiella. We talked and found out we both love asian food, dancing and Lady Gaga. Mierko promised to take me out again next Saturday when he returns to work. He is a culinary student and will only be working at Villa Maiella for the weekends while his classes are in session. So we made a plan to work Saturday night adn then go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, followed by clubbing in Lanciano.

I should mention at this point that Mierko speaks exactly zero English and the entire evening was conducted in Italian. I give myself a little pat on the back for this one. Usually I am a little timid about using my Italian since I have such an obvious American accent.

The entire evening Mierko was gracious and kind. He was friendly but not once made me feel uncomfortable. He made no passes at me, perhaps some mild flirting but you can't blame the kid for trying, after all, he is Italian. I think this is much better actually, than finding some Italian Casanova who wants to sweep me off my feet. I know that that is what most people assumed would happen when I came over here, God knows I let myself get swept off my feet often enough in the States, so why not while I'm living in a romantic Italian village?

I prefer this, finding genuine friends who can show me around and keep me company. I have little interest in finding an Italian leading man to round out my European fairy tale. The more I learn about the men here the more I am certain that I am quite content on my own thank you very much. I am loving my job and dreaming of my own future, and I am finally coming back to being myself again after my gut-wrenching break-up with the last loser. So now I have a friend, and a guide to the area, and a fellow cook to talk with! He's actually very talented as well, he worked for two seasons at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Abruzzo and takes his work very seriously. He wants to take me to his old restaurant to eat for free, an opportunity I will definitely be taking him up on in the future. I respect him, and he is amazed at the journey I took to end up where I am now. He was very confused when I told him that neither of my parents, nor any family members were cooks.

I'm looking forward to next week and I just hope I am not being naive about his intentions. I guess we will see, but until then the future is looking bright.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rain Rain Go Away!

I have barely left the building for a week now. A cold misty fog has descended upon Guardiagrele bringing with it a widespread melancholy. It's hard to believe that it's spring right now, it's cold, damp, and depressing.

Today is the last day for two members of our kitchen team. Arcangelo (Peppino and Angela's son) is going to France to work for the summer season, and the other stagista Matteo is returning to school (thank god). However, we acquired a new stagista today. His name is Mierko (I think that's how you spell it) and that's about all I know about him so far. He's ten times better than Matteo already, he seems eager to work which is good. It will be nice to have someone share someof the grunt work I've been doing for the past month or so.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'm on the Right Track Baby I Was Born This Way

Tonight I came into work totally refreshed from my midday break and got a surprise. Luca was exhausted from all the manual labor he had done during his time off (fixing up his house, lugging big slabs of steel for construction) so I was put into command up until dinner service started.

I was put behind the helm of the entire station and had to prepare an eggplant cream for later, an eggplant tomato sauce for family meal, i had to cook the pasta for family meal perfectly and make a separate dish of fariccello e asparagi for the Chef. Chef usually doesn't eat what the rest of us eat for family meal because he is on a strict no salt/no fat diet after he had a heart attack a year ago. During all this I also had to help set the table and make sure bread squares that were toasting in a hot pan weren't getting burned. All the while I have no help from Luca who keeps yelling things out at me like: "The eggplant is burning" and "don't forget the unsalted water for the boss" and "watch out! the bread is burning! turn the fire! turn the fire!" (Turn the fire is his Italian way of saying turn down/turn off the flame) Granted he's saying all these things right behind me, easily within distance to lend a helping hand. But that's the point i guess. He knows I could do his job, now he's making me do it and he's giving me pointers so that I move better, think faster.

It was pretty cool to be honest. I hadn't actually cooked anything since I had been here. I plated, sure, and that's always fun for me, its like painting but with food. Cooking is different because it comes with responsibility. I was responsible for making a meal for my fellows here at Villa Maiella. People who eat pasta every day and know how they like it. I also had to cook for the boss man himself Chef Peppino Tinari. I was very nervous about that one but he enjoyed it, as did everyone else. There was not one piece of my pasta still left in that pan after family meal. I had a little warm bubbling of pride about it.

Luca and I also got to talking about restaurant ideas while were stuck sorting through garlic for a while. He asked me if I knew what I wanted my place to be like and I honestly didn't know where to start, from concept to location to design. He told me that "you need to start at the begining. What is your menu going to look like." I knew all along the menu would need to be made but my idea seemed such a dream that I wasn't thinking about that sort of thing in the present. That was an idea for down the road.

