I haven’t made risotto in a while. It’s one of my favorite meals. It’s a comfort food, and it’s a food that you can serve any time, day or night, satisfying for lunch or a drunken snack late in the evening, not that I would advise preparing such a thing under the influence without proper training.

That’s the big thing, right there. Risotto, to me, is the chef’s version of easy mac. For the time and effort it takes to shake out a package of cheese powder and fill a tub with water, microwave, stir, let it rest, etc. – all those things that make Easy Mac so repulsively easy, I can make risotto.

Wine Wall at Ristorante Norman

It all started at a little restaurant on Via Pietro Micca in Torino, Italy. Ristorante Norman. After a school day at the Institute of Biscuits (name changed), a few friends and I would take the tram to center city, sit out in front of the restaurant on the Piazza, drinking double espressos (record for an afternoon for me was 13), do generally cosmopolitan things, and eat gelato for three hours before piling into the tiny kitchen on the second floor salon, above the confectionary shoppe. The front room was stacked with, on the left side, a gelato bar, running the length of the front room, towering tables of marrons glace and torrone, and on the right, an ancient, brassy espresso machine. The back room, where the bosses hung out, was akin to a mansion’s reading room or library, with tall stacks of wine bottles lounging behind glass in floor to ceiling displays.

Fontana Angelica

The Salon at Ristorante Norman

Off to the side, there was a glass door that took you up to the second floor, overlooking the Piazza Solferino and the gorgeous Fontana Angelica. Up the stairs to the second story, and we were greeted with a gorgeous dining room with classical place settings, elegant linens, and antique dinner service. Back in the kitchen, we filleted flounder, wrapped soft cheeses in grilled zucchini, chopped spinach, seared duck breasts and marinated swordfish for the evening’s service, and relaxed in the community of working side by side with our fellow kitchen staff.

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Torino, or Turin, is most famously known for three things: the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that alleges the depiction of Jesus Christ on its facade, FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) Motor Company, and most recently, hosting the Winter Olympics. More than those three things, it is also home to LaVazza coffee, Martini and Rossi Vermouth, and a cuisine that is showcased by pastries and chocolates as well as its heavily German and Austrian influences.

Where most people think of Italian food as a plate of boiled noodles, a couple of meatballs, and a slop full of sauce, it’s so much more than that.  When I was 18, I worked in a restaurant like that. Paisan’s. Housemade, yet preboiled noodles, Meatballs the size of your fist, and garlicky sauce that would make you wince with its overabundance of kick.

Northern Italy, in contrast to the tomato, lemon, caper and oregano based recipes of the south, is more about the cream based sauces, hard cheeses, wild mushrooms, and game meats such as duck and pork. Alba, in the Northwest corner, is famous for their white truffles, which like seasonal items like our Rainier cherries and Midwestern ears of corn, make their appearance for only a short time per year, harvesting typically in late October. You get them while you can, and put them on everything from Risotto to Pasta to meats, and you can preserve them by infusing them in oil or butter to extend their intoxicating aromatic shelf life for at least a few weeks.

In addition, it is only two hours from the Mediterranean. Within mere hours of the catch, fish is destined for the restaurants of Genoa, Nice, Marseilles, Turin, and its neighboring city of Milan. Mackerel, flounder, Branzini and sardines are only some of the amazing options that the sea has to offer to the regional menu.

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Back in the kitchen, we take the service at a relaxed pace, as learned from the cultural wisdom of Italian grandmothers and their old world habits. Just a short drive from Turin, in the city of Cuneo, is the home of Slow Food, a movement started to showcase regional and artisanal methods of food preparation while ensuring that these traditions are not forgotten. Along with stringent rules enforced by the D.O.C. (Denominazione di origine controllata), the Slow Food Movement is everpresent in most kitchens in Italy, or at least those that are worth their salt. When you get a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano, it’s going to be the same method of preparation every time. Aside from small differences in the vintages of grapes, wine and balsamic vinegar with the D.O.C. stamp will taste like they’re supposed to taste- exactly like the label says they should. Most importantly, it is an unspoken rule in most kitchens that no food is served before its time. Whereas I’ve worked in many kitchens where the idea is to get the food out to impatient diners in a regimented, almost machinelike fashion (you lose your identity- less man with the plan, just the man with a pan), here, there was an understanding that the table was a place to rest, talk, and enjoy the company of your dining partner over a glass of wine, knowing that the care put into your meal was taking place behind the swinging door of the kitchen, and that you’d get a plate that was quietly and simply remarkable.

