I met Fulvio Pierangelini at the Gambero Rosso, the award-winning restaurant he has owned and worked in as chef with his wife Emanuela since 1980. It is mid-January, after lunchtime; all orders have been served and the last customers are drinking their coffee. This is a moment I have always enjoyed in a restaurant: there is a tangible, momentary relief at the completion of a process that will begin again in a few hours. The Gambero Rosso has been an important part of my Bildung as a food enthusiast: I started going there as a student thirteen years ago, saving up a little money every now and again for my not-too-sporadic visits. It took me a while to really understand the meaning and tone of Pierangelini’s cuisine. The most impressive things are also the simplest to understand, and perhaps this is why it took me so long. This cooking style conceals its complexity by seeking a second-degree simplicity, but it takes great sensitivity, courage and humility to garsp all this. The conversation that follows covers many topics, but the original reason for my questions is probably a sort of retrospective glance at my relationship with the dishes of the Gambero Rosso.
I’d like to begin with the relationship between products and techniques. An increasing and practically universal trend exists today – which came about due to the fortunes of the history of Italian cooking and its love-hate relationship with French cuisine – to the extent that it has become the leitmotiv of every restaurant hoping to prove worthy of the name: product supremacy. Expressions like “fine quality product”, “traditional product”, “local product” are commonly used by everyone, everywhere nowadays. But what does “fine quality product” mean? And, above all, what is the role of the product in determining the result of a recipe or a dish in the kitchen? How much do the chef’s skill and talent actually count?
FP: Today, if you don’t talk about your excellent ingredients as the foundations of your cooking, you’re considered weird. Hardly anyone tries to say something different and present the subject in a less banal and simplistic way. There are many factors involved in good cooking: ingredients are certainly one of them, but there’s also technique, talent, genetics, sensitivity, habit, emotion… And you can’t buy talent or genetics. Outstanding ingredients – with the premiss that I’d love to know what outstanding ingredients actually are – are not enough: there are so many variables. It’s like wine: buying land, vineyards, winemakers is not enough to make a “great wine”: nature puts things in your path that you can never fully control. The same elements and the same methods can lead to very different results – in some cases excellent, in others ordinary, in others still, mediocre. It’s not enough just to follow a pattern and logic to achieve a given result, and luckily logic never has the last word in our profession. Of course logic may lead to a showy, glittery, strong result (if that’s your aim, then you’ll be happy), but not to something profound, elegant and sophisticated. The real difference if you are looking to obtain this kind of result is made by sensitivity and emotion. My cooking aims to communicate this and ingredients are so important that there is no need to emphasise or underline them.
The presentation of certain menus is exemplary in this sense: lines of description for one dish, with an analysis of each ingredient…
FP: I’ve no intention of supporting the bad faith of people who write that kind of menu, but my idea of cooking is different. When you decide to go to a restaurant where you are going to eat just what the chef has decided to make and present, I think it’s a little pleonastic for diners to be told exactly what has been done, what ingredients have been used, and so on. When I make something it is the result of a number of elements but it must communicate an overall harmony. Is there any need to know more, to take it all apart and analyze it? Those who create “analytical” menus might do so because it’s their style or an affectation, or through insecurity. I don’t feel I have to tell the whole story, it’s not necessary. When I go to see a film I’m not interested in knowing all the various stages in its editing or the writing of the screenplay, and I’m not so presumptuous as to think I know more than the director. I just enjoy the film: it might be exciting or it might leave me cold. The same applies to a book or a piece of music: I’m not interested in reproducing it or creating a better version. It’s the overall impression that counts. Today everyone wants to know everything. The need for certain information has created monsters. I don’t want the route to a dish to be listed, partly because sometimes I don’t even know myself how it all comes together: I just want to give a clear, frank expression of the resulting emotion.
Going back to a point in your first answer: what is ingredient quality? Another greatly discussed question today is: what is “typical”? Don’t we face a paradoxical standardisation of “typical” foods today?
FP: Firstly, there are often attempts to define things as typical and then hand them over to public opinion and industry. We have seen how this can destroy a great product: a shining example of this is lardo di Colonnata. That’s how it works and so I’ll try to answer your question about what is “typical”. For example, I will only use lardo di Colonnata in my restaurant if I know what pig breeds were used to make it, who bred them, where and how, how much they weighed, where they were slaughtered, who treated them, what salt (or brine) was used, what fresh or dry herbs were used, and what basins, and for how long. If all this satisfies me, from the birth of the pig until the seasoning of the lardo, then I might decide to use that ingredient. All the rest is just fashion, gossip. “Typical” only means something if you know all the stages of the process; it’s a means of avoiding having anything to do with all the wide boys keen to take advantage.
Nicola Perullo, an expert on the history of food, collaborates with Slow Food and will lecture at the new University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo/Colorno
Adapted by Ailsa Wood