Italy is famous for it’s good food. I’ve been there, and from the smallest Osteria to the busiest Trattoria, if your food is not up to scratch you won’t stay open for long.
Silvestro Silvestori is someone passionate about Italian food and wine, he is also the Owner and Director of The Awaiting Table, a cookery school in Lecce, one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of Southern Italy.
We spoke to the man living ‘La Dolce Vita’…
Have you always been passionate about food?
I always worked in some part of the food industry while growing up and studying, from cutting meat to decorating wedding cakes, as a baker, making wine, etc. I picked apples for a living, artichokes.
I have an academic background, rich in the humanities, which I started aiming at the understanding of food, wine and the roles of culture and history, from a very early age. Even when most boys my age were playing sports and watching science fiction. It’s not an interest, it’s who I am as a person.
I think, if I have anything fresh to say, that it’s because of this background, which is atypical: academics study but rarely ‘do’. Those that work in the food industry rarely ‘study’. And I think this difference is even harder to understand today, as we are the weird phase of the ‘celebrity chef’, which are really more camera-ready personalities than academics or working chefs.
Doubt it? Talk to a real working chef about the ‘spice trade‘, or ‘malolactic fermentation‘, or the ‘history of the fork‘.
Or talk to a history professor about how, exactly, the Romans salted their fish for preservation and how it’s different today. It’s always been at the nexus that interests me most, of practice steeped in history, culture and a pragmatic understanding. Understanding one without the other, and you can get a job. Understand both and you have a career on your hands.
How long have you been running the Cookery School?
The Awaiting Table Cookery School is now its 8th year. I graduated as a Sommelier under the national system last March, and we debut our wine programme in October.
What is so special about Italian Food?
First of all, let’s restructure this question, of ‘what is special about Italian food’. There is nothing national about food inside of Italy and virtually nothing is agreed about universally, up and down the peninsula.
About the only thing you can say for certain, is that there is a tendency for food to be ingredient-driven: find good stuff and then don’t screw it up (compare this with chains of ‘Italian’ restaurants outside of Italy, who most often start with mediocre ingredients and then try to put an ‘Italian’ spin on them.)
Figuring out when that fig tree in the backyard is going to give the best fruit and then working those fruits into your diet for the height of the season is the spirit of food in Italy. Know someone whose chickens lay good eggs, with a high turn over and stopping by his place on the way home from the market.
Limiting the culinary attention span to fewer dishes, but better rendered, this is the way the mind works here. And it’s why it’s really hard to export.
What do your students learn at the school?
Yes, students learn basic cookery skills, but rather than studying them, say, in a cold didactic method, they learn them in applied manner while cooking the regional cookery of the Southern Part of Puglia, the Salento, which is my region.
So rather than lecturing on the anatomy of a shellfish, we discuss it, then head to the market, buy them, then cut into one, turning the little buggers into a great fish soup for lunch.
That all of this happens in my home, re-enforces the peer-to-peer learning of it all, easing the students into a real understanding, as applied in a actual home kitchen.
If you could pick the perfect meal, what would you eat?
‘The Perfect Meal’ is the one that hasn’t happened yet, the next one. I’m always thinking about food. And, nowadays, wine too.
I think the thing that those outside of the food industry never grasp is how most cooks and sommeliers really most enjoy SIMPLE food, just done well. I roast a whole chicken or two a few times a week. I eat a lot of vegetable soup with a good shot of really good and bitter extra virgin that I make locally each year. I eat a lot of boiled chicory.
I’ve eaten in only one 3-star Michelin restaurant over the years. It was excellent, but to be honest with myself and you the reader, I remember it most because it cost me 1400 Euro for two. Plus the airfare up to Paris just for the night of my then-girlfriend’s 30th birthday.
The horse meat sandwiches served near my place in the summer nights, served with a couple of cold beers and warm friends satisfies me more though, just like you probably wear your old slippers more than your new dress shoes, when it’s just you home alone.
Good wine is made all over the world nowadays and never have consumers had such great, high quality options. It’s dazzling and unequalled in human history. My favourites though, come from here. Try a Salice Salentino. Try a Nero di Troia. An Aglianico del vulture. A primitivo from Gioia del Colle.
A salty Sicilian white with a fish dish. Someone is already importing great Italian wine into some place near you.
Ask, “What do you have from Southern Italy?”, and then go from there, rather than trying to find the wines we serve at our cooking school.
Further, pick up a book on the skills of tasting. In my opinion, unless you can pin a concrete noun to a flavour, you’re not really tasting, not yet. You know you’re really a wine lover when you begin to think of concrete terms.
Thinking that you like a wine because ‘it tastes like pears’, isn’t all that interesting. But consider which type of pear, how ripe is it, is it cooked pears or raw pears? That is when wine becomes one of the most interesting passions on earth.
Further, I’d argue that I’m a better PERSON now that I’ve really studied wine. I listen more to others now, really listening, rather than just waiting to speak. I can articulate why a film was worth seeing or not. I enjoy my food more and can tell you why. I enjoy intimacy more, more aware of smells, tastes, textures and shapes.
It’s a training that I can’t recommend enough. I’ve now graduated from university three times but it’s the wine training that really improved the quality of quotidian life.
You have some beautiful photos on your website, any tips on taking photos?
When it comes to photography, the digital age has made it really easy to take technically-perfect pictures. What it doesn’t do is help you take interesting pictures. The first thing is consider the ‘snapshot’, or ‘tourist picture’ and how to avoid that. If everyone is taking pictures from the same spot, move. If it’s easier and more comfortable to take a picture from eye-level, don’t.
Mediocre pictures have heads in the dead centre of the frame. Don’t do that. If you physically take your pictures just like everyone else does, it’s going to look like it. And lastly, overspend for a good basic lens. It’s what you’re going to use most of the time (a ‘basic’ lens is similar to what the naked eye perceives).
What makes a picture ‘good’ goes across national borders. Study good pictures for a few seconds when you see one and try to recreate that structure in your viewfinder. Sure, take pictures of your child’s face, but think, how would Cartier-Bresson have done it?
My guess is not a bigger, better and badder lens, it’s composition.
It’s lighting. It’s making every picture you take really having something interesting and beautiful to say.
One last thought, when it comes time to plan your next holiday here in Italy, really, really do your research and go someplace new. Millions of people line up each year in front of the same buildings, walking the same streets, meanwhile, two towns over, real people are having real experiences, not dumbed down for the masses.
You have limited time and probably too, money, so open a book and rent the DVD and arrive prepared.The better parts of Italy don’t have turnstiles.
Many thanks to Silvestro for his advice. His courses are excellent, and the perfect way to immerse yourself in the Italian philosophies of Food, Wine and maybe even life itself.
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