la pergola
Beck’s famous carbonara-stuffed pasta, a concept widely copied in Rome.

Italy’s tastemakers reacted to a recent political gaffe with a conference at Eataly Roma today. The nation’s top chefs met with Italy’s Culture and Tourism Minister Massimo Bray to talk about the challenges they face and to seek government intervention in promoting their industry. The talk was less about confronting the challenges of promoting good food than the challenges of promoting good food for rich people. But more on that later.

The drama started last month when Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, an undersecretary of the culture ministry, proclaimed, “Unfortunately, in Italy, we haven’t been able to eat well for a long time. We are eager to follow trends or to copy the French and in the process we have distanced ourselves from our concept of cuisine.” She also expressed “a negative judgment of the skill of Italian chefs”. I don’t concur with her statements 100%, but I absolutely do not agree with some of the disproportionate responses, which ranged from delusional to self-aggrandizing to misogynist.

Italy does not have a culture of public food criticism. We know this. Consequently, Borletti Buitoni caused all hell to break loose in Italy’s food (snob) community. Insults flew, vitriolic blog posts were written and there was a collective pity party. Ilaria Borletti Buitoni’s words where like fine Sicilian sea salt massaged into the wounds of so many damaged egos.

But was she categorically wrong as gastronomic insiders and top chefs argued? Yes and no. Of course, Italy has a reputation as a gastronomic paradise and this drives its tourism industry and exports. But not everything is as perfect as it seems and it is the job of the culture ministry to obscure that fact, or at least not to cause anyone to lose face!

But the people commenting on the undersecretary’s statement—chef’s at Italy’s poshest restaurants (leaving quality judgments out of it for now)—seem unaware that high-end Italian cuisine is almost completely off the world’s radar. Massimo Bottura is well-known abroad, but (and I think most international food professionals would agree), no one is watching what’s going on here because, for the most part, very little is. Even the Alajamo brothers, who replied with an open letter, aren’t aware that they are a punchline abroad and their restaurant Le Calandre is a picture of everything that is boring, lazy and weird in Italian fine dining.

le calandre laziness on a plate
Le Calandre tests my patience and sanity with the most boring dish in existence.

Ok fine, Italian haute cuisine. You got your feelings hurt. Big deal. Now stop crying. Why are you so special? Why do you deserve undue reverence? You make food for rich people, which isn’t exactly charity last time I checked.

In fact, unless chefs engage in rigorous charitable endeavors to improve access to good food for those less fortunate than their posh patrons, I have a hard time justifying their claim that they have real social utility. There is plenty of precedence for this abroad (Ripert and City Harvest and about a million other examples come to mind) and some of the chefs on today’s panel are known for their charitable endeavors but it is not enough.

To be fair, chefs in Italy do create jobs and promote small quality food producers and farmers. To a small extent they even contribute to culture. This is important stuff. But their reach is incredibly limited. Furthermore, to propagate the notion that the nation’s leading chefs are artists and ambassadors of taste contributing to the overall good of culture (paraphrasing from today’s presentation) is just crazy talk. The basic tasting menu at Alajmo’s Le Calandre is €160. You can’t get out of Beck’s La Pergola for less that €200 a head. And I might add that both meals would be technically flawless but boring as hell. How are either of those experiences culturally relevant to most people in Italy? Europe? The world?

What it boils down to is that in Italy, good, high quality food cultivated or raised in a way that is environmentally responsible, is becoming more and more associated with wealthy consumers and less and less accessible to the masses. Sound familiar? Of course the discussion at Eataly today was an important one, but it should not be the only one. And of course great chefs and the Italian government should be part of the conversation, but promoting a good food culture requires the participation of consumers and producers at every socio-economic level.

Until a group effort is forged, there is no hope for real change.

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So who was at Eataly today and what did they have to say? Minister Massimo Bray was in the house and he was joined by Oscar Farinetti of Eataly, Paolo Marchi of Identità Golose, Federico Quaranta of Decanter Radio2, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, Davide Scabin of Combal Zero, Heinz Beck of La Pergola,
Cristina Bowerman of Glass & Romeo, Pino Cuttaia of La Madia, Gennaro Esposito of La Torre del Saracino, Giancarlo Perbellini of Ristorante Perbellini, Claudio Sadler of Ristorante Sadler, Moreno Cedroni of the La Madonnina Del Pescatore and Raffaele Alajmo of Le Calandre.

Salvatore Tassa, who, in an unrelated note I associate with arugula because he used it ad nauseum in the tasting menu at his restaurant Colline Ciocare on my last visit said, “We will keep working hard but the government needs to give us infrastructure, starting with roads without potholes.” Common sense from a chef who had an address on his restaurant website directing visitors to the neighboring town.

Cristina Bowerman, one of the few chefs on the panel who travels, I might add: “This sector needs to be preserved not only for its cultural value but for its economic role. Tourists come to Italy to eat.” And “Italian law is an obstacle and doesn’t make sense for all the various forms of food service.”

Minister Bray: “Why can’t museum cafes be the calling card for tourists?” It would be amazing if the food, beverages and service at museum cafes were on point. But I imagine improving them from their current squalid state would require changing out the private companies that provide these services currently. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Massimo Bottura, the chef on the panel with the most international relevance said, “We need to coordinate agriculture, culture, tourism and training. We need a project on a national scale.” He then revealed a universal truth: “A happy farmer will give you an extraordinary product.”

Heinz Beck, a German and Rome’s most famous chef, shared, “It is easier to find an Italian server for my restaurants abroad than it is in Italy.” Echoing a sentiment chefs in Italy share with me on a fairly regular basis, “The problem is you get kitchen staff that wants to skip apprenticeship and immediately wants to be a cook,” and “another problem is the cost of labor in Italy. In London the same net salary in Italy costs me 30% less.”

Gennaro Esposito: “We need to become a creative country again. For my next food festival in Vico I would like chefs to cook in homes,” followed by, “What we need to do is bring our form of cooking to the people. We are simple people who happen to cook.” The tasting menus at Esposito’s La Torre del Saraceno start at €100. Simple.

Roberto Alajmo, who is partially responsible for my most expensive and disappointing meal of 2012, claimed, “If we draw more tourists many of these issues will solve themselves.” What?

Farinetti declared “Italy needs to focus on its amazing biodiversity.” No argument there. But like the rest of today’s statements, good ideas need solid plans.