Well I bet you would think that someone who is opening an Italian food truck would have some deep, profound reason why he would dedicate his life to the creation of Italian cuisine… well in this case, you would be wrong. It probably wont sound very deep or profound to you, but it is something I care about and to me thats the most important thing.
Im not Italian and neither is anyone in my family. I would love to take this time to tell stories of my nona teaching me her secrets to the perfect dough and then our food truck could have that heart warming family history with traditions that we can all trust in. But this not the case. I’m a chef. I found a love for this cuisine by circumstance, and i never looked back. There wasn’t any definable moment that i decided “I’m specifically training in Italian cookery”, but there was a moment when i realized that everything I love about being a chef is perfectly complimented by the Italian ethos to cooking and food.
I started my training when I was 15 years young, largely as a stubborn move to pursue a career that people told me was too hard and unrewarding to enjoy. I found an amazing camaraderie in kitchen life and, despite its challenges, I thrived in the environment. I got caught up in it, and found myself getting pulled into the bizarre world of fine dining cooking after only 18 months of professional cookery. In fact, to say “pulled” would be a misnomer: I fought my way in and stubbornly pursued it like my life depended on it. At the beginning I just wanted to learn, it didn’t matter if the food I was creating was French, Asian, Italian, American or what we called “Australian”. “Australian” is a young cuisine with no rules, it is characterized by using techniques and ingredients from all four corners of the globe, and chefs are encouraged to be as creative as possible to produce dishes that represent this “melting pot” ideology. As of yet there are no traditions to follow.
At this time, I wanted to work in great restaurants, and under great chefs but the fine dining lifestyle is extremely demanding and by the time I turned 18 I was burnt out… only three years in and I was already physically and emotionally exhausted by the long hours and constant pressure. Before most chefs had even started in the industry, I was thinking of getting out.
Now that I look back on it I can see that this was a defining moment for me and after a particularly bad experience where I lost a job because the clinically insane chef fired everyone in the kitchen, and then threw every plate in the restaurant at me for the crime of being two minutes late, I made one of the best decisions I ever have: I took a job at an Italian fine dining restaurant. In fact, this restaurant was so specific that it focused only on the cuisine of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, and it was serious about respecting authenticity. This was the first time I had worked for a restaurant with ‘rules’ about food; very strict rules at that; for example our ragu was made with goat meat rather than beef, as this was more traditional. Chefs aren’t known for their modesty and as an 18 year old rules really weren’t my thing: I was cocky and as I have previously mentioned, stubborn. Here, I learnt a lesson in humility and obedience. It is amazing to look back and realize how much of my current life I can trace back to that restaurant. Its name is Bar Alto and its still there, situated on the banks of the Brisbane river in an amazing part of the city called New Farm.
Working at Bar Alto I got my first taste for working with chefs who had a true specialty craft. Each of them had a passion for the exact cuisine that they were serving and had trained intensely in it, however, like me, none of them were Italian… Our head chef was Spanish but was a wealth of knowledge about everything to do with the cuisine. The sous chef was an Indian expat, who created the best pasta I had ever tasted and had immersed himself deeply in regional Italian cuisine. This team of chefs made me realize that you don’t need to be born in a place to be passionate about its food. This made me think differently about my career. I didn’t have to focus on new progressive “Australian” cuisine, even though this was the height of fashion at the time, and I had always assumed this was the path set out before me. Strangely, the rebellious path was to stick to rules not to break them. It was in this kitchen that I qualified as a chef, but not until after some intense lessons in Emilia Romagna cooking.
Despite my new found love of Italian cookery, I still needed some release from the daily grind of kitchen life. I had never been to college or taken time out between school and work, and I just wanted to live life and let loose, like other people my age. I traveled lots and cooked what ever menu I was given, working in lots of different restaurants, some Italian, some not. I even flipped burgers for 6 months at a fast food restaurant. I honed a wide range of different skills, but when I was given the chance to do my own thing I always naturally swayed towards Italian. It was a subconscious thing really, I never noticed that my brain would always pair ingredients in an ‘Italian’ way first before even thinking about another cuisine. It was here in whistler that this was first pointed out to me, by my head chef. I was the sous chef of a mountain top restaurant called Christine’s, and working under Seb, a half French half French Canadian who commented one day on how great it was to be able to combine my Italian brain with his French to create great European meals. After that day, I started to think about my relationship with food in a different way. I taught myself all I could about Italian cookery which, in the age of the internet, is a pretty easy thing to do if you are passionate about it.
The more I started to learn about Italian cookery the more I remembered about all the Italian dishes I had prepared in a string of restaurants, over the years. The cuisine I had accidentally specialized in back when I was an unrefined and unruly 18 year old had found me and had a hold on me.
Living in such a beautiful place as the sea to sky region of BC started to make me realize how fragile the world around us is, and made me think differently about how I live my life. I realized that the traditional Italian attitude to food was to live with the seasons, not to try to fight against them. In February, Italians would not have eaten fresh tomatoes, not just because of tradition but because they weren’t seasonally available. They used solely local products not because its fashionable to Instagram about it but because the products were fresher, simpler and less labour intensive to receive. I found that the answer to a lot of our food production problems today can be discovered not in some cutting edge new technology, but in a way of life that we have almost forgotten. We expect that, in the modern world, we should be able to get any food, whenever we want it. In fact we think that the ability to buy mangoes in winter is a good thing, when in fact it puts the world we live in under so much unnecessary stress, and lets be honest, mangoes don’t taste as good when they have been shipped 7000 miles to get to you.
The rules that mother nature dictates are actually blessings to me as a chef, and as a human. You don’t hear my generation say “its strawberry season!” in fact most of my non chef friends couldn’t even tell you when it starts. Seasonality and the rules that we, as humans, used to live by make me excited as a chef: its a fun challenge to to create hyper seasonal dishes that truly represent the products available to me at that exact moment in that exact place. However, my brain is truly Italian now so the dishes I prepare with these local, seasonal products will always be inspired by my love for the food of the country of other peoples nonas.
I may not have Italy in my blood, but I have it in my brain. I specialize in the food that they traditionally create, and the methods in which they do so, not because I have to, but because I choose to. I truly believe that the answer to our problems can be taken from the past and brought into the present to change our future.
I cook Italian because it speaks to me and I want to tell its story.