It happened. The first NY Times three star restaurant of the year to close is Fiamma, which was a jewel of a restaurant under the supremely talented Italian chef, Fabio Trabocchi. According to Eater.com, the restaurant was a casualty of the economy, despite the three stars garnered by Trabocchi in November of 2007. According to Steve Hanson, President and Founder of B.R. Guest, the parent company of Fiamma, "I just couldn't sustain the restaurant with one 6:00-9:30 seating. And on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays we weren't even doing that. Wall Street's [woes] have been devastating to business. These guys just don't have the expense accounts anymore. Fabio was great to work with, the staff was great. It's all a product of the economy." Fiamma was not the only B.R.Guest casualty as the restaurants Ruby Foo's (uptown) and Blue Water Grill in Chicago also closed.
I can't speak to the other restaurants, but I am truly disturbed by Fiamma's closing. It was a restaurant that I would very much have liked to frequent and would have if I lived in the city. As it is, I don't get to the city nearly as often as I like and so never get to really "frequent" any restaurant there. Nevertheless, the one meal I had there the night before Bruni's awarding of three stars was memorable and quite fine, landing number 6 on my top restaurant meals of 2007 list. This is not just a has been restaurant that closed. It was arguably the flagship restaurant for a large and previously very successful restaurant organization. I expect Fabio Trabocchi to land on his feet. He is too talented and skilled not to. The question is where, when and cooking what.
Below is an excerpt from an interview I did with Chef Trabocchi at the 2nd Annual Styarchefs International Chefs Congress in 2007 in NYC just before he started at Fiamma.
JMS: Chefs TY VM for the interview. My name is John Sconzo. I’m with chef Fabio Trabocchi, of Fiamma in NYC as of tomorrow night and Chef Tom Wellings, the pastry chef from Maestro who accompanied Chef Trabocchi to Fiamma. Welcome to NY and cent’ anni!
FT: That sounds good!
JMS: I would like to focus this interview on the topic you just addressed in your ICC workshop – mixing tradition and innovation in Italian food. In Spain certainly, innovation has become the norm and is widely accepted. In France innovation this has also been the case for some time. In Italy this has been the case too, but in a much less obvious way. It seems much harder to be innovative in Italy than in other countries though it isn’t necessarily easy anywhere. Chef you obviously innovate yet just as obviously respect tradition
FT: Well I think it is very important to respect traditions. It is very impt to be aware of traditions and it is very important to make sure that we know traditions. We cannot start the evolutionary part of our Italian cuisine if we are not rooted in traditions. If we only have an approximate knowledge of what traditions were and were just tryiong to impress with evolutionary technique, we would probably miss the original beauty of that dish. However, times are changing, so something that is traditional and is pure on its own, can be transplanted into something that is more sophisticated for the modern time. It is very important that in doing so we don’t lose some very important factors. Flavor would be the most important. I do feel that there should be something that reminds me of the way it used to be. There can be a cerebral job of the chef behind the dish that took something that we know and put it into something completely different in a different form. I grew up in Italy and was lucky enough to have a father who was a former farmer and I was always surrounded by food. My father always thought it was very important and it was normal for our lifestyle to be surrounded by food.
JMS: You grew up in Le Marche?
FT: Yes, I grew up in Le Marche. It was normal for us on a Friday or a Saturday to do our groceries for the weekend to go to our friends who was a farmer. It was normal for Fabio being 6 years old to choose which chicken in the field would be the Sunday meal. It was normal for our eggs to only be from that particular farmer. It was normal that our water was only pulled from the fountains that come from the mountains closest to where I come from. It was normal that we go to the greenmarket every Thursday because that is where we would bump into all the people that we know. In Italy, especially in le Marche, as times were changing they went through an economic step called “share-cropping” that came and disappeared. There were a lot of farmers who were able to live in extensive tracts of territory and were able to live there so long as they would give the owners the majority of the product. When this share-cropping ended the farmers all had to re-invent themselves into more modern jobs. It was normal for me to go to a baker that was actually a farmer and it was normal for me to go see a butcher that was actually happy to be a farmer. That is how I started to be surrounded by food. I never knew that it would become a career afterwards and I don’t think my father ever thought this would become a career for me afterwards either.
JMS: What was your father’s career?
