Tradition is a successful innovation (Oscar Wilde)

When my cousin and I opened Toscana Saporita almost three decades ago, our ultimate pursuit was to educate people to Italian cooking. Authentic, traditional and ancient Italian food. It was a family affair, where stories, people, recipes and food were shared with our students. The atmosphere was (and still is) very friendly, so was (and is) the approach to food. The biggest debate between Anne and I was that she wanted to please our clients who were not used to rustic, peasant style dishes while I wanted to be 100% traditional and history oriented. She would stick a strawberry here and there even if they were not in season and I would eat it right before serving the dish to our students, upsetting her. “You are way too radical! You need to compromise.”This was her favorite remark. “You know I will never compromise. They come here for real Tuscan and Italian food, and that’s what they will get. There are no excuses”  Have you seen Big Night, the movie? Well, the story and its interpreters are very close to what Anne and I were.In 1989 a wall fell, ending one age. In 2001 two towers were thrown down, that was the dawning of a different one. What happened in between?The 90’s were the years where chefs were trying to surprise and also shock crowds of forketteers around the world. Foams, liquid nitrogen, smoke…the molecular cuisine was rising above the horizon and people were wowed and intrigued by it. Sitting on her bed, Anne and I used to watch the food channel every night, live or recorded, devouring each episode no matter who the chef was. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Jaques Pepin, Bobby Flay, Jaques Torres…name one. It was great to see all those decadent dishes coming to life and following each step of the making. It was great to see what chefs had to put up in order to be remembered and adored: Bam! Roller skates! Anything for success. Chefs were real stars. In Italy there was nothing like this at that time. What a great program. We both loved it to death. Restaurants were doing great as there was a positive and good competition among the chefs and as a result, the food was terrific in NYC. There was joy and challenge and a benign rivalry in every restaurant kitchen. Same at home. That contributed to make the food just great. Evidently that was not enough. I kind of understand that. After a while, what looked great, suddenly became old and boring. New recipes, new twists and takes, new exotic ingredients. Fusion!  Then finally science and physics took the place of what once was my idea of cooking. What are chefs looking for? What is that makes them so bored? I remember my first students back in 1994 avoiding the freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil because it was murky and thick, on top of being super green. “That is too fattening. Don’t you have extra virgin light?” How do you educate people to what is good versus not good without hurting their feelings? Or hurting your own feelings like if you were being insulted? Yes, because a statement like that would offend an Italian who is in good faith, presenting what for us is liquid gold, actually better: the cream of the crop. At the same time, reacting to that same statement with a condescending expression on the face would be worse than judging who is in front of you. In the end, also they are in good faith as that is what is publicized in their country. We are both right in the end. Or better, we are both in good faith. Sensibility and sensitivity are the key. Time went by and people were more into food. No more statements like that. Foodies were was fascinating to see how fast everything was evolving, how fast ideas were moving. Research, techniques… All very interesting but where will we go? My security blanked was tearing apart. If we do not know where we come from, how can we move forward? Stubborn and narrow minded, you may say. Maybe you are right, I do not deny that. Tiramisu was the dessert that took the 80’s by storm. If you wanted an Italian dessert, that was the dessert in those days. It was presented in different shapes and in different flavors. Ferrara bakery and Café (195 Grand Street, NYC) was just two minutes away from our apt. Ferrara opened in 1892 and introduced Italian pastry to Manhattan, spreading the news directly from Little Italy. Their highlights were sfogliatelle, lobster tails and cannoli. For years long lines of clients asked for just that. The real Sicilian and Neapolitan souls. Then tiramisu showed up. Veniero’s, Rocco, La bella Ferrara were the places we would buy pastries with zia Maria. They all had Tiramisu. Tiramisu was served in every good restaurant, just like now you find panna cotta. Tiramisu was the trend, or, like I prefer to call it it…it was a sign of that time. Every age has had its own desserts. In 1973 Dieter Schorner, a real God in pastry, introduced crème brulee when he worked as pastry chef at Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque. Dieter has been my mentor and a very good friend. The moment he launched his classic French crème brulee will remain written in the stars. In less than a year, crème brulee was served everywhere in the US. It crossed every and each border. All these desserts have a history, their own voice. They belong somewhere and they were created in a precise moment in the history. This is what I love about tradition. You pass it. Tradition, from the latin verb tradere (to pass, to hand over, to consign) Passing a tradition is a huge responsibility. Millennia ago, people used to pass their traditions by telling tales and stories. Eventually, later on, they put them into words. So much has been lost in the past, like words in the wind. Passing a tradition should be a neutral thing. No personal intervention or additions. Just pass what was passed to you. By doing this, we pass our past, our culture, our roots. This is why the history part in the recipes I teach is so important. This is why I talk so much about each recipe. Because it’s not just a recipe what I am teaching you. It is my grandmother making it, and her mother and grandmother before her. While I teach one recipe, I am transported back to when the dish was created, how it was created and what was behind it. Wars, richness, religion, poverty, frugality, lack of ingredients as we know them today. We call it L’arte dell’arrangiarsi or if you prefer, the art of making it work. Tradition means surviving death. Your legacy will survive after you through a cake, a simple soup, or a special meal prepared for the holidays. Tradition is hope. I will die but someone will cook my recipes, making me kind of immortal. Is this a new tactic to cheat death? LOL, Yes! Everytime I teach Onion soup by Leonardo da Vinci, I can see him smiling. When we make Peposo (a special meat and wine stew that dates back to 1300) I can see the tile makers in Florence cooking it in their ovens where they had previously “cooked” the tiles used for the Cupola del Brunelleschi. Do you understand why tradition needs to be passed and have a voice? This was and still is my mission at the school. Every recipe has its own voice. “So you do not allow any fusion or Michelin starred recipes in your kitchen?” I sure do. But we explain the dish. We explain where it comes from, whose idea was it. This starts the new tradition. What we are cooking or creating today, will be tradition tomorrow. Do not forget the voice behind each recipe. Write down what was cooked in your family. Remember it. Pass it. That is your legacy. Tradition is the real innovation.

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