The decision to cook
My father was a friend of the great chef and gastronome from Switzerland’s Ticino Canton: Angelo Conti Rossini. One day as a guest in our home, Conti Rossini brought us a charlotte russe, vanilla custard crowned with ladies fingers. I was only fifteen years old at the time and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. It did not take much to persuade me to try that dessert. I was dazzled. It smelled of fragrant cookies and delicious vanilla. It was almost as light as air and all but melted in my mouth. The taste lingered and was just rich enough, thanks to the lengthy mixing of the yolks with the sugar, as I later learned. I ate at least half of it and understood where I was headed.
In 1978 I started my career as a chef; after my apprenticeship in a traditional Italian restaurant I worked in a restaurant that served traditional French cuisine and thus I got the bases of my cooking. The nouvelle cuisine boom came along in the early 1980s, and changed many of the parameters of traditional cuisine. With the help of Angelo Conti Rossini I managed to enter the crew of the great Fredy Girardet di Crissier in Switzerland, the master of nouvelle cuisine at that time. After that, I came to Italy for the first time and worked with the equally great Gulatiero Marchesi, who proposed his Italian creative cooking. Fredy Girardet had taught me rigor in the workplace and insistence on absolutely respecting the parameters of quality. Marchesi taught me to think about cooking. It was a magic time: the quality of restaurants reached great heights and there was terrific ferment and change in cuisine. Yet, I was not happy and cuisine seemed to be fenced in culturally and territorially. The chef’s world (with the exception of Marchesi and a few others) was limited to the kitchen. The sauces were all whipped with butter and cream until they were saturated with fat. There were contradictions in the terms “enhancing food” by adding salt and pepper, and “lightening up” a sauce by enriching it with butter or cream. The fad was eating a slightly cooked pigeon separated into thighs and breasts, and the same dish could be found in Milan or in Paris. France was the center of grand cuisine and the great model to follow, and everything else was peripheral and secondary.
I started to become interested in other directions, people were starting to speak about vegetarian cuisine and biological farming, and I became a vegetarian for two years to try them out.
I insatiably read a few cooking books a week as if they were thrillers, and I stoked my insatiable thirst for getting to know food, but I felt more and more as if the clothing I was wearing didn’t fit and my hat was all wrong.
The discovery of Asia
A Chinese and a Japanese friend in Milan started to talk to me about the major realities of Asian food. I had read about and tasted the few dishes that were available at the time and I realized that they might be new stimuli for a breakthrough and new food in cooking. I soared on angel’s wings through books, in a fabulous world that seemed to be the salvation of cuisine in my opinion. In 1986 I decided to go out and explore it. Thanks to my Japanese friend, I contacted the great Tsuji School, where I could take courses in Japanese and Chinese cooking in exchange for my knowledge of Italian and French cuisine. My contract started a year later, and I took advantage of it to go to China and enroll in a school for foreigners. I landed at the Shanghai airport one rainy autumn day. The cab driver tried to add an extra hundred dollars to my fare to take me into town. The suburbs were barren and squalid with all these men dressed in blue sitting along the roadside or busy trundling carts loaded down with cheap goods. This reality was quite different from the legendary world I had imagined; my first impulse was to escape. Fortunately I stayed and discovered that you must go beyond with appearances. I made some European and American friends who had arrived prior to me and they helped me enter the reality of Shanghai and discover the grandeur of Chinese culture: it was hidden but always right there behind the reality of the moment and at that moment, its evolution was at a standstill.
I immersed myself in that world and learned the language, practiced Tajiquan, studied and ate a great deal. I suddenly realized how Chinese culture and thought are substantially different from European ones. I had attained the goal I had set myself.
