Silvestro Silvestori is the owner of The Awaiting Table, a cookery school in Lecce, in the Italian region of Apulia. The Awaiting Table was featured, among others in The London Times, The LA Times, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine and The New York Times and it is internationally considered to be one of the finest cooking schools in Italy. Here students don’t just learn recipes: at the Awaiting Table cooking is intimately connected with culture, with a deep knowledge and love of the local territory. Students come from all over the world to stroll through the local markets, pick locally grown ingredients, learn about their history and then cook them into traditional recipes. We spoke to Silvestro about Italy, about clichés, food and why Puglia is not the new Tuscany.
You lived in Bologna before moving to Lecce. What made you decide to start The Awaiting Table in Salento rather than in Emilia?
I lived in Sicily, Umbria, Trentino and Bologna, totalling about 15 years before I ever moved to Lecce, 14 years ago. I’ve always felt more Southern and opening the school was the only way I could think to move south. My mother’s side is all southern and it’s where I have always felt most at home in the world. It’s also the best food and wine in Italy. And it’s the healthiest, which only re-enforced the decision. Smartest thing I’ve ever done.
You have been very vocal about the sanitised and dumbed-down package that is often marketed to tourists as the quintessential Italian experience. What are the most common misconceptions about Italy, Italian culture and Italian cuisine?
I don’t think we used those words but it does break my heart to see good people travel long distances to pay a lot of money for mediocre experiences. But it does happen millions of times a year in Italy.
Regarding misconceptions, most foreigners are surprised to learn how little nationalism there is in Italy, and that one of the most defining characters of Italy, is that virtually nothing is ‘Italian’: not language, wine, food, culture, history and certainly, most of all, the concept of self. Most of central Italy didn’t eat pasta historically. Not one eats bread from other regions. Very, very few in the South consider themselves proficient at making risotto. I’m guessing that less than one percent of the population on the peninsula has ever tried Barolo or Barbaresco. And on. A single meal in an Italian restaurant in Sydney, London or New York covers more Italian soil than most here see in their lifetimes. Said another way, food and wine in Italy are profound expressions of place, but that place is hyper local.
Puglia – and particularly Lecce – has gone in the past years from obscure region that few people outside Italy had ever heard of to hip destination for discerning travellers. Do you think there is a risk of the region becoming just another theme park for tourists?
It’s always relative, isn’t it? If you polled 10 international tourists, 9 still haven’t heard of the region, much less visited. We have a dossier of ten years of international magazine and newspapers, each predicting that Puglia will be ‘The New Tuscany’. Each has been wrong. As a school we say that the new model will not be a ‘next Tuscany’ but a diversification of tourism. This is, more sustainable, and more to the point, desirable. Our school is considered a runaway success and we only have 300 students a year, or less than one person per day throughout the year. But like I said, it’s very relative.
What isn’t relative though is the national perception of Puglia, as it’s been Italy’s number one domestic holiday destination for the last 15 years.
At the heart of your question though, I think, is this: when is tourism good and when it is bad? It’s good when it re-enforces the local culture. It’s bad when it dismantles it. No one wants to hear this but it’s our own fault when local tourism is bad. It means that we are selling whatever tourists want, versus selling them what we do that happens to make us special. I’m very proud of Puglia and the Salento but there is still a lot to do and all of it needs sober consideration along the way.
Let’s talk about cliches: as an Italian/American with a passion for food and wine, some would have expected you to open a restaurant in Italy, then possibly one in the US and eventually feature as a judge in a cooking show. You defeated this particular cliché and opened a cooking school instead. Why did you decide to focus on teaching rather than cooking?
I’ve never been interested in restaurant life and I graduated from university three times so I think education was always in my future. I’m particularly interested in the messy parts of learning, when one discipline spills over into another. Immigration drove agriculture, climate (which is ‘weather’ multiplied by ‘time’) dictated which grapes were grown here, phylloxera drove the alcohol content as a major component in the history of il Negroamaro, etc. The Northern border of the Salento begins both where the Ionian sea ends (geography) but also in the villages that were settled by the Messapians, rather than by the Greeks and/or Romans (culture and ethnicity). And on. Each of these elements affected our local food and wine.
