Saturday, August 9, 2008

La dolce vita

Running from Paris to Berlin to the IHT to Prague and then back to the IHT has left me little time to do the past few weeks justice on this blog. It will come--piano piano--albeit in tinged flashback form. But first, two major things need to be noted.

1. I finished my IHT internship.
2. I've changed languages, changed careers, changed clothes and changed country.
oh and 3. Now I'm actually sleeping.

Things are DIFFERENT. Exactly a week ago, I was having dinner with my best friends in Paris at my favorite neighborhood restaurant and I was swing dancing at a club off Boulevard Sebastopol where it was unlimited champagne and macaroon night. Today I gave about 50 porcini mushrooms a sponge bath. Exhibit A:

I feel like I've shed skin and put zipped on a new life. The Becky that worked in the (air-conditioned) office of an international newspaper, slugging stories and writing captions in a comfy rolly chair during the week and traveling to fantastic cities during extended weekends is lost somewhere in Charles de Gaulle's Terminal 2. The second I arrived at Hotel Vannucci and donned my kitchen whites (exhibit B), my old life seemed like it never existed.... It's kind of like the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment where the people wearing the guard costumes stop being actors playing guards and actually become them, except without the permanent psychological damage, etc. After only a week, it's stopped being a game of dress up. I even appreciated the accidental poignancy of Rome's Fiumicino airport; they temporarily lost my suitcase and during those first 4 transitional days, I was literally free of old baggage. By the time the suitcase arrived at the hotel, my transformation was complete. Wearing my chef outfit, peeling the potatoes, I've abandoned my old cares and thoughts and habits. And I'm loving every minute. (I'm also reading too much Calvino.)

I guess I need to explain a little bit about how I got here and why I'd want to spend 12 (yes, apparently twelve) hours a day, 6 days a week in a kitchen in the very middle of Italy that averages 38 degrees celsius.

Last summer I was in New York designing a map of Manhattan and falling in love with food writing during the commute, namely Bill Buford's Heat (the story of the former fiction editor of the New Yorker obsessively following Mario Batali's footsteps through random kitchens in Italy). He describes tortelli di zucca as "a mouthful of autumn" and I was determined to try some. I was also planning to take some language classes (because everyone had told me "don't waste your time at Harvard on languages. you can learn them any time" and I took any time to mean that summer), but between the internship, friends, and the commute, I didn't have any spare time.

Ok, the scene is set for my trip to Italy that closed out the summer. The second to last night of the vacation, I had dinner at El Mercante, a tiny agriturismo just north of Lake Como. Their restaurant had, you guessed it, tortelli di zucca (ravioli and tortelli are arguably interchangeable). Buford's description barely does their pumpkin ravioli justice. I really had to close my eyes between bites. That Buford moment--"I went to Italy...I ate a homemade pasta, and my life, in a small but enduring way, was never the same" (106)--clarified everything. I knew I was going to take Italian in the fall and I was determined to cook in that kitchen the next summer.

6 months later, a semester into Italian A, it was time to set up the internship at El Mercante. But the agriturismo's so small, it could only be reached by phone and my Italian wasn't good enough to explain my request live ("Can I please be an apprentice in your kitchen for the month of August? I promise I won't steal your family recipes," apparently isn't a part of the fall curriculum). I asked my friend Dan to do it for me. "Sure no problem," he said and called me back half an hour later.

"So I spoke to the mom," he said, as in the mom, the grandma and the daughter who run the place, "and she said, 'Sure, but why don't you just work for the hotel instead? They're desperately looking for staff this summer.'"
Agriturismo, hotel. Didn't make much difference to me. "Ok, of course! Sounds great."

We hung up and I played back what had just happened. I yelped.

He hadn't said "the" mom, I realized. He had said "my" mom. Dan's mom owns a hotel in Umbria...So with the mixup of one simple word, I was working for my ex-boyfriend's mother instead of for a rotund Northern Italian grandmother. Woops.

Anyway, things couldn't have turned out better if I tried. This apprenticeship is better than anything I imagined it to be at that dinner a year ago. The hotel has two restaurants, a relaxed, neighborhood-restaurant style trattoria and an upscale, fine-dining restaurant, Zafferano. (Zafferano has turned into such a terrifying word. Every time someone says it in the kitchen, I shudder. Nothing ever seems to be good enough for it.) Both serve really authentic Italian fare and I'm learning to make it all, little by little. This is the most hands-on internship there is--I make foccaccia and dough for the egg pasta in the morning, cake for the next day's breakfast in the afternoon, gelato, tiramisu and torta di mele (the cake on the silver platter), and little odds and ends of things (degunking mussels, cleaning and cutting squid for calamari, slicing bread for bruschetta, peeling figs) until it's time for the dinner rush during which the dessert station is my responsibility. I snuck some pictures of desserts I plated before they were whisked off. The first is panna cotta with frutta di bosco sauce and the second is a black and white fondente for Zafferanooooooooooooooooo. In exchange for working in the kitchen, I get free room and board--which works out to be a hotel room for a month, delicious family meals (my favorite time of day?), unlimited Italian coffee and a staff of young, sweet Italians who are as excited about my arrival as I am. Sweet deal.