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Italy's top chefs

Last month, Gambero Rosso, the prestigious reviewer of restaurants and wine, sought out Rome's best carbonara, a dish of pasta, eggs, pecorino cheese and guanciale (which is cured pig cheek; pancetta, for aficionados, is not done) that defines tradition here.

In second place was L'Arcangelo, a restaurant with an Indian head chef. The winner: Antico Forno Roscioli, a bakery and innovative restaurant whose chef, Nabil Hadj Hassen, arrived from Tunisia at 17 and washed dishes for a year and a half before he cooked his first pot of pasta.

"To cook is a passion," said Hassen, now 43, who went on to train with some of Italy's top chefs. "Food is a beautiful thing."

Spoken like an Italian. But while the world learned about pasta and pizza from poor Italian immigrants, now it is foreigners, many of them also poor, who make some of the best Italian food in Italy (as well as some of the worst and everything between).

With Italians increasingly shunning sweaty and underpaid kitchen work, it can be hard now to find a restaurant where at least one foreigner does not wash dishes, help in the kitchen or, as is often the case, actually cook. Egyptians have done well as pizza makers, but restaurant kitchens are now a snapshot of Italy's relatively recent immigrant experience, with Moroccans, Tunisians, Romanians and Bangladeshis all doing the work.

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The fact itself may not be surprising: On one level, restaurants in Italy, a country that even into the 1970s exported more workers than it brought in, now more closely mirror immigrant-staffed kitchens in much of Europe.

But Italians take their food very seriously, not just as nourishment and pleasure but as a chief component of national and regional identity. And so any change is not taken lightly here, especially when the questions it raises are uncomfortable: Will Italy's food change - and if so, for the worse or, even more disconcerting, for the better? Most Italian food is defined by its good ingredients and simple preparation, but does it become less distinct - or less Italian - if anyone can prepare it to restaurant standards? Does that come at some cost to national pride?

"If he is an Egyptian cook, nothing changes - nothing," said Francesco Sabatini, 75, co-owner of Sabatini in Trastevere, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Rome. His restaurant is considered one of the city's most conservative, serving classic Roman dishes like oxtail, yet 7 of his 10 cooks are not Italian.

For Sabatini, the issue is not who cooks but the training - his chefs apprentice for five years - and keeping alive Italy's culinary traditions, which he defines as "the flavors of your mother's kitchen."

"That's why I'm here," he said. "If not, I'd just go to the beach."

But in a debate likely to grow in the coming years, others argue that foreign chefs can mimic Italian food but not really understand it.

"Tradition is needed to go forward with Italian youngsters, not foreigners," said Loriana Bianchi, co-owner of La Canonica, a restaurant also in Trastevere, which employs several Bangladeshis, though she does the cooking. "It's not racism, but culture."

While much of Italy's best food is prepared at home, Bianchi despairs at the difficulty of finding people to do the same in restaurants. (There is even a greater shortage, experts say, of Italian waiters.) "It's tiring, and the hours are very long," she said.

But it has been an undeniable boon to Italy's new immigrants.

Twelve years ago, Abu Markhyyeh, a young Jordanian, finished an apprenticeship with a Neapolitan pizza maker, borrowed money from his Italian mother-in-law, then opened his own pizzeria in Milan, Da Willy, after his nickname here.

He did well, in part because he made the pizzas bigger but kept the prices low. Now Markhyyeh, 41, presides over an untraditional pizza empire. He has 11 restaurants in Milan, four in Jordan, two in Cyprus and franchises in Dubai; Beirut; Sharm el Sheik, Egypt; and now in Shanghai.

Despite this success - and thousands of loyal Italian customers - he said he never felt fully accepted. "Italians say they aren't racist, but then they say to me that in Milan I have found America," he said, referring to a slightly insulting expression for finding success without really working for it. "It makes me feel lousy."

Qunfeng Zhu, 30, a Chinese immigrant who opened a coffee bar in Rome's center, has had a similar experience even though he makes an authentic espresso in a classic Italian atmosphere (overlooking a few bottles of Chinese liquor).

"Some people come in, see we are Chinese and go away," he said.

But in the last few years, he said, that happens less frequently, one sign that Italy is opening up - if slowly - to other kinds of food. Twenty years ago it was hard to find anything beyond the odd Chinese restaurant. Now the choices are broader, especially for Asian food like Japanese or Indian.

"We live in a globalized society - there are so many people represented in our city," said Maria Coscia, the commissioner of Rome's public schools. So much so that last year the city began a program of serving a meal from different countries once a month. But many parents complained loudly.

"The first time we did it, the menu was Bangladeshi," she said. "That was a problem."

As a result of the complaints, the program was tweaked slightly and now at least one dish in four on those days - even grade-school students eat well in Italy - will remain Italian. Now the program is largely accepted, though its Web site includes this reminder for those still wary, "In the total of the 210 school days, when lunches are served, only 8 days are dedicated to the menus from other countries."

With this mixing of cultures only in its early days, there seems to be no major shift in Italian cuisine, even if foreigners are doing the cooking more and more often. Unlike in France, where foreign flavors have blended well over time with native ones, attempts here at some fusion of Italian and other cuisines have not caught on. There is, as yet, no equivalent to curry in Britain.

Still, there seems to be some leakage. Food experts say that foreign chefs, here and there, add spices not often used in Italy, like coriander and cumin. Couscous and vanilla are no longer novelties.

But there is a question as to whether these changes, so far subtle, are happening as a conscious effort to be creative, or simply reflect that foreign chefs are reverting to the flavors they know from home.

Pierluigi Roscioli, a member of the family that runs the restaurant that won the best-carbonara award, said there was a risk that tradition would slowly erode if Italian chefs did note oversee those foreign ones who have had less training.

"Without supervision, they tend to drift toward what is in their DNA," Roscioli said. "When it's by choice, it's great, but not when it happens because someone isn't paying attention."

Given the current pace of change, he and other experts estimate that cooks in low- to middle-level restaurants in Italy may be almost entirely non-Italian within a decade. But this trend coincides with another, in which Italians are showing a rejuvenated interest in the best of their own food, as shown by the popularity of groups like Gambero Rosso, which publishes a magazine and books reviewing wine and restaurants, and the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes fresh and local products.

Four years ago, the International School of Italian Cooking opened in Parma, arguably Italy's best food city, and is attracting a new generation of Italian chefs more interested in high-end cooking than the home-style cooking in local restaurants that has made Italian food popular around the world.

Its executive manager, Andrea Sinigaglia, said it was possible that Italian restaurants would soon divide into two camps, with elite restaurants staffed by Italian chefs and trattorias and restaurants aimed more at tourists run by foreign chefs.

But with Italy changing, he said, its food will inevitably change, too, though his school is partly aimed at keeping the basics - local products, fresh ingredients, simplicity in preparation - intact.

"We cannot defend a recipe," he said. "We cannot stop progress. We can indicate, pinpoint, what are the real important things. And the rest is creativity."


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