Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rome-ward bound

In exactly an hour, I'll be leaving Hotel Vannucci, hopping in a cab and taking a train to Rome--my last stop on this 3-month European adventure before I head home to New York on Monday afternoon.

It's really surreal, the thought that this is the last time I'm going to have to sit on my suitcase(s) and pray for them to close, that after the next three days I won't have to wrestle with a foreign language to get my point across. On one level, I can't believe it's already been a month at Hotel Vannucci, but on a million more levels, I can't believe it's only been a month. I still may not be able to read Calvino fluently, but I can ask you to put the goose under the vacuum sealer in perfect Italian. I've learned how a kitchen is run, how to cook and cut and bake--I tried sitting down and writing everything I learned how to make here, and it felt like when I was four and tried writing down all the words I knew; I just couldn't keep up.

I've also gotten so close with the staff. They're all just incredible. I'll miss joking about being a New Yorker and not an American with Marcela, the breakfast lady (because I'm picky about my coffee), I'll miss chatting with Laura about her daughter and joking with the kitchen staff about how every single man who walks into the restaurant should be the man of my dreams. I'll miss hearing "Ciao bella" and "Come va tesoro," from Debora, the most perpetually cheerful woman I've ever met. I'll even miss Orlando and his jokingly chauvinistic remarks. I'll miss--gah--everything about them.

Yesterday was my last day in the kitchen (I made it out, against all odds, with all 10 fingers--a small burn on my left forearm is the only real lasting damage from the kitchen foray). The day went by exactly as all the others did. (Actually a good opportunity to write down my daily schedule, since I never did explain it):

8:30-9:30: Breakfast with the guests
9:30-11:30: Made 2 focacce (one focaccia, two focacce), made egg pasta dough with beets for red-tinged ravioli
11:30-12:00: Family meal with kitchen staff, Orlando and waiters. Spaghetti all'amatriciana
12:00-3:30: Dessert line on the lunch rush. Between plating desserts, I made 2 torte di mele and 2 apricot cakes for breakfast the next day. Prepared whipped cream all'albicocca for the desserts.
3:30-5:45: Afternoon break. Packed.
5:45-6:30: Made 2 frittate, prepared fruit salad for breakfast (snuck in, as usual, some triple sec. And they wonder why there's never any leftovers...).
6:30-7:00: Family meal. Salad and pistachio-crusted lamb.
7:00-11:00: Dinner rush. Helped with the contorni before the dessert rush started because Pasquale has been out the past few days. He fainted while taking a shower, hurt his back and needs at least 5 days to rest and recover. The kitchen has been strained to the max to make up for his absence; Alessandro hasn't had a day off in the last two weeks. Moved on to plating desserts (I've never seen so many orders for torta di mele in my life) for the pizzeria and the trattoria. This tiramisu was the last dessert I made on my shift. Basta. A normal day that went off without any major mistakes. A month into the shift, I've finally hit my stride.

After I finished cleaning, the chef told me to go downstairs, change and head to the pizzeria to say goodbye. I did, gathering my belongings from the locker-room downstairs (I'm keeping my kitchen whites more because I'm assuming no one would ever want to wear them after the month of sweat I poured into it), and headed up to the trattoria but no one was there other than Eli who was cleaning up.

I lingered, not really knowing what to do or how to say goodbye when suddenly the chef appeared with a beautiful fondente--a white chocolate, dark chocolate, amaretto, caramelized nut-crusted spectacle, Deborah appeared with an armful of champagne glasses, Sandy popped out with three large bottles of prosecco and everyone else--Freddy, Flavio, Roxy, Enzo, Orlando--filed in and started clearing a table.

