Learning the rules, then breaking them

I’m a French-trained cook. And I love France. The two years I spent at cooking school in Paris were the most crazy-fun of my life. I fell in love with the city for its history, its beauty, and the glorious elegance of its architecture. Twenty something years old and desperate to reinvent myself, I was comforted by the culture’s resolute formality; its obligatory salutations, and its passion for order.

I fell in love with French cuisine for all the same reasons. Codified in the 17th century, it’s a definitive art. There is a right way to do things and many wrong ways. The cuisine is built on a series of cooking techniques. You start with the basics – knife skills, stocks, basic sauces, sauté. As you advance, you learn to extend and elaborate those techniques. The schooling was linear and precise. It trained me to think in terms of rules, categories, and hierarchical organization. 

A few years ago, the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan (now the International Culinary Center) decided to break new ground and launch an Italian cooking program. I landed the job of writing the curriculum. For years, I’d been quietly peeved by America’s snubbing of France in favor of Italian cuisine, and I was keen to see what all the hubbub was about.

I knew nothing about Italian food and that was the idea. My job was to be a translator. I was to stand at the stove next to Cesare Casella -- a very fine Italian chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author, now the new Culinary Director of the nascent program -- and write down the recipes as he cooked. We both understood that my lack of expertise and my questions – why do you do that? What are you looking for? Is this dish from a particular region? – would produce precisely the information required to teach other cooks who were, like me, innocent of the secrets of Italian cuisine.

Naively, I had assumed that Italian cuisine would be not-so-different than French. Different ingredients, okay. But European. And so, during the first two or three weeks of work with Cesare, I attempted to impose my French training on the food. One day I thought for sure I’d worked it out. Pasta sauces. Oh good… categories! There were tomato sauces, and cream sauces, and broth-based sauces; couldn’t we teach them like that?

I approached Cesare with my idea, and received a thunderous look and a succinct “no.” Though his English was far better than my Italian, little discussion of subtleties was possible between us. I realized that this was going to be more complicated than I had thought.

It went on like that until we got to bean soups. I’m not sure why the light dawned that day. The French certainly make bean soups. But as Cesare dumped cooked chickpeas into the pot in which he’d cooked his soffritto – that inevitable Italian assembly of vegetables, olive oil, and herbs – I got it. Italian food wasn’t like French food. It wasn’t much about rules at all. Cooking Italian was intuitive and personal. Unlike French food, Italian cuisine has never been codified. In fact, the 20 regions that make up modern Italy had only managed to organize themselves into a unified country 150 years ago. There are few agreed upon rules and there is no right way. (Which doesn’t mean Italians are not adamant about their habits. Italian cooks all make things differently and swear it’s the only way.) 

And so I began cooking Italian. And it was wonderful. In retrospect, it seems to me that the purpose of my French training had been to shape me into someone who followed rules. Which was great for a kid who was looking for a new life. If I just followed these rules, I thought, I could become someone else. 30 years later, I realized that living by the rules had made me afraid. They got in the way of creativity. Now when I cook, I have an easier relationship with those rules. If Italian cooks don’t worry, well, I won’t either.

Here’s a Southern Italian summer pasta recipe from Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family, which I wrote with Anna Boiardi. Feel free to substitute the rigatoni with any tubular pasta, including penne and penne rigate.


Serves 4

This can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature; taste it for seasoning before you serve. Or, you can bake the vegetables, cover with foil and set them aside at room temperature until you’re ready to eat; the heat of the just-cooked pasta will rewarm the vegetables.

1/4 cup plus 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Vidalia (or other sweet) onion, finely sliced

9 to 10 fresh plum tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press, or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 1/2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

2 1/2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino cheese

1 pound rigatoni

 Preheat the oven to 400˚F and center a rack in the oven.

  1. Spread the bottom of a 13-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet with 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Scatter the onion slices evenly over the baking sheet in a single layer. Slice the tomatoes crosswise about 1/3 inch thick, and arrange the slices side by side over the onions so that the entire baking sheet is evenly covered. Push the slices right up against each other without overlapping them. Sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. If you’re using fresh garlic, squeeze it through a press onto the cutting board (not directly onto the tomatoes – you don’t want it all to land on one lone tomato). Sprinkle the pressed garlic or garlic salt, if you’re using that, evenly over the tomatoes. Sprinkle the Parmesan so that each tomato slice gets a light covering and then do the same with the pecorino. Drizzle all over with 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil.
  2. Roast until the edges of the tomatoes are shriveled (some will begin to brown) but the tomato slices themselves have not yet begun to brown, 50 to 60 minutes.
  3. For the rigatoni, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt until the water tastes salty (about 1/4 cup). (I know this sounds like a lot but in Italy, cooks want the pasta to absorb and be flavored by the salt. Use less if you like.) Set a colander in the sink. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain in the colander. Return the rigatoni to the pot. Scrape in the tomato-onion mixture, add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, and stir well. Divide it among shallow bowls or deep pasta plates. Add a little pepper to each, and serve with more Parmesan cheese.