It’s the same way everywhere in Italy. You pull out a bottle of wine, cork it, and talk. Things happen. In America, diners expect and often times demand to be waited on. There is an air of servitude about it all. In Italy, people were just happy to be taken care of. That’s the secret handshake right there.

The restaurant, as you can see from the picture up there, was only about 30 seats, and rarely were we full. It gave us time to think about what we were doing, be patient with our food and ourselves, and plate quality food. Here, there are so many instances of cooks who burn out, have substance abuse or depression issues, or worse. Returning to the States and cooking in large scale kitchens, I burned out on the idea that the success of my career was dependent on how many plates a night I was able to crank out without having any dissatisfied diners who sent it back. We cater to those poor souls who cannot be satisfied with a work of art. I’ve learned through my experience in Italy that if a sprig of parsley was out of place, it was not the end of the world. If there was a smattering of sauce that was not perfectly drizzled, it would be okay. It is about the flavor of the overall meal, and the creation, on the plate, in the kitchen, and in the dining room, of an appetizing setting for an enjoyable experience. That is why I do not cook in a restaurant. I put the love on a plate, and although the diners would eat it, the plate was returned empty.

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Service would finish around 10 or 11, and we’d all go out and sit in the dining room with the stragglers, open a bottle of wine, and start our end of the night meal. Grabbing what we had from the back, we’d take a handful of chopped onion and some fresh thyme, throw it in a pan with a rough chopped clove of garlic, and swish it around a pan for a few minutes. A few sliced mushrooms,  a splash of the wine, a handful of rice, and a few ladles of hot stock in the pan, and we had a risotto. Hearty, simple, filling, and satisfying after a long day.

Risotto started off as peasant food. All that you ate was all that you could grow. There was a little bit of rice, maybe some herbs, some green vegetables, and whatever flavorful broth you could make out of what was around. If you were lucky enough to have a chicken, it would be chicken broth that you had simmered the bones in all day, trying to extract every ounce of flavor and nutrition from your harvest. If it was celery or carrot, you’d put some of that in there. The point was that after raising your vegetables and animals, getting your mileage out of them as a source of protein, the last and final step was to take your time and see what else you could make. Cyclically, then, your stock would go into your risotto, which you would serve with the bread you had made that day, some vegetables harvested from the garden, and maybe the meat off of the next butchered animal.

In the dining room, we’d be sitting around, checking the pot every couple of minutes, agitating, etc., and with about five minutes to go, we’d grab a portion of meat, either beef, duck, or whatever we had around, and sear it up as a quick addition. Nothing more than a little salt and pepper. Three to four minutes a side, and as we flipped it, we’d test the risotto, turn off the heat if it was done, and throw a bit of grated parmigiano in there, letting it rest. That’s the secret.

We’d let the meat rest for a few minutes, slice it, and then serve it over spoonfuls of the savory risotto with a drizzle of reduced balsamic.

That’s a Risotto

All we had was a basic simmered rice dish with a little bit of attention, and we could enjoy it at our leisure. I prefer this outlook on eating where we take our pleasure from the sum of our experiences. The total enjoyment of a meal for me is the process of the meal itself. Going to get the ingredients, fabricating them, hanging in the kitchen while something is cooking and absorbing the smells and sounds of everything that is going on. One of my favorite sounds is a sizzle. My favorite smells are onion and garlic. As for my favorite sights? Among them are a plate of food that I’ve produced, and the person sitting across from me who I hope will enjoy it.

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With that said, I need to get going. I’ve got a stock to make, and some vegetables to chop. By the time the night is through, there will be a most satisfying meal of risotto in my past, with some leftover stock to use for whatever I’m feeling like putting on a plate tomorrow night. I’m already looking forward to it.

Check out the Slow Food Website. It aims to give you a new outlook on how you treat, and think of, your food: http://www.slowfood.com/

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