But even so, I have a few ideas.
I want the place to be called L'Orto or Il Giardino (they both mean garden, well...Orto means specifically vegetable garden)
I want a bright feel about the place, windows, a see-in kitchen where my customers can watch the magic happen.
The menu would be italian influenced but i want to use other flavors from the mediterranean,
there will be full sized menu items and then can be items on the menu that you can order as a tapas. certain dishes can be made into tapas and vice versa depending on how hungry you are.

I have tons and tons of ideas for this place th atI really need to start putting down on paper but first I have to graduate from culinary school. So, school now, big dreams after. But I'm going for it!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Buona Pasqua! Tanti Auguri!


The Easter holiday has come and gone and I must admit I am breathing a sigh of relief. This was my first Easter that I remember on record and it wont be easily forgotten. I usually barely even notice the holiday when I am in the States, except of course when I try to score chocolate off of my Christian friends. It comes and goes quietly.

Not here. Italy does Easter in a big way. There are two days of celebration instead of one, Sunday AND Monday are national holidays. I was told that Easter is such a big celebration that Italians get Monday off to recuperate.

How Italian of them. A holiday from a holiday.

For these past two days the restaurant was so incredibly busy that each service felt like we were going into battle. People were coming in and out of the kitchen during all hours, friends and family members of Angela and Peppino. There was twice the amount of food to be prepped and an anxious energy in the kitchen. Personally I prefer when the restaurant is busy but boy am I exhausted.We had a pre-fixe Easter menu. Here it is::

Menu Degustazione
Entree di benvenuto
A puff pastry filled with egg and cheese***
Bianco di tacchino al profumo di arancia su insalata di finocchi
White turkey cooked with orange zest over a fennel salade
Vitello al pepe aromatico di Sarawak
Veal crusted with Sarawak pepper
Con indivia croccante e maionese all'olio di vinaccioli
with individual crackers and mayo
eCannolo di frittatina
a thin omelet filled with ricotta cheese and sauteed asparagus***Brodo all'Abruzzese
Traditional soup of broth and noodles***
Timbalino con ortaggi
Individual eggplant lasagna's stuffed with vegetables, mozzarella and herbs
o
Chitarra al ragu di agnello
Pasta cut by a "guitar" with a lamb ragout***
"L'Agnello"
Costatine alla brace e coscia al gineproLamb two ways. Grilled lamb chops and shoulder cooked with juniper
***
Fragole, meringhe e millefoglie
Dessert: fresh strawberries flavored with lemon juice and rose water, and a "thousand layer" cake ***e per concludere
Pastiera e Pasta mandorla
To finish, a traditional almond cake

Tomorrow we all get a well-deserved day off and somehow I promised Chef Peppino that I would go with him to climb the mountain (La montagna delle Maiella) at 8am! That was a bad move, I haven't been sleeping great the past two days and my body is aching from the extra long shifts. The only thing to do now is get a good night's sleep and prepare myself for the mountain that awaits me in the morning.

Buona Pasqua a tutti!

Friday, April 22, 2011

They Come in Meters?!

Today marks the first day of the Easter celebration.

The kitchen was bustling with activity as we all prepared for the days to come. We are open for lunch on Easter Sunday and Monday (which is also a holiday here). Luciano had his son with him today, so for the entire morning we had a very smart and hyperactive six-year-old running around. He looks just like Luciano, and was the smartest ball-breaking little kid I've ever seen.

The dish I spent the most time prepping today were called timbalino. They are miniature eggplant dishes that are encased in fried eggplant and then layered inside with sauteed vegetables, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil, and three layers of thin pasta. They look absolutely delicious. We made about a hundred of them and I hope I get to try one.

Tonight we all had an evening off. I hung around my room for a while and then motivated and went for a run. Running here makes me appreciate my surroundings so much more than when I am stuck in the kitchen all day. Don't get me wrong, I love the kitchen, but the natural beauty here is astonishing and always makes me stop and stare at it all. Between the mountains which till are frosted at the peaks, to the villages on the hilltops, to the olive groves and the forests. It's all magical. Yes I miss home, I miss a lot of people whom I love. However, my run today put it all back into perspective. I live here for now, in this magical and breathtaking Italian village. I am doing what I always dreamed of, living my life as a cook in an awe-inspiring place. I just have to keep myself outdoors and spend as little time as possible in my lonely hotel room.

