A Young Chef Travels to Calabria, Italy, and Learns the Old Ways of Cooking
Somewhere in a drawer back home in Australia, there's a photo of me standing in the Melbourne International Airport. I’m wearing a wide-brimmed outback hat and holding a beat-up Australian football under my arm. A gigantic backpack looms behind my head, dwarfing my 6-foot 3-inch frame. I’m twenty-one years old and feeling like I’m the first Aussie to ever set foot outside the Commonwealth.
It was 1998, the year Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress almost impeached a president and the European Central Bank was born in Frankfurt, Germany. It was also the year that I first travelled outside of Australia, and I had that particular blend of swagger and stupidity that young men have when they get their first real taste of freedom.
In hindsight that photo is the beginning of adventures that are still unfolding today. But when I posed for it, I only knew what had ended—culinary school. After four years studying and working every conceivable station at the Savoy Hotel in Melbourne, I was officially a chef. In those days, all the best chefs were European, so I reckoned that after school I’d head to Europe to study with the masters. While I was filleting barramundi and julienning carrots, I saved like a man with a plan. When culinary school ended, I sold my sky-blue Datsun 200B and counted the till; I had ten thousand Australian dollars to my name, which meant I could travel for roughly three months on $100 a day. When the money was gone, I’d need to find a job.
That budget added up for my best mate Tommy, who was working for his dad as a concreter at the time. So we hatched a plan to meet after the finals in Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls.
The Sanfermines slaughters everyone—at least metaphorically. The whole city drinks all night and runs with the bulls in the morning. It’s revelry without end. On the third day, passed out in the park, waiting for our hearts to stop pounding from that morning’s brush with death, we said enough and packed our bags. After a short stop in Barcelona, we’d head to the Greek Islands.
There are few places better for a young person to be than the Greek Islands in high summer. We meant to stay for a week; we ended up there for a month—and it was hard to tear ourselves away even then. Day after day we lounged in the sun, taking breaks only to swim in the clear blue Aegean Sea or pool our drachmas for some tzatziki and gyros. At night we danced and drank grappa. When someone in Santorini insisted we see the blue-domed chapels of Ios, we hopped a ferry to the party island. When another traveler told us about the spectacular sunset in Mykonos that turns the island’s brown rock to gold, we moved north to yet another all-night fest. It was pure freedom, the kind you can only experience when you’ve got time on your side and a little cash in your pocket.
The day eventually came, in August, when we had to go. Tommy’s parents had emigrated from Calabria, Italy, a few decades before, but his entire extended family—on both sides—still lived in Francavilla, and we had both promised to visit. I like to think that not much throws me, but shifting from the Greek Islands, with its shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of young bikini-clad tourists, to a village of two thousand Southern Italians certainly did.
Like many families in Francavilla, Tommy’s lived in separate houses on the same plot of land. In the main house lived his eighty-year-old nonna, the matriarch, reliably dressed in black in the custom of Italian widows. An uncle and his family resided in another house and his aunt and her brood in a third. There were kids and pigs and goats and vegetables growing on every spare patch of land. As we walked up to the front door, all I could think was, What in god’s name are we doing here?
The answer came soon enough: we were eating. We had arrived just in time for lunch, the largest meal of the day, an eight-course, three-hour feast during which Tommy’s uncle regularly got drunk and fell asleep at the table. That first night we journeyed across town to visit Tommy’s father’s family. In our honor, they laid out a similar spread, though the evening meal is normally more modest. I couldn’t speak a word of Italian and no one in either family except Tommy knew English, so I asked him to tell them that we had just eaten. He looked at me dumbfounded. ‘I can’t tell them that,’ he whispered. So we ate again. Every time I would slow down, someone would ask Tommy whether I didn’t like the food. By the end of it all, I felt like a foie gras goose.
It took four days for me to find my groove. I had got up early, rejuvenated at last from the sleep deprivation of Greece, and tiptoed downstairs to make a cup of coffee. I entered the kitchen to find three generations of women, ages twenty to eighty, rolling pasta, making sausages and preparing fresh tomato sauce. Nonna, who at full height came up to my armpit, brushed by me carrying an enormous pot of water. Someone handed me a cup of coffee, which she had made to full-bodied perfection in the caffettiera on the stovetop, and I sat down to watch.
It sounds crazy, but I hadn’t realized until that moment that these women had crafted every bite of food I had consumed in the last three days. It hit me that the fat pig outside was destined to become the salami hanging in the larder, while the tomatoes and eggplants ripening on the vines were the same ones we would devour over handmade fusilli at lunch. These women cured their own olives and made their own goat’s cheese. They planted crops and butchered livestock. One day a week, Nonna baked bread in the wood- fire oven out back. She’d stack the loaves on top of the stone wall by the front gate, and neighbors on their way by would grab a loaf and drop off whatever they had in surplus as payment. Food in Calabria was pride, self-sufficiency and community all mixed together in one mouthful.
And food was largely the work of women, with the exception of salami and wine, which the men always made. In our modern world, where fathers change diapers and women run multinational corporations, it all sounds a bit dated, if not outright sexist, to say that the women slaved away in the kitchen while the men trudged off to work. But tradition reigned supreme in southern Italy and, rather than stifling, it seemed to reflect an elegant symbiosis within the family, founded on mutual respect for what everyone brought to the table. It was the basis of their extreme closeness. You could feel the love and appreciation every time we all sat down for a meal.
What makes the people of Calabria so special is their undying appreciation, not just of food, but also of the cultivation of the ingredients that become family legacy. Neighboring families war over who makes the best, most authentic, recipe for everything from tomato sauce to minestrone. And while the outsider may not be able to appreciate the nuance, an extra pass of the tomatoes through the mill—a technique handed down from generation to generation—makes all the difference.
After that morning, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. The women would give me small jobs, dicing onions or slicing eggplant, and eventually I graduated to making pasta and canning enough sauce to carry them through the cold weather months. There were never any recipes to read or measuring cups to gauge the proper amount and I still didn’t speak a lick of Italian. I just had to watch and follow their lead.
I literally followed the entire family’s lead every night after dinner when they’d take their evening stroll through town. There wasn’t much to see except a church and some villas, but sightseeing wasn’t the goal. All along the path, neighbors would join us for a while, snaking throughout the group, talking about the day’s news, sharing local gossip, and solving the world’s problems. It makes perfect sense that the slow-food movement began in Italy. That relaxed, leisurely philosophy to cooking permeated everything they did.
In just a few weeks, I had fallen in love with the culture of long lunches, homemade fare and family. The question wasn’t what am I doing in Francavilla, but how did the rest of the world get so far away from the Calabrian way of life?
Tommy and I would leave just after the tomato harvest to travel around Italy. But as autumn closed in, I was nearly broke, so we said goodbye and I set off for London. There, I knocked on the door of Marco Pierre White’s Café Royal and offered to work for free just for the opportunity to learn from the Michelin-starred genius. I would end up staying for eight years, sweating my way from peeling potatoes to head chef and from sleeping on my mate’s couch to actually having a flat. It was a wild time full of fine food, fancy dining and furious tempers. I’ve often said that Marco taught me everything I know about cooking, and that’s true. But Francavilla taught me everything about why I wanted to cook.