ROME—Italian celebrity chef Vittorio Castellani, whose stage name is Chef Kumalè, made a name for himself by marrying traditional Italian cuisine with exotic flavors. Sometimes he mixed sushi and traditional regional cuisine; other times he used Italian ingredients in recipes from far away lands. He considered himself a gour-nomad, and advertised his “curry-culum” on his popular blog.
He was a rising star, and the anchor chef on Italian public broadcaster RAI’s La Prova Del Cuoco or ‘Chef’s Test’ program. But when Italy’s new populist government named anti-immigrant journalist Marcello Foa director of the public broadcaster RAI, Castellani’s days were numbered. The chef says he was told that his foreign recipes were not welcome on state television, so he left the show in protest.
Castellani explained on Facebook that his decision was as much for the good of his country as for himself. “I'm not worried about me, I can easily express myself elsewhere and I certainly do not lack a venue,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I am rather worried about the suffocating air in this country, for this form of cultural poverty, which in a silent but substantial way reinforces feelings and choices that I consider very dangerous for our poor Italy.”
Rai denied that it had pushed Castellani out, and he later removed his Facebook post, but he told several Italian media outlets that it was understood that he could stay on the program as long as he put Italian regional cuisine first. “No curry, no foreign flavors, no foreign name recipes,” he says. “It was a message that there was no room for outsider views, or in this case, flavors.”
Castellani’s early departure from the program is just the latest in a worrying trend in Italy as the country’s populist government led by far-right League leader Matteo Salvini and anti-establishment Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio seek to redefine what it means to be Italian.
Earlier this month, Salvini launched a proposal that what he called “little ethnic shops” had to shutter up by 9:00 p.m., while Italian-owned shops could stay open longer. The shops he was referring to are 7-11 style convenience stores run by Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese owners that stay open late, selling everything from onions to toilet paper. Salvini said the owners were often criminals and the shops were nothing more than “meeting places for drug deals and people who raise hell.”
In reality, the shops often service Italians who work late shifts or need last-minute supplies after traditional Italian grocery stores and markets are closed. The proposal to close the foreign shops, which has not yet become law, was part of a multi-faceted “security” package Salvini introduced after taking office as interior minister in June. It included creating a special census for Roma nomadic people, closing Italian ports to foreign-flagged nongovernmental migrant rescue ships and stripping humanitarian protection status from thousands of refugees already living in the country. He said he was trying to stop “crafty migrants who were not escaping war” who he said were coming into the country to rape and pillage.
Before Salvini took office, Italy had opened its borders to more than 600,000 migrants and refugees who crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. Only about 10 percent applied for asylum protection in Italy, according to the Interior Ministry. The rest moved on to countries in northern Europe. Now, migrants are turned back to detention centers in Libya or let in and placed in detention centers on Italian soil.
Salvini is facing charges for kidnapping for not allowing more than 180 migrants disembark an Italian coast guard ship in Sicily last summer, although the case is likely to be dropped thanks to magistrates who agree with his hard-line policies.
Under pressure from the populist government, magistrates in Calabria were able to open an investigation into Mimmo Lucano, the mayor of the town of Riace, a small town that had been recognized globally as an example of integration after the mayor invited immigrants to take over abandoned shops and houses thanks to dwindling population.
Lucano was accused of abetting illegal immigration by encouraging “marriages of convenience” after an Italian man married an immigrant to help her obtain documents when she had been denied asylum. Lucano is now banned from returning to the town that he put on the map for its kindness to foreigners.
Italy also hopes to bar foreign born people who have legally obtained Italian citizenship from participating in new economic initiatives, including a guaranteed wage that would benefit the country’s lowest earners.
These “Italians first” initiatives recently spilled over to the playground when the mayor of the northern Italian town of Lodi, who is a member of Salvini’s nationalist League party, made it impossible for most immigrant children to eat lunch with Italian children.
The mayor signed a decree that parents of all students had to declare their property assets in Italy and in their countries of origin in order to take advantage of school-provided lunch or pay the equivalent of $5 a day per child. Most African migrant parents at the school had no way of obtaining such documentation from their home countries, either because they don’t own property or because their countries of origin are in political strife or war.
As a result, their children had to bring packed lunch to school, and because it is against policy to bring outside food into the school cafeteria, the migrant children had to eat in a rundown classroom away from their Italian peers. Residents of the town launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised enough money to pay for all of the migrant children’s school meals, but the regulation is still in place.
Italy’s populist government has only been in power for four months. Their priorities seem to be to whitewash Italy of any foreign influence. And at the rate they are going, they just might succeed.