We sat down, popped open the bottles of the sweet prosecco and I handed a card to Orlando. I was going to give it to him the next day--a thank you note to everyone in the hotel--but I figured it was as good a time as any. It was written in my best Italian (writing it sort of felt like the closing chapter to my Italian education) and Orlando read it out loud. About the time he got to the sentence, "Sono venuta cui per imparare l’italiano, per fare uno stage alla cucina ed io non ho fatto solo così (benché io scambi sempre pesche/ pesca e uva/uova…), ho incontrato anche gli amici che io non dimenticherò mai," (I came here to learn Italian, to do an apprenticeship in the kitchen, and not only did I do that (even though I still mix up fish/peach and grape/egg), I also met friends who I'll never forget) I just started crying. It was partially because I was thoroughly embarrassed by my Italian and by what I was saying, partially because I was relieved that the month was over because this has truly been one of the most challenging and tiring experience of my life (always running, always trying to understand, having to remember everything after the first shot, always in danger of being scalded or cut or slipping or sending something tumbling), partially because this experience ending meant that my whole summer was coming to a close and mostly because I was just so thankful and happy that everything worked out more perfectly that I ever imagined months and months ago when I was planning this summer from the Adams library.

Deborah walked over to stroke my head, "Che carina, lei piange!" (how cute, she's crying) and I said, "In English, you'd say I'm a sap." Orlando said, "In Italian, we'd just call you a woman." Everyone hissed and laughed and it lightened the mood enough to finish the letter.

We cut the cake and I opened my presents. A Sadler cookbook, one of the most famous Italian chefs and Alessandro's favorite, a card from everyone, a magnet of Citta della Pieve ("we hear in America you all decorate your fridges with magnets. Is this true?), and a clay mold of the city.

* * *
I spent all day today packing and cleaning. Had one last meal with the staff. Dan's grandmother (with whom I went to the opera. haha, oh life) came by to say goodbye and now I'm just worrying about how I'll manage with my suitcases on the Italian trains...but I'll do it somehow. To get home, it's worth it. As sad as I am about leaving, I've never felt more ready to go home.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I have David Daniels' baby!!

It's true:
David Daniels earned fame in the independent animation world as the inventor of the stratacut technique of animation. Normally, when someone invents a new filmmaking technique, it gets ripped off by someone a lot bigger who gets credit for it. For example, bullet time was not invented for the Matrix; an independent filmmaker named Dayton Taylor had been using what he called a "Timetrack" camera years before The Matrix came out. And a recent art school graduate named Javan Ivey devised "stratastencil" animation, which now shows up in this Pharell video. David Daniels' stratacut claymation is unique for the fact that it hasn't been stolen by anyone big -- he's still the one and only master of stratacut over twenty years after he unveiled it in his film Buzz Box [you MUST click on this link].

Stratacut animation is achieved by sculpting a "log" of clay with images embedded inside. You set up the camera so it's looking at a cross-section of the log, and then you start slicing thin layers off and taking a new picture each time. The animation is all programmed into the log of clay: if you wanted to have a circle grow, you would construct a cone shape and slice it from the thin end to the fat end. Thus, time is translated into depth, resulting in 2D animation whose 3rd dimension is time. This seems simple when you're only making a circle grow, but stratacut gets a lot more complicated:

Stratacut on this scale boggles the mind. Not just my mind, but EVERYONE'S. And that's why no one has stolen it yet. David's the only one who understands it!

Here's the point: David Daniels is one of the founders of Bent Image Lab, and I had the pleasure of meeting him today. About 30 seconds after I shook his hand, he gave me that stratacut baby from right off his desk (it's for a mutual friend, but heck, I still felt like it was Christmas). He was generous not only with his stratacut sculptures, but also with his time, and we talked about college, film careers, and the future of stratacut. I told him he should come do a lecture at Harvard (this is the second time I've blurted this out to a professional animator), and he said he'd try!

In other news, Tooey's August cake party was this last weekend. She mailed me an invitation that said, "Eat Cake! (this Sunday at 2pm) Poop Cake! (later)". It was a nice reunion with the people from last month. I tried to make a conquistador helmet but it looked like a dunce cap.

