Between Taste and Research: The Projects of Reale Casadonna and the Secrets of the Nordic Food Lab

12 Sep 2012

From Castel di Sangro to Copenhagen, Niko Romito and Benedict Reade have widely different experiences and unique professional backgrounds, but share the same great passion: the search for authentic and honest tastes that are deeply tied to their regions.

Benedict Reade, 27, is Head of Culinary Research and Development at the renowned Nordic Food Lab (NFL), width= founded in 2008 by René Redzepi, head chef at the acclaimed Noma restaurant, and Claus Meyer, gastronomic entrepreneur. Their goal? “We want to explore the secrets of Nordic cooking through both traditional and modern recipes, sharing the results with chefs, academics, experts and food lovers. We combine communication, education, health and gastronomy to analyze the true meaning of “goodness” in its broadest sense. Although there are just seven of us, our team includes experts in microbiology, chemistry, anthropology and philosophy”.

Niko Romito is a young chef from Abruzzo, who has been awarded two Michelin stars for his cooking at Reale Casadonna. He has recently opened a training center, where he offers future chefs a truly unique experience. “In addition to the work in the kitchen, it is fundamental that trainee chefs realize that, in order to truly understand the world of gastronomy, they also need to meet producers, choose fish and vegetables at the market after waking up at five in the morning, and understand the importance of ingredients. These are values which become rules for life, and include the respect for people and nature around us. It is key to know that using high quality products impacts on the end result, and that each dish has a story behind it: if presented in the right way, it can be moving and exciting”. 

We took the opportunity to ask Ben and Niko a few questions, in the lead-up to their participation in various events at Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre 2012

Ben: What messages do you want to convey at the Salone?
“Being at the Salone will be a unique opportunity to present the Nordic Food Lab and what we actually do, and explain how we try to disseminate the sense of “good”. Our main message is certainly the importance of exploring food that people don’t normally know. Our research is tightly linked to Slow Food, as we do believe that sustainability is one with organoleptic quality. Think about it: the best meat you could possibly eat comes from animals that have been raised respecting their well-being and health regulations; the best vegetables are grown without pesticides and without interfering with the pace of seasons, but simply following nature. We study often forgotten ingredients, those which belong to our past or are rooted in a specific region.  Let’s take insects, for instance: we want to make them tasty and enticing. We would like to eliminate the sense of repulsion and fear that people usually feel when they think of these animals, and show how good they actually are”.

Niko: Among many other events you are also participating in the conference Learn to Cook. What is the secret? width=
“The key ingredient is undoubtedly passion. Also, if you want to learn how to cook well, you first need to learn how to eat well. It requires a sensitivity to good, natural products and for genuine and correct techniques. Experience follows, and it can be developed anywhere. If you taste the same dish made by two different chefs, they will certainly be completely different, because each chef adds their own personal and unique touch, which comes from the background and sensitivity of each individual”.

Ben: The topic of Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre is Foods that Change the World. What do you think this food is?
“I think the ingredients that can change the future are those which tie us to our land and traditions – from lichens, to mushrooms and seaweed… I don’t know if the work of the Lab is changing the world, but we are certainly working on the future of food, to make it more sustainable and tasty.  It is also essential to develop educational activities to involve children and influence what they learn at school and at home. The more we change what children eat, the more curious they will be towards other cuisines, faraway traditions and unknown tastes when they grow up. Of course changing habits is a long and complex process”.
Niko: What about the situation in Abruzzo? 
“Educational activities with children are undoubtedly the starting point. I don’t know if a school garden can really change the world, but it is certainly key that children, especially at school, understand  the relationship with nature, and that everything comes from the earth. A garden gives them the opportunity to think about biodiversity, the cycle of seasons, the reason why it must be respected, avoiding tomatoes in January and oranges in August. I personally only cook dishes that I like; dishes with a strong local identity and that are virtually found only here at Reale Casadonna. With time, I become less and less interested in astonishing my guests for the sake of it. My goal is not a cuisine full of special effects, but simple dishes. I want to give everyone the opportunity to taste food which they may already know, but have never eaten prepared in that specific way. I want people to recognize the tastes of the ingredients that I cook without too many complications, but enhancing the concentration of taste.” 

What would you tell the many young people who will come to the Salone?

Niko: “What I tell young people is: be curious, always. Be open and ready to learn from everything. Ask yourselves why a certain product is like it is, research it. It may sound obvious, but cooking is a field where you learn very day. Even by looking at a lady who has been making home-made pasta with the same recipe for 30 years, you can learn  invaluable secrets. Open your mind, and a world will open”.

Ben: “Curiosity is certainly key, and that’s exactly what we are trying to do. We try to raise the interest of everyone on new products or things they would have never thought about. So why not trying ants, insect, or bee larvae?” 

What about the future?

Attention for raw ingredients, respect for our planet, research and education: from northern to southern Europe these seem to be the essential prerequisites for high cuisine.

Niko: “The next course at the Training Center will include more hours of practical work. One of the two new workshops will simulate a restaurant kitchen. Students will create a daily menu and serve their dishes, respecting service times. Also, we want to help each one of them to specialize in their sector – from main courses to desserts, from bread to appetizers. Four students who have just finished their courses will soon go to Heidelberg, where we have recently started cooperating with an Italian restaurant and we will design themenus. It is going to be a great working and life experience”. 

In Denmark the methods employed by the NFL are very different, but the philosophy remain the same.

Ben: “Encouraging people to choose high quality food can be very complicated but we try, even with unusual initiatives such as handing out food on the streets. The goal is to have people try new tastes, understand a new biodiversity of tastes that is still to be explored, and become curious about new ingredients. For instance, some time ago we gave out seaweed ice cream on the city streets from an old-fashioned ice cream bike. I have to say that people are very curious and react positively to new things, especially if it is food they have never heard about before or made with insects. By the way, we are preparing a little surprise for our Taste Workshop at Salone del Gusto, but I am not going to spoil it now…“ 

By Alessia Pautasso
[email protected]

We look forward to seeing Ben and Niko in Turin in October. Here are the dates. Don’t forget to book online to ensure your place:
Learn to Cook, Conferences, Saturday, October 27, 2012 – 03:00 PM
Romito’s Abruzzo, Dinner date Thursday, October 25, 2012 – 08:30 PM NH Lingotto – Tech Restaurant Torino
Via Nizza, 230 – Torino
Abruzzian Lamb From Nose to Tail, Taste Workshops, Friday, October 26, 2012 – 12:00 PM sala D
The Fifth Quarter, Master of Food, Friday, October 26, 2012 – 06:30 PM cucina didattica-Spazio Slow Food Educa, Oval
The Nordic Food Lab: Back to the Future, Taste Workshops, Thursday, October 25, 2012 – 02:30 PM sala D




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