So, for my night off tonight, after the run I met up with Luca and our new stagista Matteo. Matteo is 17 and is studying at a culinary school in Pescara. He is worthlessly slow and more than averagely stupid. Unfortunately, he is not a favorite around Villa Maiella but as fate would have it he is already set in inherit his own restaurant from his parents. Go figure.
Anyway, we three decided to go out to grab something to eat. We ended up at a very busy little pizza place where we ordered a meter long pizza. Yes, they came in meters. That's three feet for the Americans. The waiter actually brought out a wooden plank that he had to hook on to the empty side of the table in order to serve this thing. The pizza was great, although we waited over an hour to get fed. I snapped a picture of this giant pizza with Matteo's camera phone so hopefully I will have photo to share in the next day or so.

Until then, it is another busy day tomorrow. Luca and I have to make 300 ravioli in preparation for Sunday so I must say, Buona Notte!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Prep

Easter is a few days away and all of us at Villa Maiella are gearing up. We started this morning by cleaning and breaking down a whole mess of chickens. I got the lovely job of cleaning out the cavity's and taking out all the organs.

In America the job of cleaning chickens is not only gross, it's dangerous. Not to harp on the vileness of food in the States but raw chicken is really one of the most dangerous foods to handle and there are so many rules on cooking it that you would think its a hazmat issue. Not here. Here the chickens don't even look the same. The meat is darker, and the skin and fat has a yellow color to it. The first time I saw a chicken at a butcher shop here I was shocked at how different it looked from the Perdue packaged chicken in the American super market.
**************************************************************************************

I just got home from the dinner shift. The service was slow but we were doing a lot of prep for the next few days.

I hate when service is slow, it gives me too much time to think. Recently I have been growing anxious about the next step in my life. I literally don't have a home at the moment, all my things are in various storage facilities in Colorno, New York, and South Carolina. I don't have anywhere to return to really. It is exhilarating to have this kind of freedom, and unnerving at the same time. This is all I've ever wanted, the ability to go with the wind and move around as I please. My career will allow for this, you can be a cook anywhere in the world. My only problem is that I have no idea what I want.

Do I go back to New York and begin my career as a cook in the most cutthroat city possible?
Do I move to South Carolina where my parents live and work in a seasonal beach town?
Do I stay in Italy and continue working in my isolated little village?
Or is there an entirely different option that I have yet to stumble upon?

I have one month today until I have to return to Colorno for my finals and I am starting to feel the pressure of needing a plan. Soon I will need an answer and I am at a complete loss.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guacamole

Today I had a very unique culinary experience. I introduced my co-workers to the wonders of guacamole!

Yes, guacamole. That ever-delicious green concoction that all lovers of Mexican food voraciously devour by the bucket load. how, do you wonder, did i end up making this beloved food item for a kitchen staff of extremely talented Italian chefs?


It all began with a case of avocados that showed up almost a week ago. During one of my many trips to the fruit and veggie fridge I spotted them, inconspicuously hiding in the bottom right corner. Immediately I was enthralled. Avocados? In an Italian kitchen?

I did some asking around and found out that this was the first time they had even thought to order them from one of their suppliers and they had absolutely no idea what to do with them. Patiently I waited until finally Arcangelo brought one upstairs today and started playing around with it. There was a brief argument when I tried to explain to them all that an avocado is a fruit and not a vegetable, and on the subject, so was a tomato. This did not go over well. They all laughed at me and told me that of course a tomato is a vegetable and that the same went for avocados...silly American.

However, I got the last laugh when, after Arcangelo put out a passionfruit/mango salad with a cannel of plain avocado, he became frustrated and gave me the rest of it to play with. I immediately spooned out the insides into a bowl, cut up from tomato, red onion and garlic and went to Mexico! A little lime, some pepperocino for some heat and there we had it, guacamole in Abruzzo. Most of the staff had never had it before, the only person who seemed to even know what it was was Angela. She was extremely excited that I had made it and explained to the rest of the clueless that this was a traditional Mexican antipasto. She made everyone try it and although it seems to not please the Italian pallet the same way it does an American or Mexican, some of them really liked it.

