Friday, February 13, 2009

Cooking with Benedetta Vitali

Cooking with Benedetta Vitali is like being informally initiated into a fraternity of impressive, regional Italian cooks, all openly bestowing their vast food knowledge on you via one expert chef.

The only requirement to be a member of the secret Italian food society and to enter into its revered kitchen is a willingness to learn.

Vitali does not believe in “secret” recipes and invites all who share in her passion for good food to prepare classical Italian dishes beside her. She has been making foodies, professional chefs and the average person like me part of the menu at her restaurant Zibibbo for over six years.

Like her “lessons” she is hands-on when it comes to running her restaurant and deciding on the day’s dishes. She visits San Lorenzo Market every morning, buying foods that are in their seasonal prime. The first time I met her, she was walking into her restaurant carrying fresh local tuna.

“We do not keep any of our food frozen … our menu changes everyday depending on what is fresh and at the market,” she said.

Her philosophy of using seasonal ingredients when nature intended them to be eaten is strewn into the menu and passed onto those who cook with her.

I spent the morning and good part of the afternoon on February 4, observing her pass on that philosophy to Jeanette Lykke Kristiansen Gulley, professional chef trained at the French Culinary Institute located in Soho, New York and now a private chef for guests aboard their own yachts.

Her method of cooking is “the right way to cook, because she cooks what is in season, it’s the right way of eating,” said Gulley.

The kitchen has a window that faces the formal dinning room, allowing guests a peek at the restaurants operations. It is here, that Vitali explains how to test a gnocchi for elasticity so that are light and airy when cooked, tells which is in her opinion the best anchovy paste — Balena — and how to eyeball cardoons for greenness when ensuring they are properly cooked.

Rated as one of the best restaurants in Florence by Michelin and L’Espresso, Zibibbo’s reputation as an “elegant, yet comfortable” atmosphere extends in the kitchen.

“It’s a hard job, you work all day in a small kitchen,” she said.

She sees no point in making an already difficult job, more difficult. She sets a serious yet relaxed tone when she is sharing cooking techniques with others.

Gulley was delighted to hear the kitchen staff chattering while they busily prepared for the lunch crowd.

“It makes me feel like I am in my mother’s kitchen,” she commented on the vibe of the kitchen and Vitali’s method of teaching.

Around 11 a.m. Vitali insisted everyone take a coffee break. No task goes without a bit of history and knowledge. She encouraged Gulley to make cappuccino and espresso, giving her tips on how to work the elaborate espresso machine.

They exchanged opinions about how to sugar coffee. Vitali spoke about how Romans place sugar inside the Moka machine, recounting an experience she had while spending time teaching in the ancient city.

I find her willingness to happily allow eager hands prepare the traditional Southern and Tuscan recipes that her restaurant serves unique, because Vitali is a renowned chef, author and a celebrity in her own right, often appearing on local T.V.

Communicating the knowledge of food through the senses of touch, taste and vision, Vitali gives a part of herself when she teaches others how to cook.

“It's like a love. Like transferring a love,” she said.

Learn more about cooking courses with Benedetta Vitali at Zibibbo's Web site and through EUROPASS.

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