Regarding the first part of the question, I don’t know of a culture that doesn’t have restaurants nor that isn’t currently transfixed by elimination-round, ‘reality’-based television programming. The sporting events, where the balls have been replaced with frying pans. Reality shows and the fixation on celebrity chefs are steps in the wrong directions, in my opinion. More home cooking is needed.
It says on your Facebook that your school has now taught students from 48 countries. What draws people with so many different backgrounds and traditions to this particular corner of Italy? What makes The Awaiting Table unique?
Yes, we had 47 and 48 just last week: the Phillipines and Uruguay. At the school we are always talking about the iceberg, the metaphor for what we actually teach. Most food and wine education now focuses on the personality of chefs, recipes and the constant ripping apart of traditional cuisine. This is the part of the iceberg that is above the water, the part you see.
We focus on the submerged, which is much larger, much more complex and much, much more compelling. To learn how to boil chicory is not very interesting. The information can be absorbed long before the water even comes to a boil. But the ‘why’ of chicory, of the aristocratic past, of why the poor began to eat weeds and other spontaneously-seeded plants and how those the same greens turn out to be the most elemental way that solar power can be rendered edible, making them the healthiest foods on the planet- and thus the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet, now, that is a fascinating.
Yes, the ‘how’ is important. Food is a craft not an art, it has to serve a purpose, to nourish. But the ‘why’ is mostly absent today in food and wine content, all around the world. As a school we can’t be all things to all people so daily we choose to dive into the fleshy humanity of our subject. And this resonants with people from all over the world, seemingly in equal measure.
You said in an interview that most people lose weight on your courses. I have recently come across an article by an american food blogger marvelling at the fact that most people in Italy are relatively fit, despite their mainly carb-based diet. Do you think that depends on the quality of the ingredients or an altogether different approach to food and cooking?
If I had to speculate on the single, most distinguishing factor here it is that there are implied portions. We don’t tend to eat between meals, say, as Spain does. Someone serving you more than you want of something isn’t considered a good thing, as it is in much of the world. Mealtimes are observed. People eat here in larger groups (if you cook for yourself you tend to cook your favourites, etc).
Yes, our students almost always lose weight on our course but very few of them are overweight to begin with.
Every year, you bicycle through Southern Italy exploring vineyards for two months. What has been your favourite discovery so far?
Etna. It’s like Burgundy, but without the hundreds of years of history of charting which fields do best. I get goosebumps every time I bicycle up the mountain. Vulture is hidden gem as well. And in the last five years I’ve been adding several days around Marsala, studying the grapes that used to go into the former wine by that name. Each has been isolated again and the quality of the whites is extraordinary. Of course il negroamaro always impresses, and lately, even as champagne-method rosès. The south is certainly the most dynamic sector of Italian wine today. It keeps me up at night, reading as much as I can.
If you could give just one piece of advice to a first-time visitor to Italy, what would that be?
Travel comes down to one maxim, Everyone gets the trip he or she deserves. And arriving informed ALWAYS beats spending lavishly. Read guide books. Watch youtube documentaries. Ask around. Follow hoteliers and restaurant-owners on social media before you depart. Read Trip Advisor. Slow food guides.
Take a second and close your eyes and think about something in Italy that you are just dying to see. Consider its history. Its place within the culture. What you know about it and why you want to experience it. Now consider what that experience would be like for someone that has never even heard of it. What for you are remarkable remains of the Roman empire for them is just oddly-placed stones.
More pragmatically, if you want to understand Italian life go to smaller cities of around 100,000 people, the way the majority of us actually live here. You’d research a new car throughly before buying it. A trip for a family can often cost the same amount. If you really love something, you’ll seek to understand it, beyond cliches and superficialities. That’s the difference between tourists and travellers.