Reflections from East Aurora, NY

Our final days in Sierra Leone were spent in Freetown, soaking up sun on the beautiful beaches, and eating our first pizza after many months of cassava leaves. I maintain my initial opinion of Freetown (formed during my first two days in the country)- it is crowded, noisy, and for the most part quite scary. I miss the stillness and warmth of Gobaru.

I am putting the pieces of my life back together now- going back to where I started and weaving the memories into the tapestry of my new self. I hover between two worlds; an old world, in which, when I press a light switch, there is light, when I swipe plastic, there is money, when I open my computer, there is a wireless network available from every angle. When I wake with the dawn, there are no chickens or Moniatu to greet me, but the cold wooden floorboards on my bare feet, and the smell of my mothers' folgers brewing in the kitchen. The house is silent. I am left alone in my thoughts.

I am so thankful for every second of this experience, and to those without whom it would not have been possible- Mr. and Mrs. Weissman and the Weissman Foundation staff, the Davis Foundation, the Harvard College Sierra Leone Initiative, Saving Lives through Alternative Options,, the Sengeh family, and of course, my own family! If I have learned anything through this experience, it is the importance of reaching out and supporting each other- that we cannot stand unless we have others to lean on.

One of my students called yesterday, and it was like a thick reality infiltrating this East Aurora dream in which I have been living for the past two weeks. I am left speechless, searching for words that will bridge the distances which now divide us. The only resolution I find within myself is that, while this may have been my first time in Gobaru, it will not be my last. And this is the only certainty which remains.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

An insalata mista, if you will.

A short entry for once:

A. I spent yesterday morning chopping wild boar. OH man.

B. With Nicola's reappearance, the sweets duties are shared and I can do more than just the dessert routine. I learned how to make wild boar ragù, I pinched and folded hundreds of ravioli, I prepared some béchamel for the lasagna and made two kinds of focaccia yesterday. It's great to be out of the butter, sugar, flour, egg routine for a bit.

C. I emailed Bill Buford to let him know how much I appreciated his book--I mean it is half the reason I'm here--and against all odds he wrote back:
Dear Rebecca Cooper,
Thank you for your email hope that there won't be any lasting damage and that you'll get out of the kitchen as soon as possible.
Best wishes, and good luck. Yours,
Bill Buford. [Suhweet!]

D. The chef keeps all his recipes in an agenda book. One copy with the recipes scribbled--we mistook "farina" (flour) for "panna" (cream) once--is batter splattered, well-loved and well-used. The other is pristine, written with an architect's penmanship and tucked away in his locker. He lent it to me to copy down anything I want. "I normally never let it out of my sight. Becky, you're the first and the last," he said.

If you have any way of measuring ingredients with the metric system, here's how to make Fagottini di Pasta Brick alla Ricotta con Scaglie di Cioccolato Fondente e Miele Di Castagno--aka Pastry Shell Filled with Ricotta and Dark Chocolate, Drizzled with Chestnut Honey (tastes better than it sounds, I promise):

800g ricotta
140g powdered sugar
20g flour
40g chocolate chips (It's best if you get some melting chocolate and chop it coarsely.)
2 eggs
10 disks of fine pastry dough. (Buy it at Whole Foods or something?)
Chestnut honey (If you can find it.)

1. Prepare the filling.

2. Fold aluminum foil into strips to tie off pastry.

3. Lay out the pastry rounds (in French it's called feuilles de brick. The translation on the back says "fine pastry dough". Good luck)

4. Prepare a honey-water mixture. Just runny enough to spread over the pastry rounds.

5. (Do all the following as quickly as possible so the dough doesn't dry out.) Brush the pastry rounds with the honey.

6. Scoop a fist-sized dollop of the ricotta mixture onto the pastry.

7. Gather the pastry around the ricotta and tie off with the foil strip.

8. Place a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet (to allow some dripping/breathing room for the dessert) and line the fagottini up on the tray. Brush with more of the honey mixture.

