A Chef in Love… with the Table.
My friend Luciano, a chef who runs a restaurant on the island of Elba, talks nostalgically after dinner one night:
“Leaving the table is like leaving a lover. It should be slow. You can continue the pleasure by having a tea or a coffee. You can deepen a conversation. You can relax. I don’t like it when they take all the dishes away too fast. The dinner plates, okay. But the glasses are beautiful, half full, half empty. Rumpled napkins are like rumpled sheets. I like to sit and reflect.”
It is said that without the culinary arts, life would be too crude—especially for the Italians. Yet, food and life are not separate and the Italian life is anything but crude, even with their common references to food and sex.
In Italy, time spent around a table is sacred—if not more so, then certainly on par with religion. The Italians would never consider sitting down roughly without thought. They require that the table be set quite like a stage, it must be prepared for what is to be presented. Therefore, table clothes, cloth napkins, the right glasses for wine and water…it’s all commonplace across the length of the country, whether or not the table is simple or refined. It’s about having a respect for mealtime, a chance to be civilized in the midst of everyday life.
I have always accepted this and appreciated it when I am in Europe, but when at home in Colorado… I tend to get lazy.
Afterall, I am American. We are the land of the free; free to eat any way we want, when we want, where we want. Generally speaking, we have no regard for the mealtime ritual unless we are having guests. Sorry, but setting the table every meal is just not a part of our ‘way’, much less sitting down to the table twice a day.
”A meal is to be enjoyed, not taken away. A coffee is to be savored, not sipped on the run in a container the size of an urn.”
Luciano Casini, a well-known chef and actor who is almost 70 and his companion, Manuela, came home with me from Italy one November. They had never flown before. Otherwise confident and secure, Luciano didn’t shut his eyes once the entire flight. He ate, he drank, he took a pill. It was almost too much to ask of one with such a strong etheric body to leave terra firma and ascend 30,000 ft into the air. Yet, they took my hand and chose Colorado (by default) as their first destination in America.
For three weeks, we did little else but cook and eat; proper meals at proper eating times—breakfast, lunch and dinner. We ventured out to restaurants once in a while to try local fare, but they were always “sit down,” not “to go.” No cold sandwich would do. This had nothing to do with rules or musts. It had to do with Luciano’s extreme enjoyment of l’arte di mangiare bene, “the art of eating well.”
It must be hot and good. Even now, he wants a pleasant environment, simple food well prepared, a nice glass of wine and good service. If he finds it, he says, “this is my place.” He feels at home and therefore willing to return often. Otherwise during their visit, we ate at home…usually some wild inspiration that had hit him while walking through the market. Manuela begged me to keep him away; otherwise she would see nothing of America other than the kitchen.
Unlike Manuela, there is nothing more fun for me than walking through a market with a chef. They paint pictures with flavors and ideas that make you weak in the knees. Luciano’s fascination is theatrical. His eyes widen at every new taste, he compares flavors and smells with abandon. He is interested in everything. And what interest him; inspires him. ‘Tonight we will make a buffalo ragu!!’ He shouts.
I can find it challenging to try and reproduce some of these lucious Italian recipes over here, but it doesn’t phase him. Where there is a will, there is a way. Luciano makes it seem ‘facilissimo’. It’s it’s also his attitude. His love of cooking is contagious. Everywhere we went was a party. People were giving him things to try at no cost. He could feed a village with what he had been gifted.
I said to him, “this never happens to me.” He joked, “I have a nice face.” Interesting for sure. Balding with whispy grey hair and mustache, I think it’s the way he wears his tiny round tortoise shell specs over his yellow tinted sun shades that makes him so endearing. Not to mention his melodic Italian accent that ‘hmms’ at the thought of something tasty. I call it magnetic; my friend Sally calls it “Italian Chi.”
With that extension here in Colorado at my house, I have learned that to sit down twice a day and eat lovingly prepared food can be a meaningful mini vacation, not unlike a longer one, offering the purposeful pleasure of slowing down. Afterall, they have a famous toast in Italy that is the motto of my culinary programs:
A tavola non si invecchia mai. “At the table one never grows old.”
I wasn’t sure if it had to do with the fact that they always seemed to be happy and therefore ageless, or if they never got old because time stands still.. I realized that it has something to do with a certain peace; a satiated sensation of ben essere, to be well; nourished in so many ways by the meal. One is happy to be in the moment. So content that being anywhere else would be foolish.
“The table gives animation. The hour is important. You can stay at the table even if there is nothing to eat. A beautifully set table can also satiate. One waits for this time to stay together. It could be two boiled potatoes with good olive oil and salt and one could be happy. Even a soup made only with herbs that grow outside, because you have nothing else, is delicious.. At least you have an appetite. On the other hand, if you have been invited for dinner and you arrive and the table isn’t set..one loses the sensation to eat. and one could actually leave. One feels that the people don’t have the feel per mangiare. If the table is set, it can double the satisfaction if the food is good. A nice fire, music is also nice. The other thing is that once you have sat down, and eaten and opened yourself, you are more open to loving, even kissing, even making love to continue this sweetness.”
There are many roads to peace and pleasure. In this case, it’s what we bring to the table, as much what the table can bring to us. It can be symbolic of connection, gathering, or even the world at large. I have eaten well from this table and I want to continue to savour it and “rumple a few more cloth napkins” while I’m still here.
I want to thank Luciano and Manuela for their visit. As my friend Waylon told then when he left, “say buon viaggio to the most charming converter of vegetarians I have ever met!”
Now that’s a compliment.
Learn more about Peggy’s upcoming 20th Anniversary trip to Elba to visit Luciano here.
Editor: Andrea B.