It goes without saying that working at Le Tavole Accademiche is an extraordinary experience. To be able to host these great and oftentimes very famous chefs is an honor. Some come alone and we work as their staff. Others bring their own brigade and we watch, advise, and assist. As each chef is radically different, we never quite know what to expect; this creates a very exciting work dynamic.
In the beginning it was quite a challenge. How were we supposed to tell these respected chefs that their proposed menu went above our allowed food costs? What was the best way to tell a kitchen divo that our guests wouldn’t be sitting down for a long, heavy, and fancy meal? That our customers are looking for a lunch in the canteen that is light, simple, and affordable?
We are working in one of the best-equipped kitchens of Italy. We have 50 square meters in the kitchen plus and extra 50 of storage, walk in refrigerators, etc. In the beginning I often felt lost. Which machine is which, how does it work, how do you say this in Italian, and where is everyone? It is difficult to explain to a chef how the ‘sfogliatrice’ (pastry machine) works if you don’t know it yourself. And then in a language you don’t speak very well.
I wouldn’t say the first few months were hard, there wasn’t even time for that. It was interesting. Exhausting. Sometimes there were so many expressions and new things I didn’t even know where to put them; there was so much to see and to learn. I had never worked in a big kitchen before, much less an Italian one, and never with any famous chefs. I will admit that I am glad some time has passed and that the “newness” has faded a bit. Now it is our kitchen. I know where everything is and how everything works. My Italian has improved, so I am actually able to explain, ask, and take orders without needing a translation. It makes a big difference. What has changed in the last six months is my confidence in the kitchen and in hosting the chefs. When the chefs and their entourages arrive we normally take them out for dinners, which is a nice way to get to know them and talk about their expectations and backgrounds.
Of course we write the menus for the weeks when there is no chef. We put energy in it and try not to do the same dish twice. Also I try to put some Dutch/German influence in the dishes. It is interesting to see how Italians try to translate every foreign dish in a kind of Italian way. It causes some discussions now and then but that makes the whole coming-up-with-dishes discourse only funnier.
Working in the Tavole Academiche doesn’t only mean to host fancy chefs and feed students. We have a lot of side projects going on that make the internship even more exiting. Besides private catering we started doing a project with ‘Boffi’, an Italian luxury home kitchen store; it is kind of a cooking demonstration in their shops. It aims to converge innovation, design, tradition, and sustainability through food. To this effect, we prepared a catered buffet while using solely artisanal products. The producers are also invited, in order to also exhibit their wares. We had a great time and by the second event we had gotten to know some of the producers on a personal basis. The first two catering events were in London and in Milan. In London we prepared most of the food in the kitchen of ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members-only club specializing in Italian cuisine . They are friends of the University and let us use their kitchen as if it were our own. It was a surreal experience standing in a chic kitchen in London speaking only Italian.
Another project brought us to Venice during the Biennale where we prepared lunch for a charity organization. Our guests were homeless people and our staff was comprised of nuns. An assortment of used products came from the Coop from which we cooked two lunches and a dinner. Except for the different environment and products, we did pretty much the same thing we do in the Tavole Accademiche.
If you would have asked me six months ago what my expectations were, I would have told you that working with the guest chefs and learning from them would be the most exciting aspect of this internship. That has changed. The weeks without guest chefs are when I learn the most. That’s when we cook. That’s when we make decisions. I also very much look forward to all the events outside of the Tavole Accademiche. How often does one get a guided tour through the Biennale accompanied by a bunch of homeless people and holy sisters?