Each time I cook with a chef in his or her sacred space, it is an experience I feel incredibly fortunate to take part in. The more I do it, the more comfortable I feel, yet to this day cooking with top talents leaves me wide-eyed and slightly nervous. In every gathering, I learn something new, whether it is how to hold my wrist as I chop, a better way to julienne my veggies, or simply the knowledge I gain from observing and absorbing how to handle myself in a bustling kitchen.
Well, in this cooking session, I had two firsts! One, this is the first post in which I cook with an international chef. And two, this was the first time the chef and I did not speak the same language. To be fair, though, the latter isn’t exactly true, as food is its own shared language. When preparing a meal one-on-one with a culinary pro, what more do you really need?
My far-flung food adventure took place in the beautiful Lombardy region of Franciacorta, Italy. I cooked with highly-regarded chef Augusto Pasini, who helms the kitchen at the new Laboratorio Lanzani restaurant. Together with my ridiculously talented friend, photographer Nicole Franzen, off we went gathering up produce with Chef Augusto. We had a clear goal in mind for our day in the kitchen — to get creative using simple ingredients found in Franciacorta.
Now, the day was not without its series of hiccups. The initial snafu came about due to a minor miscommunication, which perhaps stemmed from a language barrier. (Okay, so although food is its own language once you get into the kitchen, it definitely doesn’t hurt to speak the same language before that point!). Nicole and I yearned for a picturesque Italian market, overflowing with rows upon rows of vibrant local produce, perhaps located at the side of a river.
Instead, Chef Augusto took us to a local industrial chef supermarket, bright with neon lighting and the those long plastic strips you have to walk through to go into the cooler to retrieve your raspberries – a mix between a car wash and parking lot was the visual. This, the chef declared, was where all chefs gather their produce each morning. This, however, was not exactly the picture-perfect image we had in our mind’s eye. Reality? Yes. Swoon-worthy enough to share editorially? Definitely not. So, after some fast-paced chatter in the speediest Italian I have ever heard, boom, we had a new plan.
While I would imagine most chefs, American or not, likely would have been mildly (or maybe extremely) annoyed that we were wasting their time, Chef Augusto had ZERO ego. He aimed to give us exactly what we were looking for. Time management got swept aside, as at this point we were about two hours behind schedule. In that moment, my heart softened, and — thud, thud, thud — beat extra hard for this mega chef, as he so wanted to make us happy.
And he did! We found an outdoor market. It was about to close, was not on a river, and we had to walk through stalls and stalls of clothing and sheets being sold by Italian grandmas before we saw anything that even resembled food, but you know what, Augusto delivered! We found a stall with puntarelle and zucchini blossoms — and it was these technicolor yellow blossoms that caught the attention of Chef Augusto. You could see his wheels turning as he concepted the dish on the fly. As we departed, we stumbled upon a man who we all agreed MUST have been a Calvin Klein model. He was clearly confused, thinking he was a cheesemonger, but we all knew what we saw. Augusto and this vision of masculine beauty exchanged cheese banter for about 15 minutes, during which time we tasted about 10 cheeses. So, beauty certainly abounded in the last, if not in the ways we expected. After that, to the kitchen we went!
When we got to the restaurant, which was inspired by Andy Warhol’s The Factory (clad in silver walls and all), Chef Augusto continued to be incredibly accommodating. He asked us, through a translator, exactly how we wanted to shoot. As Nicole and I began styling and photographing the raw ingredients, Augusto started to craft his four course meal for us. He had this to say about what he prepared: “Everything you tried was nothing more than my personal interpretation of the cuisine of Franciacorta, with a modern tone.” The focus was on the ingredients, which as much as possible, came from local sources. The meal incorporated such delicacies as cured fish from nearby Montisola and wine from his favorite vineyards.
Our first course was a vegetarian soup of courgette flower, an ingredient we gathered at the market in the morning. The soup incorporated not only the spirit of Franciacorta, but actual Franciacorta sparkling wine. This was also the dish that Chef Augusto allowed me to plate alongside him as we sipped on some wine. As expected, our communication in the kitchen was spot-on. We spoke the universal language of food!
Whether with chefs or with winemakers, regard for the surroundings, craftsmanship, modernity, and tradition proved to be the overarching themes in Franciacorta. There is a respect for craft, respect for the land, and a focus on quality over quantity. Augusto’s food did not feature innovation for the sake of innovation but to enhance the region’s culinary traditions and keep them relevant. Franciacorta is forward-thinking, yet steeped in history. And so, as my final lesson gleaned from Chef Augusto, and from the entire Franciacorta region, rather than cooking techniques or tips I found something different. In eating and drinking my way through the region, I forged a connection to the land, and the area’s past and future. This was my first trip to the area, but it certainly won’t be my last. Until next time, Franciacorta.