/Culture Clash: Italian Chefs and Society

Culture Clash: Italian Chefs and Society

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.

2017-02-17T15:16:44+00:00 June 10th, 2013|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Gastronomic Traditions, Rome & Lazio|8 Comments


  1. Rick June 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    This entire “controversy” seems a bit odd, if not self-defeating to me. As you mentioned, “Italy has a reputation as a gastronomic paradise and this drives its tourism industry and exports.” Yes, this is most certainly true, and as you further alluded to, people (both tourists and residents)search for the quaint trattorie or the local salumi and not to be “Wowed” by a chef’s self-proclaimed creativity in what are often misguided efforts to re-work traditional recipes. Haute cuisine has its place, even in Italy, I suppose. But from both a cultural and economic standpoint, regionally faithful restaurants, trattorie, and artisinal producers are what maintains Italy’s prominence in the culinary world.

  2. Fysh June 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    Somewhat on topic: When I go to Italy, I look forward to shopping at the local mercati, local trattorie, and places that are recommended by blogs such as yours.

    In all our travels to Italy, we’ve tried everything high end and low end.. and I must say that aside from Osteria Francescana, all of the higher end experiences (the worst was Combal Zero – only saved by the spectacular fassone dish – which, ironically, was the most traditional preparation on the tasting menu we tried) were *very* underwhelming. So bad, that we avoid any place that is considered high end/super expensive/lavish, for fear of paying out the nose for food that has been fussed over too much (but not in a good way, a la Heston).

    If I want spheres, gels, liquid nitrogen, foam, and all that jazz, I know that Italy isn’t where I should have these techniques. Instead, I go to Italy for tradition, regionality, to learn about food history, etc

    Slightly off topic: there have only been a handful of bakeries in our travels to Italy, that have been really fantastic. I can remember them all:

    Pasticceria Veneto – Brescia
    Roscioli – Rome
    Andreotti – Rome
    .. and this one place in Genoa.. name escapes me now, but it was a Swiss influences bakery, go figure.

    Again, this is something that I don’t go to Italy for. Pastries I enjoy the most from France. But this is maybe just a personal preference (I tend to favour butter and flour over cornmeal, margarine, oil based pastries)

  3. Fysh June 10, 2013 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    I highly agree with this:
    “The least expensive 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.”

    Some of the high end meals (dal Pescatore, Aimo e Nadia, come to mind) were fine, but they were yes, boring as hell. Again, if I want something in the high end price range, I leave it for France, Spain, New York, etc

  4. Alice Kiandra June 11, 2013 at 12:19 am - Reply

    I think the point is that Italy could get so much more out of its food industry if the bar was raised in so many areas. the really good experiences are as you and so many others say, the fresh produce, the simple trattoria, the pizza bianca straight out of the oven. but at both the high end (boring) and the places like Museum cafes Italy is sometimes so far off the mark and they are missing out on better tourist dollars and a better local economy as well.

  5. adrian reynolds June 11, 2013 at 2:10 am - Reply

    Great and thoughtful piece Katie. Regarding Massimo Bottura, he says all the right things but the fact is he is more focused on conferences and ideas and being an international superstar and keeping Francescana on autopilot while he jetsets. He’s rarely in Modena anymore.

  6. Allan Shewchuk June 13, 2013 at 7:40 am - Reply

    Katie- for all the years I have been coming to Italy the high end stuff has always disappointed. it is the small, mamma in the back places in the Garfagnana, Avellino, and other out of the way towns that are so exciting. Good that you are so articulate about the problem, but, with the little gems, Italy IS a place to travel to for food. I love your blog, doll. Dont stop rattling windows!

  7. Sarah May (@AntiquaTours) June 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    thank you for taking the time to write this and keep us informed

  8. s July 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Really well-written piece, as always, Katie. I agree with what you are saying – for haute-cuisine, Italy is not the place to travel to. Nothing really innovative going on there in the kitchen…but for me it will be always be a great food destination for the simple food pleasures in life. Having said that, I do appreciate the crux of your post, though – you are spot on, as always. As your other reader said, “keep rattling windows, Katie” – because you’re the best x

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