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 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.