FT: My father was what you probably call in English here, a “Renaissance man”. A guy who would probably fix your tripod if it doesn’t work right now or would paint this entire building or would fix an outlet for electricity or even fix his own car – it is not a problem! Anyway, that is how I grew up and I was surrounded by this so I think my route to tradition is sincere. However, because I love professional cooking and I was lucky enough to work with very good chefs as my career began I learned that it is important to bring clarity and simplicity to a plate, to focus on good ingredients but at the same time apply modern technique where you can only enhance the product. As much as I love the evolutionary part of it because that is where I use all of my creativity I will always feel the rigor and the discipline to be true to traditions. But as you say, in Italy it is very difficult to do this compared to other regions. I think historically some of the reasons are because we never codified Italian cuisine. If you go to old French cookbooks like Escoffier you find codification of all the garnishes. You have duxelles for mushrooms, perigord for truffles. They codified all the recipes and so forth. That was a very important milestone to talk about “French” cuisine. It was always a fairing point to where everything started. Italians were always more about personal interpretation of everything. The same kind of pasta with the same kind of filling would be slightly different 5 miles to the south than 5 miles to the north. And it is called with the same name.
JMS: Do you think that codification is occurring today through the efforts of organizations like Slow Food?
FT: It certainly is, but also what is great about Slow Food is protecting products and ingredients. At this point it is at a global level. It is a very good way to protect ingredients
and recipes that are otherwise likely to disappear.
JMS: What about Regionality in Italian cuisine? It seems to me that in today’s world of globalization that the borders of regionality are starting to blur. Do you think that is the case and if you do, do you see it as a problem or something to be celebrated?
FT: People travel way more today than they ever have before. Even in Italy in my own region of Le Marche , I like to cook a dish of pasta con le sarde which comes from Sicily and if I am in Sicily I may feel like having a risotto Milanese like they do in Milan. There is not really a frontier within our own nation. There are standout dishes that every Italian knows though this is probably a little less as we come into the new generations than there was before. I don’t see the loss of a frontier keeping dishes within a certain region to be a problem. I think what is important is that we need to know what is supposed to be done in a more correct way because there are so many variations and then because of the lack of awareness of what used to be regional and real and authentic it may start to become less “Italian”. WE have a lot of history. During the Roman Empire were they using ginger? Yes. Were the Egyptians growing ducks to produce foie gras? Yes and so were the Romans. We have all those things as part of our culture.
JMS: Speaking of authenticity, do you think it is possible to have authentic Italian cuisine in New York and is it possible to have authentic anything outside of its home region? Do you believe in the term authenticity, a term that has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently?
FT: My opinion is and I am sure there has been a lot of opinion about this, is it shouldn’t be difficult to be authentic and there again we go back to the drawing board. Do we have a codification? Do we have a document that says what it means to be authentic? Did we ever say that Risotto Milanese should have bone marrow or not? Did we ever say that we only use the pistils of saffron to make it authentic or not? Did we ever say that we use a double chicken stock or a normal chicken stock? Did we ever say that in Milan maybe they use two tablespoons of pecorino mixed in with the parmiggiano cheese because that makes it a little bit saltier and still be part of the Milanese risotto. What is authentic? That is what we need to look for. We can all have our own say and opinion about is this dish authentic or not authentic, but was it ever codified as authentic? We need to look two steps backward and look at what we know as authentic. Was it ever documented what it takes to be authentic? We also know that in Italy for the same dish in the same area or even the same village you have a slightly different interpretation of this and a slightly different interpretation of that.
JMS: Within the same family sometimes.
FT: Exactly. Even within the same family from generation to generation there are slight differences. That cultural factor is wonderful. It doesn’t close up your creativity to a little perimeter. You can really use wide imagination. To go back to your question, is it easy in the United States or any country that is not Italy to reproduce “authentic” Italian cuisine, I think every one of us has a different interpretation or knowledge about what authentic is all about. I can say that I grew up there and I am authentic. I carry an Italian passport. I’m sure that sometimes I do some dishes that are really Italian, but not so obvious and not so well known as Italian, people would not find it authentic or find that maybe they are Austrian or German or French. Again we need to do seven steps backwards and look at history. Were we dominated by the French? Yes. Did we absorb some of their culinary culture? Yes. Were we dominated by the Spanish? Yes. Were we dominated by the Austrians? Yes. There is a dish in Italy where I come from nearby Macerata that is called Vincisgrassi. This dish is named after an Austrian general that invaded us just to celebrate the invasion. His name ws Prince Windischgratz, but over centuries the contortion of his name became Vincisgrassi. I think it is a debate that will go on forever. Because we all have different knowledge, awareness or sensitivity to what we think authentic should be.
I certainly wish Chef Trabocchi and all the other staff at Fiamma and the other B.R. Guest restaurants that closed the best of luck.