This week’s installment of Fast Food covers what it means to properly put together a dinner menu under the seasonal constraints of Italy’s Marche region. Oh yeah, it also offers advice on how not to fix a dent in a Jaguar XJ6. Fast Food is a weekly blog about cooking and the micropolitics of dining by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. The photo was taken in the eccentric ristorante Locanda Ciacci and features two of the many hundred roosters that decorate the space. ~ Photo: Max Dax
Dax: How did you plan ahead when it came to buying and storing the food? What quantities of food do you buy when you run a restaurant?
Schoenberger: It’s easy to drive to the wholesaler and buy as much stock as possible. In the worst case you’d freeze the leftovers. But it’s much more sophisticated to make a precise estimate of the quantities you’ll use in a given evening. We didn’t have that much storage room anyways. We weren’t Peter Luger.
Dax: I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard about it—it’s a world-famous steak house. Why do you mention it in this context?
Schoenberger: Because Peter Luger has a freezer of the size of a football pitch. Due to their stocking possibilities they have total control over the quality of the meat they’re serving. You can’t forget that in the States a steak from a steak house is a high-end dinner. You can easily pay a couple hundred dollars for two people—including wine. Don’t ever confuse an American steak house with European gastronomic imitation.
Dax: I know from writing the shopping lists when I cooked at the Themroc that you have to be really tight with your calculations. There is only a small margin of profit when it comes to tiny restaurants like the Themroc.
Schoenberger: You’re absolutely right. I would go so far to say I can judge people by their shopping lists. You can tell if they’re careful, if they are responsible or not. But even more so, having ambitions with your shopping list defines and changes the way you cook.
Dax: Shopping lists always remind me of concrete poetry. No doubt, a well thought-out shopping list is better than most published poetry these days.
Schoenberger: True that. There is of course a direct link between deciding what to buy and composing a menu for the evening. In the ideal case, you compose the menu around two or three pillars—the standout fresh food you were able to purchase for a good price at the wholesaler. These products have to be both in season and match the other dishes on the menu. But first and foremost they have to match the philosophy of your place.
Dax: I was really impressed when I traveled through the Italian Marche region. The villages in the Montefeltro area are famous for their down-to-earth recipes. You won’t find anything fancy on the menus of the old-fashioned trattorias and ristorantes. Every village seems to have one particular place where you can get a decent dinner. When you ask people where to eat they all tell you that you should try a place called Locanda Ciacci in a village called Gallo di Petriano, which literally translates to “rooster of Petriano”. In fact, this huge restaurant is decorated with thousands of roosters, from the floor to the ceiling.
Schoenberger: Are they trying to attract tourists?
Dax: Actually, it’s the opposite. Collecting toys and drawings of roosters is the owner’s eccentric habit. Actually, the roosters express a kind of independent spirit that rejects adjusting to strangers. It’s more like an inside joke, I guess. But if you get a table at Ciacci’s, you’ll get served two starters from the very beginning. One is a selection of local cold cuts ranging from salami and San Daniele prosciutto to lonza, which is kind of a cured beef or pork tenderloin. The other plate is always mozzarella cheese, ricotta and provolone. It all comes with bread, of course. If I know you, then those kinds of starters would be the kind of pillar in the menu you mentioned before, right?
Schoenberger: Absolutely. I actually love the idea of going to a place knowing what I’ll get as a starter. I mean, I’ve never been to Locanda Ciacci, but I certainly understand from your description that these people take tradition very, very seriously. Let me guess: They have an assortment of primi: tortellini in brodo and tagliatelle al ragù?
Dax: Volltreffer. How do you know?
Schoenberger: Those are just typical dishes that are frequently served in Tuscany, Marche and Emilia Romagna. Typical secondi would be guinea fowl, quail, or veal escalope in lemon sauce. Did they have those?
Dax: Right again. Actually, they don’t serve fish even though they are only 25 kilometers away from the Adriatic coast.
Schoenberger: The way you describe Ciacci, they seem to know exactly what they’re doing, and I assume that they don’t change their menu on a daily basis. Maybe they’d exchange one dish, but that’s probably it. They’re offering modular cuisine based on limited possibilities. But instead of interpreting this as a problem, they’re on the offensive. In Hamburg, though, we couldn’t play it that straight.
Dax: Why? You monitored the shopping. You directed the cooks.
Schoenberger: In a perfect world that would be enough. But the biggest enemy of the kitchen is the cook. Most cooks get bored if they have to cook the same dish day after day after day. They want to be creative. They want self-fulfillment. They sabotage you and try to backdoor you when you want to create a modular system. They don’t even know the season of the year and what that means for them. If I were running a Jaguar garage and a customer of mine would come in with a black XJ6 that has a dent in the door, my mechanic would fix the damn dent. But what if he decided to “fix” it with racing green varnish?
Dax: You’d kill that man?
Schoenberger: I probably wouldn’t kill him as this would mean that I’d have to go to jail. It would just be the last day he worked for me. And nobody would question my decision to fire his ass. But in a restaurant, as a guest, you’re constantly confronted with shitty solutions to real problems. Honestly, I don’t know that many cooks who reflect on their profession on a more abstract level. They behave like small children. This is one of the reasons why I quit being a restaurateur. I simply couldn’t stand it anymore.