Identity Crisis In The Kitchen

An overview of the state of the art of Italian professional catering, ranging from the peaks – an ‘aristocracy’ of a few truly exceptional restaurants – to the troughs – a huge mass of average eateries – reveals that not all is as it should be. To figure out the causes for this, it’s worth analyzing the job situation in the sector. Fewer and fewer young people are prepared to face the tough life of work in the kitchen, the majority of catering schools have failed to make a mark and the sociopolitical changes in progress have generated a new phenomenon – that of the growing presence of non-European workers behind the scenes in our restaurants.
This is what provides most food for thought, as it were. Leaving aside the complex question of the broad diffusion of ethnic cuisines even outside the big cities, more and more youngsters are coming from distant countries to learn to become chefs by picking up the secrets of our typical specialities. There’s nothing wrong about that, of course. Roman friends tell me that the best bucatini all’amatriciana in the whole of Rome are made by an Egyptian, and I’m naturally curious to taste them for myself. But it’s also obvious to me that the fact is a synonym of a critical situation that could be a harbinger of big changes.
The same thing’s happening in the countryside, where the toughness of the work, long days and loss of holidays are directing young people towards jobs that leave them more leisure time. Their old jobs remain vacant until they’re filled by willing young immigrants. This whole situation deserves detailed economic and social analysis.
So what’s left over for the few youngsters who are prepared to follow the whole career path from apprenticeship to chef status? Not many of them are lucky enough to learn directly for the great masters: the rest have to get by, relying on schools that struggle to ensure the necessary gastronomic and technical culture.
As for catering schools, it looks as though they’ve given up the ghost. Budding caterers who refuse to give in invest hefty sums to go into business on their own. But their lack of experience often betrays them, and they end up clumsily copycatting the real masters. The number of these impromptu cooks is growing all the time. There’s no doubting their good faith and intentions, but no way do they help raise the average level of our restaurant business. You only have to turn on the television to see what I mean.
It’s always wrong to generalize, but in Italian standards are deteriorating alarmingly. Do we really have to pin all our hopes on this small silent army of immigrants that, in the shade (but also in the moonlight!), is beginning to learn by adapting to the most menial tasks.

Carlo Petrini

First published in La Stampa 01/12/02

(adapted by John Irving)

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