Culture and exchanges
A country’s gastronomic culture and recipes are determined by geography and climate, a different approach to life, and the cultural and historical moment which in turn goes through cycles that lead in one direction or another. They also depend on the raw materials which define the basic character and style. Moreover, these are influenced by exchanges, as was the case with spices that came to Europe through the “silk road” and the new vegetables that landed in our kitchens after the discovery of America. Where would Italian cuisine be today without the tomato, the chili pepper or the eggplant? In addition, there is an influence that derives from the cultural stimulation of protagonists such as Marco Polo. His account The Travels of Marco Polo brought new knowledge of a little known world. It is interesting to note how certain ingredients change the very characteristics of a cuisine after they are assimilated. This had already happened with the tomato and this is happening today for example, with fresh ginger. This is now found in many dishes in restaurants and it will end up being part of home cooking. It is interesting also to see how the same ingredients lead to similar results: they make pasta with wheat flour in China the same way they do in Italy. Chili peppers are fermented with beans in South America to round out the chili’s taste much the same way they are fermented with soy in China to obtain a hot pepper paste that is quite similar, even if no one has ever transmitted this information. We are living in a time of great cultural exchange, encouraged by the frequency of travel and easier communication that takes place through the television and Internet, accelerating the tempo. These exchanges are quickly changing the way of eating in both Asia and Europe.
Today I communicate in real time with my chef friend in Japan, go down the street, and have a dish of steamed ravioli. This cultural exchange is stimulating and inevitable. Beneficial ingredients such as the potato, which staved off famine in Europe, or interesting ones, like hot peppers, remain and become part of local cultures, while the ones which don’t meet these parameters, slip away. The new ingredient (or new way of fixing it) is adapted and changed. Think for example about “tempura:” the Portuguese brought this to Japan where it has attained the highest level of refinement, but it bears little resemblance to the original recipe these days. Another example is also the approach to tea, which is drunk differently in every country. In Japan it steeps just a bit (one minute in spring water at 90 degrees Celsius); in Tibet it is dressed with Yak fat; in the Middle East it is mixed with mint and a great deal of sugar. Instead in England it is steeped for a long time and served with milk and sugar. Given the Chinese love for the transformation and the vastness of culture, they use all of these ways except for the addition of milk, which they do not much care for in China. So, the exchange does not just concern the food but also the techniques. If a procedure is more effective it is certainly adopted: pasta Italian style, Japanese style filet of fish, meat cooked Chinese style, sauces prepared in the French manner, spices used in the Indian manner, and rice cooked Persian style. Knowing all of this is extraordinary.
There is however another aspect to exchanges in this historic moment. The information we receive at a dizzying rhythm, is often fragmentary, distorted and confusing. Right now historically, it is important to assert and focus on the unchangeable values of what is true (real) and good (quality). The progression in this text belongs to another era and culture, and it bears witness to the stability of what I think are the main principals of quality in cuisine. This book is an historic search on and cultural investigation into food, with recipes for dishes that reveal a fascinating and unusual history and a special historic moment.
The near future
I believe that we will see major changes in the near future that will forge the culture and customs of the century to come. Ingredients will become quite varied: cultural barriers are being lowered while territorial limitations that are ever more highly defined, are being maintained. There will be a renewed approach to nature, no longer seen as something to combat and bend to our will as was the case during the industrialization of town and country (which I feel was useless and destructive). Instead, the approach will be to understand and adapt to nature, giving it back its role of mother. There will be a new appreciation for knowledge of the self and knowledge in general as opposed to appearances and superficiality: the union between form and content shall be obtained by giving value to the “substance” of your own life and by the accumulating material goods.
The role that was previously only male is being mixed today with the increasingly feminine with the assertion of new values and a new balance to strike. Last but not least, the opening of the great Chinese and Indian markets will change the balance and will force us even more to focus on quality and not on quantity: we will never be competitive in the area of quantity again. My intent with this book is to register this important historic moment and compare it with an era past (the era of Yuan Mei) as the point of departure for a future turning point. I will unite my theoretical and my practical knowledge.