9. Cover with plastic wrap and refridgerate until ready for use. Keeps fresh a week or so in the fridge.

10. When you're ready to serve, preheat oven to 183 degrees celsius (about 360 degrees farenheit). Place on a lightly buttered baking sheet, and heat for about 8 minutes or until the pastry turns a very light golden brown.

11. Plate, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle hazelnuts on top. Add some whipped cream, blueberries and mint if you want to get fancy schmancy. Et voilà!

E. Looking forward to this weekend. Raphael '06 is heading here on Saturday night and we're planning on watching the parade and archery tournament that ends Città della Pieve's annual festival. Rumor has it the target for the bow and arrow contest is three spinning cows.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Buttered fingers.

This is the kind of job that gets harder before it gets easier. Last week, if I fumbled or dropped something or didn't understand directions, it was because I was the stranger who strolled in the kitchen and happen to find herself wearing a uniform. My only fault was "organization". Imagine that. The girl who color-coordinates her notes.

Week two, things are a little different. I'm expected to remember how the panna cotta is plated vs. how the chocolate souffle is (the former is with strawberry sauce, fresh berries and mint, the latter is put in the oven for 8 minutes, 20% vaporization, 183 degrees celsius and set on a plate with orange cream swirled into a circle in the middle of the plate with a dusting of cocoa then powdered sugar and topped with mint and berries). There's about 10 different desserts and a different plating procedure for each. And that's just plating...I also have to remember how to make it in the first place--what size the logs should be for the cantucci (really really tasty almond and raisin biscotti), what ratio the honey-water mixture should be for the fagottini, the fact that the vanilla gelato cannot be made in an aluminum pot, how much each biscotto should be dipped into espresso for the tiramisú.... I'm expected to do everything faster, better, and make less mistakes (one morning, I had to make 4 batches of vanilla gelato, 4 batches of lemon sorbet, 2 apple cakes, 1 chestnut cake all while preparing all the desserts for lunch. Gah! Since each cake cooks a different amount of time I had to constantly keep track while also making sure the gelato wasn't over-freezing. And since the gelato can only go in a batch at a time I was constantly running from the kitchen to the ice cream machine. But as soon as I'd reach the machine, I'd hear "Via dolci!"--and I have to drop what I was doing, run back to my little corner of the kitchen, clean the counter (i'm SO tired of the word sporca, "dirty"), and plate whatever dessert order had just been placed. Phew! And that was a pretty average morning....) My pants literally split my first night alone on dessert duty. Haha. Porca miseria!

And yet, somehow, I'm still in love with this job.

The people in the kitchen never gave me a hard time--and I'm being overly critical of myself. The chef would just say, Non vabbene--"That's no good", would help me correct my mistakes, and would show me the right way to go about it the next time. How he has such endless stores of patience, I'll never know. Everyone actually managed to find the comedy in my fumbles. My less-than-pristine kitchen record (forgetting to put water in the lemon gelato, dumping gelatin into cold [but not ICY cold] water and having it turn into a goopy mess, my endless cycle of mistake --> concentrate so hard on not making another one and whaaamo!--> forgetting to do something else because I was thinking so hard about my previous mistake) was lovingly poked at when we went out last Wednesday after work. We could do nothing but laugh.

But regardless of my foibles, I'm definitely doing my share for the hotel. Apparently some guests complimented this morning's breakfast cakes, the impossible-to-please Senora Franca (she's from Rome but lives here for a month every summer) only wants the mixed fruit plate if I make it (variations from the past week, pictured. Gah. They all want me to take her with me when I head to NY. I refused on account of never wanting to make a fruit plate again in my life), and the manager of the hotel pulled me aside and said, "Thank God you're here. You're really a help."

A bit about the characters at hand:
Alessandro, 27, is the most breathtaking leader I've ever seen in my life. I'm convinced he led troops in Greece millennia ago before being reincarnated as head chef in Vannucci. He always knows exactly what's going on in the kitchen. He can simultaneously prepare a goose to be stewed (where does someone learn how to do that?) and warn Nicola that his soup is about to burn, remind me that I almost forgot to put something red on the dessert plate, scold Freddy that his spaghetti is no longer al dente and send down Pasqual to check on Giuseppe who's been missing for too long and is probably up to no good in the cellar. He never went to cooking school, he majored in engineering in college, and at 27, hes already the head chef of two fine restaurants.