This was the first thing I had ever made for them. Something I never would have imagined I would have made for them. I felt pretty proud of myself that I knew more about an ingredient (any ingredient) than these people. It just goes to show that the more you experience, the better you get. Another bonus was that this was the first Mexican food I have had since I left the States.

It felt great.

I could almost hear the waves and taste the Corona.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting Bored

i'm starting to get bored to tears with myself. All day, every day, I am alone. Sure I have the guys at work, but most of the time they speak their Abruzzese dialect that I can't understand and I am left alone with my thoughts....a scary thing.

I am doing the same things over and over again to entertain myself. Blogging, working on my final paper, surfing facebook, watching movies and t.v. online, reading. Sure it's all great, but what I really want is to just hang out with a bunch of friends. I miss the apartment in Colorno, even though we drove each other crazy it was nice to have company.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Italian Farm Animals

Food Inc - Official Trailer [HD]



I've been thinking a lot about the experiences I have had with food production in this country (Italy). I have seen farm, after farm, after farm and one thing strikes me. The Italians do not produce their food like we do in America. They put so much of themselves into their work, they care for their animals, they tend to their crops for hours each day, they work the land with their own hands and they do so with pride and satisfaction. To them, the quality of the food they produce is a direct reflection on them as a person, there is accountability and there is pride. There is also an extreme aversion to anything that is not local. There are products in Italy that barely get shipped out of the region of production into other regions, let alone into any other countries. Some Italians wont eat anything that has been frozen. You can even find on many restaurant menus a little symbol that indicates to a customer when an ingredient has been previously frozen. This is unheard of in the United States. We aren't even made aware when we are eating a cloned animal or a genetically modified vegetable ( concepts that are also alien to the Italians).

Food is not a science here, it is a craft and an art. This is the way it should be!!

I feel so strongly about this, and my passion for farm-to-table and sustainable food is growing the more I learn about the subject. I don't pretend to know everything about how our country got to this point in food production, I also don't pretend to have any realistic ideas on how I can change the way things are; however, I plan on using my role as a chef to tell this story. I want people to understand what I have been learning here: that food is a labor of love and that animals are the best when they are happy and clean and healthy and allowed to roam free and live as they were evolved to live. A farm should be self-sustaining and have a variety of crops that change with the seasons. Food, and healthy food should be one and the same.

If this country can produce its own food this way, AND be considered a country to have some of the BEST food in the world, then why can't we do it in our country? Our country, that has an abundance of land for farming and grazing animals, has lost its farming tradition. We have lost our foods soul, and until you can bring that back I am certain that we are all doomed. Check the obesity levels, check the rates of childhood diabetes. These aren't accidents, this is evolution telling us that we've gone horribly wrong.

http://www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/rcbtoa/services/corporate-acquisitions.html

Friday, April 15, 2011

Down On The Farm

Tuesday I finally went to see the farm.

It was a beautiful sunny day and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I went with Arcangelo during our break in between lunch and dinner.
Their family's farm is one of the happiest farms I have ever seen. All the animals are free range, when we rolled up we were greeted by a herd of sheep and goats all grazing lazily. I asked Arca if he was ever worried that they would run off and he laughed.
"of course not!" he said "we have the dogs and the bells."
All the sheep and goats had big bells around their necks, creating with their movements a messy chorus of chimes.The farm actually has a lot of dogs considering that there aren't that many animals to be looked after. One of the dogs had just had puppies as well, they were the cutest little things and I was tempted to take one.


There was also one baby goat that fancied herself a dog. She was born a month ago and Arcangelo told me that her mother abandoned her so he had been feeding her by bottle every day. Because of that, she didn't graze or spend much time with the other goats, she preferred to follow the humans around on their chores and stay very much under foot. The day I went Arca let me feed her so for the rest of the time we were there the baby goat acted like my shaddow, following me around and rubbing her little horns against my leg insisting upon attention.