It is interesting to observe how rules that define what is good and beautiful (refinement) are similar in different eras and cultures. Here, the comparison will be between the Chinese and the European world. Wherever there is a search for refinement you always end up establishing the same parameters for quality: raw materials, careful cooking, studied combinations, and so on. History then continues to change in cycles that come and go, with fascinating evolutions and involutions that are always linked to culture, to the zeitgeist and serenity of the moment, and they are profoundly influenced by religions. Culture is a democratic through elite good which is constructed through theoretical knowledge, by observing reality and yourself, with the practical experience of life.
The culture of food starts from the same suppositions; the practical experience in cooking and tasting is the fundamental supposition. Great chefs combine theoretical and practical knowledge, and their own self-knowledge, which expresses them as individuals. Then, they place them in the reality of the world where they live.
The pleasure of dining and the relationship with Nature
The rite of the dining is stimulated by the five senses, whose ranking varies in different cultures. As we shall see further along, the order in Japan, for example is: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. In Europe and America, it is taste and smell, followed by sight and texture, and finally sound. In China it is smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound.
When comparing the different cultures, you realize how the Chinese approach to food (and how it ranks the stimulation of the senses) and pleasure are quite concrete. Using smell, you immediately perceive food and its essence, you intuit its quality and taste. Taste and smell are linked to memory; sometimes a taste and a smell take us back as if by magic, to a time we have already lived in the past, and let us relive it. Texture comes second. By biting and chewing, rolling the food around our mouths and sucking, we have a direct and primary contact with the food. We enter into contact with its essence and take possession of it. In this historical moment in Europe and America, the relationship with food is more detached; for example, we prefer taste to texture, and rank taste before the direct contact with texture when trying food. The basic taste of Chinese cuisine is salty and sweet and symbolically it reproduces the taste of blood. I associate this with food’s vital essence. Furthermore, you can place greater emphasis on texture as the real protagonist against the matrix of a more uniform taste. Consequently, if dishes in Europe play off an infinite variety of subtle changes in taste, in China they play off a great variety of natural textures.
Today in China, the relationship with death is still experienced naturally. In Chinese markets, the moment of passing over is experienced live: the hen is killed in front of the client; animals are chosen alive and not yet packaged in aseptic polystyrene trays. Some people even take the liver out of a freshly killed serpent, and dissolve it in Chinese wine; it appears to be a terrific aphrodisiac. This violent approach is not shared by Yuan Mei nor by me, nor by most of the Chinese people. Their relationship with nature does not exclude death, but requires respect. The rite of Chinese cuisine recalls that of our agrarian society in my grandmother’s day, when you went into the chicken coop, picked out a bird, killed it, plucked it, gutted it, and cooked it. Today instead, our relationship with death linked to food is more distant. We prefer to buy a packaged chicken, and often ignore its real origins, but mainly we do not take on the issue of its death. This also means distance from the reality of the facts. Whenever we eat meat, somehow, somewhere, an animal died for us, and this places us even further from the knowing the quality of the product.
As I mentioned earlier, our relationship with nature and respecting the person who cultivates it is undergoing reconsideration. Even the life and death of animals, which can be accepted or rejected in creating our diet, is undergoing reconsideration. I, for one, stopped eating meat. Another interesting fact comes out of this. Cuisine lives through cycles that come and go. The parameters that determine pleasure and pursuing it are linked to the moment experienced.
The sense of individuality
All individuals are responsible for their own actions and growth. We will be comparing ourselves with our similars and this will help us get to know ourselves.
The intention is to understand ourselves so we can better understand others, other people who have our same weaknesses and doubts. Having the possibility to choose and knowing how to do it are great opportunities which are the real basis of individual freedom. Knowledge is the vehicle; deciding on and taking a position let us be authentic and grow. Preventing others from knowing something and trying to impose our own choices, limits growth and individual liberties.
Each person’s taste thus must be the result of an individual path. This is the only way it can become the intersection of knowledge of the self thanks to information, and learning, whose purpose must be the acquisition of the tools needed to make choices. The same way, the investigation performed by the artist is individual and its purpose is self-knowledge. Each new operation is a step forward in your own search, which should be communicated and shared with others.