Posts Tagged ‘Italian Cuisine’

Chef Massimo Bottura Observed

Posted 21 Oct 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends, Full Service

Massimo Bottura is hustling back and forth in front of a draped stainless steel work table just minutes before his presentation is to begin.  The scheduled start time arrives and passes and, after another few minutes, he looks up. It’s obvious that Bottura is improvising and riffing in the kitchen and that he runs on his own schedule. My purpose is to spend the next 90 minutes with fifteen other participants observing Bottura’s mastery and getting into the head of one of the leading avant-garde chefs in all of Italy. This is the next best thing to dining at Bottura’s two Michelin star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Lucky for me his English is excellent.

There is no introduction on his part or any sort of overview of where we are headed. Instead he launches right into philosophy illuminating his emotional connection to Cotechino sausage with lentils, the traditional New Year’s Eve dish in Italy. His expression softens as he explains that lentils, according to tradition, represent the coins of wealth to be won in the coming year and how the dish triggers emotional memories of his youth and grandmother in particular. I am curious where he is headed with this. He turns, looks my way, stops and lets out his first nugget “you have to learn everything and then forget everything to create something incredible.” Bottura has one culinary hand connected to the past and one reaching toward the future.

He suggests that his dishes are an evolution rather than a revolution. They are drawn from many things including prior experiences in life, from his youth, from emotional events, from love. I connect the dots and realize that his passion for food started in his youth and that everything he envisions in rooted in this past. When you pair emotion and passion with mastery of fundamental and modern culinary technique the avante garde origin of Bottura’s cuisine is found. Evolution requires that you feed your heart, feed your soul and engage in tradition while redefining convention.

At this point Bottura lifts a small yellow ball between his thumb and index finger. It’s an immature egg found only in the visceral cavity of a dressed laying hen. When he was young, Bottura and his brothers would compete to secure the immature eggs inside hens being prepared for their family meal. He was fond of eating these little golden gems and today experiments with them as a receptacle for containing flavors. In a startling display of elegant simplicity Bottura’s assistant places an immature egg on a tiny white porcelain pedestal and draws out the liquid in the center using a large stainless steel syringe and replaces it with a fresh injection of Prosciutto di Parma ham broth ~ ham and eggs. They are delicious and representative of Bottura’s approach. Start with an item with deep significance, one that when eaten evokes memories and emotion, and innovate from there.

Next Bottura begins making ravioli with lentils and Cotechino while explaining that the ravioli is nothing more than a vessel for serving ideas.  He explains that questions are constantly flowing through his head “how can I make this, how can I do that?” He is constantly grinding and processing ideas and this is part of why Bottura is so different. He has mastered the techniques of critical reflection and problem solving and uses them both to create and innovate. Are these the skills of the modern chef?

Handing me ravioli, Bottura explains that his final point is leadership. A great two Michelin star restaurant like his runs on the backs of a large group of people committed to his vision. He is nothing without his team and assures that his success isn’t about him, it’s about his team. His point is sound; a great chef can’t do it alone. A chef must be able to lead and have followers willing to join or all the mastery of technique, professional experience and emotion are lost.  I suck down the ravioli and it is delicious. Bottura looks me in the eye, scans the rest of the people standing with me and explains that the ravioli reminds him of the ones he learned to make when he was a young boy.  Then he lets out his final snippet of philosophy:  “modern cuisine is about emotion as much as it is technique. For this I put my grandmother between meand Adria.” How cool is that.


Chef Massimo Bottura

Osteria Francescana

Via Stella 22, Modena 41100, Italy

Quince Restaurant, San Francisco

Posted 11 May 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Michael Tusk is an experienced professional chef who, for a multitude of reasons, deserves the James Beard award he won two nights ago (best chef Pacific). Perhaps it’s the Italian inspired menu at Quince or the tremendous wine offerings or the outstanding décor and artwork in the restaurant or the well-heeled staff that gracefully provides service or the cool-cat bartenders who are quick with a joke and loose with a pour. To me all these aspects of Quince make it worthy of the accolades but the key inspiration is chef Tusk and his food.

I am sitting at the very end of the bar at Quince contemplating whether to grab a table and settle in or have a few courses and then head out into the sea of fantastic restaurants that make San Francisco such an outrageous food city. One of the bartenders senses my indecision and suggests that I take on a five course tasting menu and a flight of wines right at the bar. Good idea, I am not in the mood to sit at a table, nor in the mood to wander off into the Jackson Square neighborhood where Quince is located. My bartender is a real pro and our conversation continues comfortably.

The kitchen at Quince is located right up against the street in a two storey glass storefront. At night the kitchen radiates light and bustles with activity. Cooks in dark blue bibbed aprons work facing the street just on the other side of the glass. Chef Tusk stands at the far side of the hot kitchens island suite, back to the street expediting. Work in this kitchen flows smoothly.

