I first met Chef Carlo Cracco in March 2011 when I barged into the kitchen of his restaurant in Milan and told him “Hi, Heston Blumenthal sent me here”. Many people would think it was just another trick to meet the hottest chef in Milan. But as a matter of fact it was all true. I had gone to a book signing during the 2010 NYCWFF and Heston Blumenthal asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Italy and since we were talking about his show in pursuit of perfection and he had learned risotto from Carlo Cracco, he suggested that I visit Ristorante Cracco during my first trip to Milan. So that takes us back to me opening the door of the kitchen to say hi to chef Cracco who, at that point must have thought I was not completely sane (although he is a gentleman and he would never tell), just to say hi.
Fast forward to October 2013, I got to meet Carlo Cracco at Identita’ Golose New York. If you want to read more about the event you can click here. Chef Cracco was a guest chef during one of the dinners but then really showcased his mastery of food during a demonstration that left the audience licking their fingers! The Identita’ Golose demonstrations pair two chefs and give them a topic, in Chef Cracco’s case, rice. His partner in crime was chef Matthew Lightner of Atera in Tribeca. Interpreting rice is not easy because America usually identifies this grain with Uncle Ben’s and other ready to eat and quite flavorless products. The concept of this demonstration was to prove that rice is a very creative product that shouldn’t be considered just an empty carb (as many health experts define it). Chef Lightner’s dish, Carolina Gold Rice with Crab and Garlic was an exercise in umami and visual trompe l’oeuil . The smell of the dish was delicious but you couldn’t tell whether it came from the rice, the crab or the chrysanthemum used to garnish the dish: it kept you intrigued and trying to guess how so much flavor could be infused in single dish.
Chef Cracco, who, in case you haven’t noticed that earlier on, has thought the secrets of risotto to the likes of Heston Blumenthal, created 2 amazing dishes but also had a very special tutorial for the audience, a master class in risotto technique.
Let’s start from the dishes. To show the immense versatility of rice, Chef Cracco partnered with Calvisius Caviar to create Rice “Tagliolini” Salad with Sea Beans & Caviar and Creamed Rice with Beetroot & Caviar. The first demonstration was very fun to watch because Chef Cracco showcased how to make spaghetti alla chitarra. This type of handmade fresh pasta is cut with a special instrument that looks a bit like a guitar and is traditionally made with wheat dough. The rice tagliolini were more delicate than spaghetti alla chitarra or normal taglioni and Chef Cracco seasoned them very lightly to make the flavor of Calvisius Caviar come through.
The second demonstration was a play on risotto and the smooth custard-like texture that can be achieved with the addition of beets and cream. The sweet and mellow flavor was further enhanced by Calvisius caviar to provide a briny counterpoint to the dish.
The final demonstration was a masterclass on making risotto. Chef Cracco showed the audience all the secrets of the perfect risotto (and I will keep them all for myself!). At his restaurant in Milan he uses risotto to make chips that are fluffy and delicate, flavored with vegetables or squid ink. It’s not molecular gastronomy, what it takes is creativity and patience more than liquid nitrogen.
I had the chance to interview Chef Cracco after the demonstration and I was pleased to hear that he remembered our first meeting and the Heston Blumenthal recommendation. Chef Cracco, one of the judges on Master Chef Italy is a very down to earth and approachable man, qualities that make his mastery of cooking even more impressive.
L25: Chef Cracco this demonstration was a wonderful experience for the audience but our readers want to know, what is your perception of the way Americans interpret Italian food? We have a version of Master Chef in the US and in many cases you still see Italian food bastardized on national television.
CC: Americans interpret Italian food in the way they perceive it should be. In part, we, the Italians are responsible for this interpretation because Italian food was born here through immigration. People immigrating to the US from Italy would bring their typical products and wouldn’t always accept the local products as ingredients for their recipes. There still is a bit of a bias Italians in America have towards American made Italian products. But this was really the base of Italian cuisine in the US. In the meantime in Italy we have evolved but the evolution was not necessarily followed outside of the border. For example today you may have a perception of Italian food as very traditional, lots of garlic, spicy peppers and excessive use of parmigiano. These traditions come mostly from the southern immigrants but Italian Cuisine is much more complex. For example in the food equation, tomato represents the south as caviar represents the north, they are complementary to the regional cuisine. The South of Italy has the sun and pomodoro and the North has the cold and caviar, a bit more like France. You always recognize the identity of the roots, especially in the versatility of rice, as we proved today. We try to make people understand how the roots have developed and evolved. Today if you go to a restaurant in Italy you can find traditional food, but you will find lots of innovation.
L25: Watching Masterchef Italy as opposed to Masterchef USA one aspect is particularly striking: in Masterchef USA the contestants propose dishes coming for very different cuisines, while MasterChef Italy features contestants that are very creative.
CC: It’s a question of DNA, Italians even when they don’t cook very well are very inquisitive and have an idea. Here on the other hand you have so many cultures that contribute to the show. You may have an Asian contestant with an Italian father. The USA is the melting pot, the important thing is to use the products, play with them and understand how they can be used traditionally and creatively. Sometimes we use American or foreign products like basmati rice also to understand them.
L25: You created an emulsion of risotto during the demonstration that Americans would find difficult to reproduce because of the equipment that is only available in Italy.
CC: I don’t think it’s a question of equipment but a question of chef and kitchen. If you go to Atera, Matthew Lightner’s restaurant in Tribeca you will be very impressed by the kitchen. It looks like a starship! I Have seen many restaurants in the US and in the rest of the world but I never found a kitchen that was as efficient, well managed and well prepared.
L25: It’s nice to hear a chef complimenting another chef, we don’t see that very often in the US.
CC: My team and I had a wonderful experience cooking at Atera, in a matter of few hours we prepared the dish for one of the Identita’ Golose NY dinners. It should be natural to compliment other chef’s works because this is not a competition we all do the same job, just in different spaces and markets but conceptually we are all in the same business. Food should bring people together not separate them.
L25: Last question Chef Cracco.What is the first thing you eat when you come to New York?
CC: I love cocktails in New York so I usually have a drink, the bars in New York are some of the best in New York.
Chef Cracco’s cookbooks currently available only in Italian will soon be translated in English. Be on the lookout for the English edition coming to your bookstore soon!