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Texan in Toscana

A moment turned into an hour, a day, and a lifetime…

Above: One of my jobs when I worked at the Ristorante Il Pino in San Gimignano was cooking the massive Porterhouse, known as the “bistecca alla fiorentina,” a dish that has become one of our signature entrées (and one of our best values) here at Siena Ristorante Toscano. Those are fresh porcini mushrooms on the side!

Aside from being visually stunning, Tuscany is rich with wild game, fresh produce, abundant seafood, excellent olive oil, marvelous wine and beautiful people. I had just completed two months of culinary classes in northern Italy and since I would be opening a Tuscan restaurant back in Texas, I chose Tuscany as the region to complete my externship. Fortunately, I was assigned to Il Pino, in San Gimignano, where I would work six days a week, eleven hours a day, doing everything from scrubbing pots to grilling the massive Porterhouse bistecca alla fiorentina. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to immerse myself in a cuisine I had studies and attempted to reproduce over the past eleven years. What I came away with was more than a culinary education.

In all my years of cooking nothing could have prepared me for the transformation I would undergo while working at Il Pino. I would connect with a place inside myself that had gone to sleep or rusted from lack of use. A place that exists inside all of us that had been buried under too many years of chasing the dollars, wolfing down cheeseburgers, running to board meetings, and buying bigger houses. It was a moment that turned into an hour that turned into a day that became the first of many. And I remember it vividly…

Cooking from the heart…

As part of my externship at Ristorante il Pino in San Gimignano, the restaurant provided me with a small room above the kitchen. Each morning as I made my way down the stairs, I would hear the serious whacking of the sous chef’s meat cleaver as he hacked up the wild boar legs and shoulders. The aroma of roasting onions for stock, fresh baked bread, cappuccino brewing, and cantaloupe always accompanied this sound.

As I entered the kitchen and said my buon giornos, my sense of smell locked on to the sweet scent of the fresh cantaloupe. I was immediately overwhelmed by the flood of memories triggered by this familiar aroma. It wasn’t just the melon: it was a combination of aromas coming together in some sort of olfactory symphony. And it was playing my song.

I must have looked dazed as I stood in the kitchen trying to mentally process what was happening. In my mind, I saw my grandmother cutting up the cantaloupe, my grandfather bringing in a large ham from the smoke house. The coffee was percolating and the lid on a pot of beans was starting to dance up and down. I could smell the furniture in the farmhouse and hear the laughter of relatives and the clack of shuffling dominoes in the living room. I was transported back in time. There was a stirring in my heart and the voice in my head was saying, “welcome home.”

Then, for the first time in my culinary career, I actually grasped the true meaning of “cooking from the heart.” And that is what Siena Ristorante Toscano is all about…

Coming full circle…

Above: San Gimignano, one of Tuscany’s most famous “walled” cities, renowned for its “skyline” of medieval towers.

The fine white feathers are literally glued to your hands by the quick drying blood of the pigeon. It was futile to wash after each bird or in between sips of cappuccino. So the task was to keep feathers out of your cappuccino as well as dressing the twelve pigeons before moving on to the five ducks. Thus, my days would begin while working in the kitchen of Il Pino, a family-owned restaurant in the gorgeous medieval town of San Gimignano, Tuscany.

The glitz, glamour, and romance of living in Italy seems to fly right out the window when you find yourself bleary-eyed, half-awake, and exhausted while eviscerating pigeons at 7:30 in the morning.

Six days a week I would submerge myself in the duties of being a spare set of hands and the willing servant of the talented Chef Francesco.

Here, I would see the truth and simplicity of Tuscan cuisine rolled out day after day, and here, I would feel my culinary life come full circle…

I moved to Tuscany and it just hit me…

This circle began over forty years ago in a small west Texas community called Decker. My grandparents had a small but productive farm with just enough acreage to support an abundant supply of wild game, livestock, and several large gardens. All men in the family were avid hunters and serious domino players while the women were prolific cooks and masters of this domain.

What good was basket of quail if no one could make them taste good?

Each Sunday all my relatives within a sixty-mile radius would gather at the farm to visit, hunt, fish, play dominoes, cook, and eat. My Grandmother was always at the center of this culinary maelstrom. Breakfast with black coffee, fresh milk with cream still on top, fresh eggs with bright orange yolks, biscuits with fresh churned butter, ham and bacon from the smoke house and fruit, usually cantaloupe with its distinctive aroma that to this day triggers a flood of memories.

Lunch was always light and consisted of a myriad of leftovers from previous huge suppers, cold fried chicken, corn and sweet pepper salad, more biscuits, green bean salad, sliced ham, pea salad with mayonnaise and boiled eggs, carrot salad with raisins, cornbread, and sometimes fried fish, usually small crunchy perch (depending on how lucky my cousins and I were at the fishing hole earlier).

Dinner was always huge, the food was seasonal and the variety stupendous. In the fall and winter it was platters of braised venison, fried venison, roasted quail, huge pork chops, fried cottontail rabbits, butterbeans with ham and sage, oven roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, roasted wild turkey, rich brown gravy, fruit cobblers, bread puddings, chocolate pies and lots of sweet tea.

In the spring and summer it was wild green salads with cucumbers and cider vinegar, tomato and red onion salads, braised dove and dumplings, fried chicken, rosemary roasted lamb, corn on the cob, big pots of vegetable soups, yeasty rolls and lots of sweet tea. It was the kind of food I though would be around forever. I had no idea that a future of packaged, bland, instant, dietetic food was looming on the horizon.

As year passed, I drifted farther and farther away from that solid, simple, honest home cooking, even though I became an accomplished chef and I enjoyed cooking at home, I could never reproduce the flavors, smells, and freshness of those Sunday suppers. I could always come close but there was a certain wholesome element missing.

Then I moved to Tuscany and it hit me.

Chef Harvey is currently working on the next installment of this epic tale. Stay tuned!

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