The next generation of Italy’s super-chefs are just as passionate about change as they are about tradition. The launch of the tenth Jeunes Restauranteurs D’Europe – Italia restaurant guide in Milan this week, proved how seamlessly they manage to marry the two.
Tradition is all well and good. But as Piedmontese chef-restaurateur Alfredo Russo
said on Monday October 29 at the Jeunes Restauranteurs D’Europe – Italia dinner at the Spazio Cartiere Vannucci in Milan, ‘you can go into most restaurants in Piedmont and order the same dishes – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but what about building on tradition, what about trying something new?’.
And with that, he finished off a last mouthful of Sacher torte bloated with a lemon curd center and planted in a puddle of cinnamon zabaglione, and went to join the group of chefs responsible for the evening’s dinner, distinguishable by their bandannas, dreadlocks and youth.
Alfredo and the other young chefs-restaurateurs present that evening are members of the Jeunes Restauranteurs D’Europe- Italia association, which exists to promote young chef-restaurateurs who build on the food cultures of their region by using local, seasonal ingredients in innovative ways.
‘There is so much talent here,’ said Maria Fossati, an organizer of the event, ‘these young chefs have done their apprentices, they’ve done their time learning the fundamental cuisine of their region. Now they have their own restaurants and they’re making their mark.’
The Jeunes Restauranteurs D’Europe association was founded 20 years ago in France to promote young chefs and create a network for them to share ideas. Now it operates over eight European countries. The idea of the movement as a whole is to promote creative food and unite the young chefs of Europe on a level playing field. But, country to country, they must display a loyalty to their own local regions.
There are 61 chef-restaurateurs belonging to the Italian arm of Jeunes Restauranteurs d’Europe, hailing from Piedmont to Trentino to Puglia. The member establishments range from a slick modern Milanese restaurant serving innovative vegetarian food to a small osteria occupying part of an ancient castle in an Emilian village.
Like most associations, entry into JRE-I is not easy. Applicants must be both chef and proprietor or co-proprietor of a restaurant, must have been so for at least three years and must be between 24-35 years of age – though they can then can then stay in the association until they’re 45. The JRE-I committee must also be convinced of the chef-restaurateur’s commitment to his or her culinary culture and the value of local produce, as well as ability to blend traditional regional philosophy with creative ideas. Not such an easy task in Italy, with its deep culinary traditions and a gastronomic establishment which, historically, has not taken kindly to young guns blazing through the restaurant scene with sushi rollers and cinnamon sticks in hand. But as Maria says, ‘This is not nouvelle cuisine, it’s Italian cuisine. These chefs have huge respect for tradition, they’re just taking a theme and building on it’.
This was impressively evident on Monday evening. The 160 guests were each assigned a table and each table was presented with a menu of five dishes created by a JRE-I chef.
From one kitchen in one evening came 64 different courses. Throughout the dinner, teams of waiters ferried antipasti, starters, mains and desserts to the various tables, loosely grouped into four categories of Il Mare (Sea), La Montagna, (Mountain), La Città (City) and La Campagna (Countryside).
As the main courses streamed out of the kitchen, dishes of roasted sea bass with local pancetta on an artichoke torte with balsamic vinegar and celeriac were delivered to an Il Mare table, another troupe headed for a La Campagna table with classic dishes of roasted rabbit with caponata of vegetables and a black olive salsa, ten perfect dishes of potato and porcini frittata with vegetable mayonnaise and a small herb salad glided into place on a La Città table while 13 other creations arrived at their destinations with equally exact choreography.
Of course, fancy dinners and tricky dishes aren’t only what the JRE organization is about. The knock-on effects of an organized group of passionate young chefs committed to the food culture of their region travel far and wide: the chefs use local ingredients, local producers have a market and the band plays on…
‘Forget nouvelle cuisine, traditional cuisine and fusion. There are two types of food in Italy,’ Alfredo concludes as he gets up to leave, ‘good and bad!’. And on the strength of Monday evening’s exciting, innovative and brilliantly executed effort – the future looks good.
The tenth JRE-I restaurant guide is available free at associated restaurants. Visit www.jri.com for more information.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team