Let’s go back to the figure of the chef. Unlike other chefs, who delegate a great deal to their assistants and are often absent from their kitchens, you have always been well-known for doing the opposite: you are always there, and always personally involved in the cooking. Why do you choose to do this? Let me put it another way: how can an art or technique like cooking, be taught? How can taste be taught?
FP: I think techniques and, perhaps, a cooking philosophy can be taught. Obviously emotions and sensitivity cannot, and my style of cuisine aims to communicate something that involves these things above all else. Anyone who works with me can watch how I work and this alone will give them some inspiration. Sensitivity, experience, intuition – to go back to the subject of ingredients, all these things are the key to understanding an ingredient in a pan, which is not abstract or static! – but is something solid and tangible, something to be assessed using intuition at that moment, as to how it can be cooked and processed. It is fundamental to treat cooking ingredients nicely, even a simple potato: to touch them, understand them, feel what they are able to give. The relationship between you and the product is absolutely central: if you are nice to your ingredients, if you understand them, they will be grateful to you and give their best in the dish. Sometimes my young assistants snub certain products and treat them carelessly and I get annoyed with them because it’s wrong, since it will make a difference to the success of the dish. As I said, cooking is the result of many different elements: no one aspect is more important and the result is an unpredictable, illogical synthesis of them all. For example, I’ve never believed, in my career as a chef, in shapes, colors and textures for their own sake; in studied combinations, like ‘a little bit crunchy and a little bit soft’. No, everything must develop together and spontaneously, from an idea, an emotion, and every dish is born, grows and arrives with its own story. Every dish has a story. If you study and analyze it, if you begin by taking it apart, the dish will be the result of later imprecision, and the result might be technically perfect, but in my opinion it will be dead, static and cold. I am not interested in conceptual, experimental laboratory cooking, in which the dish is already tired when it reaches the table. This applies to ingredients too, I don’t believe they have a set, unequivocal meaning, so I work on the basis of their story, the sensations they communicate, which I in turn attempt to communicate. My cooking aims to be free of trappings, artifice or affectation.
A question to cover several aspects: how does one appreciate cooking like yours? The problem of how it is received is again a problem of taste. I find that the way you work requires emotional complicity (perhaps this applies to every authentic experience) and therefore in a broad sense, intellectual complicity. By intellectual, I don’t of course mean abstract or cerebral. Thus we come back to the menus, to what these strange forms of writing are attempting to communicate. In your cas,e they are brief, pithy names (‘country pigeon with rosemary’, ‘fish ravioli’, or – now – ‘penne with salmon’, written in inverted commas on the menu to draw attention to the reinterpretation).
FP: This is quite a complicated problem. First I think that whoever comes here must do so without expectations, and be open to accepting whatever we offer and not what he wants or expects. Understanding what ‘penne with salmon’ means is less important: I can understand the complicity and empathy a diner feels for my cooking by an expression, a smile … There’s no need to explain too much or ask a lot of questions, tell each other everything. There’s always that annoying urge to talk: I try to encourage open-mindedness in customers who want to try my dishes by writing the menu very simply. For example, I make a ‘pigeon breast with oriental spices’ and I offer the whole thing. There are several spices, a candied fruit salad – but what sense would it make if someone said “I’m not choosing that dish because I don’t like this spice or that salad”? Obviously I try to use individual elements as part of a whole. I don’t know what might make it easier to understand, but the choice in my restaurant is an intellectual one, not a financial one (people who want to flaunt lots of money hardly ever come to me, they prefer other places with more ‘accessible’ cooking). Simple people with plenty of taste come to my restaurant. Of course my cooking is so straightforward that it might seem bewildering. The problem is thinking it can be reproduced only by knowing the ingredients and the procedure. Usually people who understand something like cooking or art instinctively know that behind an apparently simple or puzzling result is the skill of the creator or the maker, which goes beyond individual elements. People who understand Picasso look beyond his monsters and perceive the ability to make beautiful portraits of Madonnas.
While talking about cooking in this conversation we’ve often taken examples from music, painting, cinema. Is cooking art, or a high craft?
FP: I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just know that I still have a lot of fun doing this job, more and more fun, and as far as I understand it, I have to do it myself, without delegating. Only I can do what I love doing, and what I want to communicate, because it comes from inside me. I can only communicate it by creating it myself.
Cacher l’art pour l’art même…
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