Identità Golose (Delicious Identities): a veritable ‘conference’ of two whole days in Milan in which the best chefs in Italy and beyond spoke. Some addressed the audience as if they were teaching a refresher course, explainingall the technical phases involved in putting together a new recipe, others added their abstract contributions in the form of thoughts, ideas and words. In response to a series of questions put to him by journalists Marco Bolasco, Andrea Petrini, and Paolo Marchi (the brains behind the event), Fulvio Pierangelini reflected upon the solitude of the chef. Like all artists, in fact, chefs often have to tackle the lack of understanding of critics and the harassment of shortsighted bureaucracy.
Vittorio Fusari, chef of the Volto d’Iseo (a star-rated restaurant and one of Slow Food’s first Osterie d’Italia in Brescia), was also at the conference. Recently Fusari has been busy promoting an interesting initiative that aims to join quality restaurateurs into an association. In a brief chat on the fringe of the conference, Fusari explained his understanding of this tricky and absorbing profession.
Vittorio Fusari, this conference seems to have exposed several problems that have so far only been discussed in private or among members of the trade. What’s your impression of the event?
It’s without doubt a positive experience. This is the first time in Italy that some the world’s best chefs, the avant-garde if you wish, have had the chance to meet and discuss the future of their profession, not only theoretically but also in a practical, concrete way. Cookery is not about simply copying a recipe, but rather learning a technique; it is then up to each of us to find our own original interpretation of what we have learned.
Pierangelini spoke of being humiliated by the state. Has this ever happened to you?
It happens very often to all chefs and restaurateurs who strive for quality in their work. We fall under the category of traders and the law makes no distinction between peoplewho run self-service restaurants, pizzerias and snack bars and people who run businesses with very different personnel and raw material expenses and overheads. We are at the mercy of red-tape and legislation that tends to standardize.
A lot of people reckon that Spanish chefs are better at sticking together and standing up for one another. Could this explain their current supremacy on the haute cuisine scene?
With its technical and scientific innovation, Spain is enjoying a magic moment, but a big change is underway in Italy too, albeit following different directions, as is only right. Italian chefs need to find something that binds them together. They need to give more cultural importance to their work through individual expression as well as through the knowledge that they belong to a common civilization. Innovation in Italy is tied to rediscovery of the immense value of the country’s raw materials and a reawakening of interest in farming, fishing and production techniques.
I and other chefs, such as Mauro Piscini, Matteo Scibilia, Pia Marsella, Sergio Mei, Marco Niccoli, Franco Radici, Antonio Tonola and Enrico Gerli, have decided to embark on a common course by founding an association called UDIRTA’ (Union for the Defense of Quality Catering). It’s chaired by Aimo Moroni and many people have already joined. We felt it was necessary to fill gap in terms of representation in our sector. Our immediate aim is to create awareness of the fact that there is a problem in the definition of our role in society.
On the one hand, dishes created by great chefs are considered as artistic performances, but on the other hand your work doesn’t receive any specific recognition.
Exactly. UDIRTA’ has started by drawing up a set of rules to define exactly what it means by quality catering — fully fledged charter and a commitment as well as declaration of identity. We often speak of Italian catering and the image of Italian cuisine in the world scene, but we seem to ignore the fact that a certain kind of work presupposes different logics, costs and productivity needs and indices from those of a supermarket. We fall under the same category as traders, it’s as simple as that. Within such a vast category, quality chefs and caterers are too few to make themselves heard. This is the reason behind UDIRTA’: its aim is to energies, talents and professional skills together, to represent the interests of quality catering and to take action — why not? — at a political and trade union level.
What’s your first dispute about?
We want a change in the rules governing the sector that take into account the difference between quality catering and the simple sale of food: sector surveys, for example, should distinguish between those who have everything planned, buy ingredients from one or two large multinationals and employ low-paid, unskilled personnel and those who invest in the training of their staff, source goods from thousands of different producers and cook every day on the basis of the raw material they find available.
Let’s talk about raw materials. Corrado Assenza thanked ‘his’ suppliers from the stage. He said that very often, on account of budget strictures, he’s unable to pay them as much as they deserve. He received a round of applause for that. How do you see this?
I see it as being very positive. It’s a sign that we as chefs are aware that terroir is one of the most important aspects of our work. Time after time it manages to come up with something great and different. The restaurant is the stage on which the chef-actor performs his recipe-script. But when I speak about terroir I don’t only mean the local region: provided they’re authentic, a creative cook has to make use of raw materials from every part of the world. So not one terroir but lots of terroirs with their very finest produce. If awareness exists of this link with the land, it is thanks in part to Slow Food, I totally share your vision of a gastronomy concerned with agriculture and the environment. I also agree with the idea of the crucial importance of educating people’s sense of taste. But just as important as this, and something that I’ve often heard Carlin Petrini speak about, is the job that has to be done in hotel-management schools. Here training should be provided by well known, capable restaurateurs. We need to raise the cultural level of these schools.
You said that UDIRTA’ has defined a quality caterers’ code. What would ‘your” definition be?
I’m convinced that whatever creative devices even the most talented chef employs, the finished dish can never be disconnected from its ingredients. The dish created has been made in a kind of collaboration with the terroir and the food producer. This chain becomes the essential part of quality catering, not only in terms of taste and aroma. It’s all about safeguarding a collective heritage, the land, the environment, biodiversity, traditional techniques … This is the deciding factor. Then, with my creativity, my techniques, I can apply myself and perhaps come up with an exceptional dish …
Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office
Adapted by Frederic Anderson