I asked him if he wants to be a cook forever. He laughed.

"I'm here one, two more years tops. This isn't a job you can do forever. With the hours, you just don't have a life. I don't know what I'm going to do after, but not this for sure."

The whole kitchen staff is equally young. ("Whole" is actually exaggerating. I'm shocked at how many people a kitchen of 4 people can feed. Between the two restaurants, on an average night we do about 200 covers.)
Alfreddo, 26, is in charge of the antipasti--salads, bruschetta, etc etc. He's been working here about 6 months. We bonded over the fact we both speak French, and he taught me how to make his tiramisú. Of everyone in the kitchen, he's definitely the most quiet.

Pasqual (right) , 28, takes care of the primo piatti--the papardelle al ragu di cinghiale (he promised to teach me on Thursday. It's currently my favorite food), the risotto, the spaghetti, the lasagna. He started about the same time as Alfreddo. He's the easiest out of everyone to understand because he talks more with his hands than with words. (He's from Napoli, it makes sense.) He's always whistling or singing or joking around with the chef. He also only sees himself working here for two more years tops. He wants to go to Paris and New York, work for a while in some kitchens there and then head to Milan to teach cooking. "At least the hours will be more normal," he said. "I just can't keep going like this. It's mentally and physically tiring, you know."

Orlando (left), 40, is the manager of the hotel and his life aspiration is to become emperor. My third day here, he invited me to take a spin with him on his ATV. He drove along the windy highway roads and then we turned sharply into the woods. "Ok, we're off road. Now you drive." I've never hated rocks more in my life. I couldn't decide whether uphill or downhill was more terrifying. I mean it was gorgeous--the terrain when we got out of the brush was breathtaking--but all I really wanted to do was sit in my air conditioned room, take a shower and a nap and get ready for the next 6 hour shift. Peeling the branches from my forehead as we peeled ourselves from the ATV, I was ecstatic to get back to the kitchen. "Thanks so much for taking me!" I said. "No problem! I get the ATV back Saturday. We can go down the steep slope through the sunflower patch next time." I've made sure always to have an "article" to write during my midafternoon breaks.

Giuseppe is 21 or 22, calls me "Betty" and eats the last breakfast cornettos, the ends of my cakes, and the clump of tiramisú from my slice that was just slightly too big. He's also an apprentice and shuffles around cutting and frying potatoes, and then peeling and cutting and frying some more.

Alessandra, 27, trained me for the dessert station when I first came. She only works at night because she's working on her comparative literature (yes) thesis on medieval lit. We had discussions about the role of the stranger in German, French and Irish works while stirring batter for the breakfast cake. I'm going to miss her--she's switched to reception ever since Nicola came back (I feel like there's trouble with him on the horizon. We'll see.). She, like Alessandro her fiancé, always knew what was going on and could anticipate the next 10 steps while also joking and making silly voices and dancing around. Now that she's gone, it means the desserts are entirely my responsibility and that I'm the only girl in the kitchen.

Laura, the morning dishwashing lady, has become my surrogate mother in exchange for me being her substitute daughter. We were always friendly, but when she found out I was exactly three days younger than her (only) daughter who's currently in Rome, our roles were sealed. She helps me find the kitchen tools I can't find, shows me where the ice machine is when I have to redo my gelatin sheets and demonstrates the best way to zest an orange before Alessandro has time to realize I need correcting. She greets me with "Ciao amore!" every day. It's like a little bit of home here, a place I can run to if I send all the pots and pans tumbling. It's a nice break from the all-male, go go go of the kitchen and the quiet, reflective solitude of my hotel room and my walks through town.

