Thursday, May 19, 2011

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.

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