I spent most of the time playing with the dogs and the goat while Arcangelo and his grandfather (also Arcangelo) tended to the pigs. The pigs are the main focus of the farm. The goats and the sheep are never eaten, the pigs however are slaughtered every winter so that the restaurant can produce its own salumi and cured pork products. It was interesting, I found out that the Italian government gives subsidies to farms that have a certain number of animals, so when Peppino wanted to start a farm he bought the sheep and the goats simply to reach that quota. He now tends to them as a hobby, a labor of love, so that he may keep his beloved pigs.

The farm was great. I really enjoyed seeing how a small family could run a successful restaurant as well as keeping a farm running. Both jobs require a tremendous amount of work, commitment and time. I suppose when you are so passionate about it, the work is easy to do.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Perfect Bliss

Monday was my day off

I went for a walk into town and discovered that it's even more dead on Mondays than it is on Sundays!
Thankfully there were a few places still open, including a cute little local food shop. I talked to the man behind the counter a little and told him I wanted to buy a selection of meats and cheeses that he would consider to be the most traditional from Abruzzo. I ended up with two different types of pecorino cheese (a sheepsmilk cheese that the locals go crazy for around here) and two different types of pork sausage, along with a jar of antipasto agrodolce. I then took my bounty back to the hotel where I raided the kitchen for some bread, picked up an open bottle of wine I had in my room and grabbed a book, my journal, and a blanket. The perfect picnic was what I had in mind, and I knew just the place for it. About ten minutes by foot from Villa Maiella there is an olive grove that overlooks a farms and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. I found a good spot underneath an olive tree, spread out my blanket, and laid my feast out before me. I spent the afternoon lazily reading the first chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed, sipping wine and enjoying the warm sun on my face.
The food was incredible!
The two pecorino's I decided on could not have been more different and yet both were divine. One was younger, softer, creamy with a slightly sweet and grassy taste. The other, more aged, stronger in taste, salty, tangy and crumbly. The two sausages as well displayed the vast differences between two similar products. The main difference was that while the first had a synthetic casing and implemented the use of preservatives, the second was completely natural, made down the road (literally) and had a natural casing. The first was harder, much better for slicing than the other which melted in your hands. The first was more meaty, with a higher percentage of meat to fat that made it a little chewier, but not in a bad way. The first was mild in flavor, very easygoing on the palate, it would definitely be a crowd-pleaser. The all natural sausage was fatty, and delicious. I could still smell the pigs when I ate it, and the scent lingered from the oil on my hands for hours. A smell I will never forget after this trip. I have seen so many pig farms and eaten so much pork product since being in Italy I could pick out pig smell from any other scent in the world. Perhaps not an important skill, but a skill nonetheless.


There is something magical that happens when you eat outdoors, something pure. I considered this experience research for the final paper I must write on Abruzzo and its unique cuisine. Nothing could have been more perfect than eating locally produced cheese and organic meat with my toes in the grass from which it was all born. I felt completely alone sitting in that orchard on top of the world, and yet, I was happier than I had been in a long time.
It was truly my idea of a perfect day. video

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sleepless in Abruzzo

I can't sleep. I hear the bells toll from the church next door marking down the hours. Despite my busy schedule and daily physical exhaustion, I haven't been sleeping well since I arrived at Villa Maiella.

I have a lot on my mind I suppose. I keep thinking about my future and what I will do after graduation. I think about what I will write for my final paper and what I will cook for my practical final exam. I dwell on the past, as most people do in the lonely hours before dawn. I listen to the birds outside and hear the dogs barking and wonder if anyone else is listening as well. It is definitely lonely here, not that I'm complaining. I feel so blessed to be here, I'm living my dream and couldn't be doing it in a better place. However, this is a small town and I am an outsider. Not only that but my entire world here is located in one building. Work, home, they are only two floors apart. I go for runs to clear my head and escape the feelings of entrapment. The landscape here is so beautiful that I often find myself pausing during a run just to stare at the mountains.

It's nearing four in the morning and I am no closer to sleep than I was at midnight. I have big plans for tomorrow, exploring the town on my day off, perhaps even venturing to Pescara to walk on the beach. We'll see what actually happens when I wake up dog tired and lazy. Here's hoping...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chicks and Bones


Today was a great way at work. The weather was pretty dismal, it was as if Spring crept back into its cave and gave us winter again. The sky was dark gray and the wind and rain was whipping past the restaurant windows. If it wasn't for the buds on the trees you would never know it was spring.