My five course menu includes turbot, pasta with sea urchin roe, lobster with sun-choke and Dungeness crab. Tusk is known for his inventive pasta preparations and his heavy Italian influence. His menu is extremely seasonal and local and not overly modernistic in technique. While observing the kitchen from the  curb I noticed lots of old-school copper in use, traditional techniques being executed, and plenty of olive oil and butter being used. Chef Tusk’s time with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse comes through in his cooking. He handles seafood adeptly and my culinary experience is excellent.


Twice Baked Dungeness Crab and Oyster Souffle, Salsify and Red Endive Salad


Caramelle of Lobster and Sunchoke


Mancini Artisan Spaghetti, Sea Urchin, Fennel and Controne Chile


Turbot, Stuffed Artichoke, Artichoke Puree, Carrot and Red Onion


Meyer Lemon Tartlet, Meringue, Confit and Caramel


Financier, Chocolate, Blood Orange Gelee

470 Pacific Ave.

San Francisco, CA 94133

Al Forno: The Most Consistent Restaurant in America

Posted 22 Sep 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

As mentioned in a recent post, I bumped into George Germon and Johanne Killeen at their new foodbar Tini a couple of weeks ago. We had a great chat and the discussion reminded me of a delicious and inspiring dinner I had at Al Forno recently. The source of my inspiration is the long standing consistency and excellence achieved by Johanne and George at Al Forno after all more than 20 years in operation. That George and Johanne not only look great but speak about food with the same inspired voice they had when I first met them two decades ago leaves me in awe. My most recent meal there was no exception.

Of each of the seasons of the year my favorite time to visit Al Forno is early spring or late fall when the weather is grey and rainy, as odd as that may sound. When the sky is grey in Providence along South Water Street the location smells of Pink Floyd and Edgar Allan Poe to me. The restaurant sits just across the mouth of the Providence River between South Main and South Water streets. It’s directly across from the Point Street power station and during winter the silhouette of the power plant is reminiscent of the stark industrial Battersea power station that appeared on the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals back in 1977. Arched four story windows are dimly lit between each of the three massive smoke stacks that give the Point Street station it’s Battersea like feel.  

When it rains this side of town the wind sweeping up the bay blows the drops horizontally into my face and I pull the collar of my jacket up to protect it. Running along the slippery cobblestones toward Al Forno with my collar up, dark dreary rain stinging my face, I feel like Edgar Allan Poe on one of his trips down Benefit Street, just a mile away, chasing the widow Sara Helen Whitman back in 1845. Providence’s south Main Street in spring and late fall, like other Poe dwelling places including Baltimore’s Fells point and Boston’s North End, has a macabre feeling on a stormy night and that’s just the way I like it when headed to Al Forno.

Is it strange for me to like this? Not really when you think about what happens when I step inside the restaurant. Once inside, the heat radiating from the massive wood fired ovens that George built more than 20 years ago creates an old fashioned dry heat and slightly smoky aroma that acts as a salve to the weather outside and delirium of Poe-like thoughts. Without the weather and mid-nineteenth century meets Pink Floyd mood the contrast between outside and in would not be so dramatic, the comfort not so deep. And that’s what I feel when I go to Al Forno, a reviving deep comfort.  Who wants to walk around soaking wet, feeling like Edgar Allan Poe, David Gilmour ringing in his ears? I much prefer warming up at the first floor bar, the massive wood fired oven in view on the other side of the garage like window along the wall.

Why the comfort? Because a restaurant that year after year offers perfectly prepared foods provides customers with a reliable experience in a world where finding the constant is a challenge. I am physically comfortable when I step through the door because I know what I like, know they will have it, and know it will be exactly like it was the last time I ordered it (not that I order the same item every time).

I even know the exact table I like. My preferred perch at Al Forno is one of the two-tops against a window on the left hand side of the second floor dining room – power plant in full view. As far as the menu goes, I always order an appetizer, a baked pasta, a pizza and fish if available. My back up entree is the Spicy Clam Roast with Mashed Potatoes, a dish I first enjoyed in 1992 that remains exactly the same today. Note that I plan my meal knowing there will be leftovers. Al Forno food is great the next day. 

George and Johanne have been plying their trade since the mid 1970’s when George worked for Dewey Dufresne, the emerging leader of the nascent Providence restaurant scene back then. Today Dewey is known as the king of Clinton Street after guiding his wonderful and talented son Wylie to the heights of the molecular and scientific food scene in the lower east village. Dewey, it seems, has a penchant for cultivating restaurant talent and passed this on to Johanne and George. The two, like their restaurant, have aged gracefully and now, like Dewey before them, they have spawned several generations of talented chefs that have gone on to open their own restaurants, most notably Bran Kingsford at Bacaro in Providence (to name just one).  Where they differ from most is the enduring quality offered at Al Forno. Most restaurants in their third decade of life are threadbare or uninspired but Al Forno bucked that fate and remains as relevant and excellent today as ever. Sated and comfortable!

 Grilled Pizza Margarita

Antipasto Al Forno

Crispy Cod Cakes with Smashed Avocado

Baked Pasta with Tomato Cream and Five Cheeses

Al Forno

577 South Main St

Providence, RI 02903