This, needless to say, is not the kitchen that Anthony Bourdain writes about, or the dark, dank, terrifying one I envisioned to prepare myself for anything this summer. With everyone whistling, the breeze blowing, everything spotless (we scrub the place down every Monday morning), the food always clean and fresh, the chef commanding respect without imposing a dictatorship--I have no horror stories to tell. I'm afraid to work in any other kitchen because I know this can't be what they're all like.

On another note, a few days ago, Italian just suddenly clicked. I went from not understanding what was going on around me (nod, smile, gesture), to just getting it. What a great feeling. Speaking is still a little foggy. But it's better than it used to be (which was essentially English translated to French translated to Italian with some grammar added in and a gesture for good measure to make sure my point came across. I think the sign language I developed worked better and faster in the kitchen for a while.) I can't believe I'm going to be in an English-speaking country in less than two weeks. (A side-effect of being so estranged from the US: I still haven't seen The Dark Knight... but as consolation have you seen this yet?? 80s International Music Fest...) But honestly, after all this traveling, all this seeing, all this everything, the only place to go now is home.

* * *
Tomorrow I have the morning off and I'll probably head to breakfast with the guests like always, do some reading poolside and have lunch in town. Serving people all day has really made me appreciate eating in a restaurant in a whole new way. Then I'm back on for the dinner rush at 6 or so. But since Wednesdays are the easy day (Zafferannoooooooooooo is closed and the staff gets individual pizzas for the family meal--it's a big deal when I'm used to being served a big pot of braised meat and I have to ask what it is. "Oca." "Goose?" "Si." ), so I should have an early night if I don't decide to go out with the kitchen staff. But it's Renaissance fortnight in this crazy town, and I don't know if I can say no. We'll see we'll see.

Buona notte!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Wisdom from the Art Department

After about a month here, I have transcended the ennui of art department work and found enlightenment. Every layman's definition of stop-motion animation includes the word "tedious." You move a puppet one frame at a time, only finishing a second of animation after 24 frames. But even before that, you have to build the puppet out of wire, foam, cloth, and clay, and build the set he's standing in, and build the props he's holding. The animation component of stop-motion takes less time than the preparation for it. Sometimes, you wonder whether all this building is worth the animation at all...

This is particularly true in the land of commercials, where if you're doing a 15-second spot, and if four seconds of that gets used up with live action and shots of the logo, then you've got a total of about 11 seconds of animation. For an example, watch the commercial above, which Bent Image Lab made last year. In those 11 seconds, the commercial packs in 9 shots of animation, many of which are about half a second long. Nevertheless, every detail has to be fully realized. For instance, did you notice the items on the shelf inside the van? Probably not -- they're out of focus and in the background for less than a second. But rest assured that someone spent several days constructing and painting all of them, including the ones off-screen that never show up in the commercial at all.

So if no one's really going to see these things, why take the time to make them look good? Well, for one thing, somebody made the shelves, and somebody else made the back wall. A half-hearted job on the shelf items would tarnish the good work that the other artists have done. So part of the motivation behind doing good detail work is respect for the detail work everyone else is doing.

But what about the shelf items that we never see onscreen? Why bother making them at all? Oftentimes, the storyboard won't reflect the exact shot the director decides to use, and so first of all, it's unclear exactly what will be seen until they start shooting, so it's best to make things as if they will show up. Also, it's a matter of giving the director options. If a background element looks like crap, the artist who made it has essentially made a decision for the director that that element will not show up onscreen.

And ironically, in the land of commercials where most props get maybe three seconds of screen time, it is especially important for the art department's work to be impeccable. The client has 15 seconds to convince the TV audience that they NEED this product. There's no cushion time for the spectator's mind to wander. The mind control has to be perfect and complete. So if someone's watching a commercial and thinking, "Wow, that brick wall looks like they printed out a pattern from Google images..." then the commercial fails and it's the art department's fault.

See, I bet you never thought that art department peons like me are the titans that hold on our shoulders the global consumer economy. Well, now you know. So don't honk at me when I ride my bike on Division Street.