One of the great things about spring at a farm to table restaurant is that all the animals have their babies. Chef has been incubating chicks in his apartment and seven hatched in the past two days. It was incredible to see. They are so cute; I finally understand the significance of marshmellow peeps during Easter time!

Today was also fantastic because I de-boned a whole lamb by myself for the first time. It was pretty great getting that skill under my belt. I want to be really good at it by the time I leave. Arcangelo is the one who has been teaching me butchering and he is extremely patient. Everyone at Villa Maiella is so helpful I have no doubt that I will be ready for my finals in May. I just have to keep the eye on the prize.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Una Sera Perfetta

Another day off and I spent it entirely in bed. I was feeling lazy today after quite the night out last night. Unlike most of my Sundays spent in this country I had a full and exciting day. It started with work, of course. Sunday is our most busy day and we were all sweating by the end of service. We got out around five and I decided to make the most of my night. I showered, got all done up and took myself out on the town to see what Guardiagrele really is. It turns out that the stroll by sunset is a very popular concept here because the streets were packed with people. Groups of old men, hoards of teenagers, and couples strolling hand-in-hand. After walking down the main street I stopped and sat at a park bench in the only park in town. It was great for people watching and I even got a little writing done. As the sun set I searched for a place for a single gal to get a glass of wine and a bite to eat. I even brought a book with me in anticipation of a dinner alone. What I got was an entirely different story.

I found what must be the hottest spot in Guardiagrele. It had a crowd of people milling around outside and lively music coming from within. With a bar stocked with crostini and prosciutto I decided to stop in and see what it was all about. After one glass of white wine I met the town crazy. An old white-haired man with a barely audible voice was on me like white on rice. I couldn't understand a word he whispered but his hand gestures suggested that he wanted to take me to his place. Needless to say I was in need of a white knight at that moment, and I found one. Another gentleman at the bar kindly told him to bugger off, which he did thank god! This man turned into a one-man welcome wagon and introduced me to all his friends. He was a nice guy, nearly forty and uncharacteristically polite for an Italian man. He didn't hit on me, he asked me a ton of questions about being a chef and about my life in general, and not once did I feel uncomfortable. The only down side was that he was a little too old and bald for my taste, but hey, no one's perfect. After toasting with champagne for his buddy's birthday he and a smaller group of people, two couples and another single guy were heading off to dinner and asked me to join.

Somehow in just a few short hours I went from being the obvious stranger in a town that knows everybody, to a new friend and dinner guest. The dinner was delicious and I even went and talked to the chef for a little while. All the other guests were intrigued about why I am here, and they asked me if I liked each dish we had. It seemed like I was the topic of choice at dinner, I felt extremely welcomed. At the end of the meal my escort paid for my meal and we all went to a bar down the street. It was around the second beer there that I decided it was time to head home and call it a night.

This may sound crazy but I can't even remember the guys name. He told me once and after a while I felt rude to ask again. This is a small town, I'm sure I will run into him again at some point in the next two months.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Guardiagrele

I took a run through town today. The weather is finally getting nice enough to permit outside activities like hikes, runs, and some exploration of my surroundings. This town is a humbly beautiful story-book town complete with cobblestone streets, old buildings and charming caffes. Although it could be mistaken for any other European town what makes it unique for me are the mountains. you can see them from almost every part of town, towering over it like silent white-haired giants. I can't wait for my day off on Monday to get to explore a bit more when the shops and restaurants are all open.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Day Off

I made it through my first week here at Villa Maiella. I can't believe it went by so fast, but I guess when you are working all the time the days just seem to fly by.

I feel very welcomed here. I have finally gotten more comfortable with everyone and am now much more relaxed in the kitchen than when I first started. The other day I started talking to everyone about my finals and got some input on what I should make. Angela told me she would help me with the dessert and Arcangelo will let me practice some of my dishes in the kitchen when I need to.The other day after lunch service I went on a hike with Luca and Chef. I was so excited since I haven't been hiking since Israel and the mountains here are gorgeous. We hiked right next to a river that was flowing strongly due to the melting snow from the peaks. Luca pointed out some juniper bushes where they usually forage their own berries for the restaurant. I am continuously amazed at the freshness of their ingredients here. We hiked for about an hour until we reached the biggest falls. We walked right up to it and sat on a rock while we ate a couple apples Luca had brought. The sound was incredible and the cool mist felt great on my hot and sweaty face. I didn't want to leave but we had quite a journey back to the car.
I plan to go hiking again soon, weather permitting. It seems to be one of the most fun things to do around here, and the exercise doesn't hurt either.

