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I always try to stay true to the child in me

Alessandro the Chef

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I grew up in southern Italy, in a house where food was something you prepared at home, with your own hands. We made our own bread, our own pasta, we bottled our own tomato sauce and passata di pomodoro. My dad even used to make salami and other preserved pork specialities. He wasn’t a butcher, it was just a hobby of his, and we’d all lend a helping hand. In August, when the tomatoes are ripe, everyone in the family gathered around the kitchen table to help sort and process them. My job, when I was little, was to put the basil leaf in the bottle. I can still remember the taste of the pasta al pomodoro we made with the fresh tomato sauce.

For me, these memories go right to the heart of what I think a chef should do. I don’t invent anything, I take my cue from the past. Sure, I add techniques and ideas that I’ve learned along the way, from colleagues and teachers, but in the end my aim is to recreate, for the guests of Passalacqua, the tastes I remember, those old, genuine tastes. So many people who come here have an image of real Italian food, maybe one that comes from films, but they’ve never matched a taste to that image. That’s my job.

Tradition is at the root of this, but you should always hold tradition up to scrutiny, because we know so much more about the science of cooking today. Traditionally, basil is torn up by hand and scattered onto a pizza or a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro. That’s exactly right, because cutting the basil leaves with a knife will oxidize then and make them go black along the cut edge. Traditionally, bread or pizza dough is covered with a linen cloth and put it in a warm place to rise. That’s what my grandmother used to do, that’s the method that is still taught to home bakers in most books and blogs. In this case, tradition can be improved on, because we now know that when they’re encouraged by a warm environment, the enzymes in the yeast rush to break down starch into sugar and ferment it, resulting in bread that is heavy and not easily digestible.

Here at Passalacqua, we put the dough in the fridge at 4°C for around 52 hours, which gives the enzymes plenty of time to do their work. The more work the enzymes do, the less our digestive systems have to do when we eat the bread. But there’s tradition of another kind in all the bread we make here – because the starter is based on a sourdough mother I inherited, which has been kept alive in my family for four generations, since my great-grandmother’s time. So this slow-rise bread is actually more ‘genuine’, in a way, than the standard fast-rise version, because you get more of the sourdough flavor coming through, more of the flavor of the grain in the wheat.

"I always try to stay true to the child in me“

I used to go into my grandmother’s kitchen when I was little and watch her cook. I always try to stay true to the child in me, because curiosity is fundamental for a chef, it stokes your passion and leads you to new discoveries. When I bring an ingredient into my kitchen I want to know where it comes from, how it was born and grew, what it feeds on in its natural state.

If your raw material is truly excellent you’ve done 70% of the work already, the other 30% is technique. For this reason, a big part of a chef’s job is sourcing the very best ingredients. We introduced a dish recently on the dinner menu that pairs scallops with a special purple variety of carrot from Polignano a Mare in Puglia. It took me a while to find someone who could supply me with just the right kind of carrot, with the sweetness I was looking for. I don’t think of these people as suppliers at all, they’re collaborators.

Collaboration is important in the kitchen too. That scallop and carrot dish arose from a conversation with my entrée chef, Ilaria. There’s a roasted quail and seared lobster dish on the dinner menu that was inspired by another member of the kitchen brigade whose grandfather was a quail hunter. And just this morning, I was making pasta with Pietro, my sous chef, and Marco, who is in charge of first courses. Passing time in close contact with your team is vital, people open up when they work side by side, it deepens your understanding of them, your empathy. One of the most important qualities of a chef, at least in my opinion, is humility – humility, and respect for others.

When I went to hotel school to study cooking, the first thing our professor taught us was how to roll sheets of pasta out by hand, using a wooden rolling pin. Of course there are machines that do that for you, but every chef should know the basic manual techniques, because everything starts from there. That was how we cooked at home when I was little, and that’s what I try to bring to the guests of Passalacqua: dishes that are handmade, with love and passion.

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