Today is my one day off and I am already bored. This evening though I am tagging along with Chef, Arcangelo, and Luca to an Abruzzo restaurant demo for members of multiple food and culinary organizations. Chef will be making a dish to represent the culinary innovation of Villa Maiella and to further its reputation within and outside of this region. There will be other chefs there from other restaurants by I have no doubt that we will be the best, at least that is what Luca told me was the case at many other similar events in the past. I don't know how much I will be doing, but I will be interested to watch and check out the event.
We leave at around 5:30pm so until then I will be holed up in my room watching movies, pretty much just relaxing until its off to work again.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mid-Day Recap

I am already starting to settle into my new surroundings here and it feels great. Today so far has been the first day where I felt at ease in the kitchen, the anxious new-kid jitters are finally passing. Right now I am on my break in between lunch and dinner service. I have to go back down in twenty minutes to start prepping for dinner. Luca already told me that he and I will be shelling two cases of fava beans when I get there so I am kind of dreading it.

This morning was the first time I really started taking notes on the things Angela and Arcangelo said. They are so knowledgeable it's incredible. Every time I am standing near Angela I just want to ask her to tell me everything she knows. Today Angela, Luca and I were making gnocchi and Angela explained what it takes to make the perfect gnocchi, priceless knowledge straight from an Italian mama. In the afternoon when service started winding down I started thinking about what I will make for my finals and I threw some ideas out to the crew. It was amazing how much they want to help, Arcangelo gave me the idea to do a lamb liver souffle for an antipasti and he even said I could practice my recipes in the kitchen whenever I want.

Now back to work!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quality

Quality was the lesson of the day today at Villa Maiella. These people care so much about the products that they put on each and every plate they send out; if it isn't right, they don't sell it. The first time I encountered this lesson today was during prep for lunch service, I was introduced to wild asparagus, a product I barely knew existed. This stuff just grows around here and someone from the restaurant, usually the grandmother, goes to collect it whenever the weather permits. There is a dish on the menu that calls for it, however the menu specifies that if the restaurant does not have the wild asparagus they will not serve the dish. In my head, this is just an asparagus pasta preparation and the wild could have easily been substituted for regular asparagus. I was quickly corrected by Arcangelo who explained that the wild asparagus is thinner, has a more intense flavor and a more substantial texture and to make that dish with anything else would be a cheap knock-off.

My next lesson in quality came at lunch. This kitchen family values quality, not only in their products but also in their quality of life. Maybe this is just an Italian thing but I have never seen a kitchen crew sit down to a three course meal together, including dessert and espresso. They laugh, eat, drink, and relax for at least a good forty minutes. They may be at work, but that doesn't seem to stop their life, in fact, they don't even see it as simply a job, it is their way of life.

My third lesson in quality came from an unexpected and pleasant trip to L'Aquilla with Arcangelo to go see their onion and potato producer. He asked if I was interested in seeing this place because it is a farm that doesn't use any chemicals and still produces a high quality product, I of course said yes. The trip actually took about an hour and a half but it was a total dream the entire way, the scenery looked like it was out of a picture book. I am so glad I took the opertunity to see a great deal of the Abruzzo landscape because it was breathtaking. The area is a vast expanse of rolling hills topped by medieval villages, complete with stone castles and winding cobblestone roads. In the background were these incredibly majestic snow-capped mountains, they were impossible not to stare at and although I tried to take some pictures I have a feeling they wont capture the real beauty of what I saw. When we finally got to the producer they were just the nicest of-the-earth people. Their onions looked just like regular onions to me although I was assured they were a higher quality product than store-bought ones. At one point it dawned on me that this guy goes about three hours round-trip every week to buy onions and potatoes, a food staple that most kitchens will buy discount. This devotion to quality is something I have never seen before up close, chefs will always talk about it but I have never seen more care taken in the purchasing of two of the most humble ingredients.