Italian Inspiration: A Chef Finds His Muse in Florence
As a chef, I find inspiration in my surroundings, like the farms and markets of Northwest Indiana. That inspiration is often translated into the dishes I make at Spire.
Here in LaPorte, I am living my dream of owning and running my own “farm-to-fork” restaurant, but it is also important for me to get away from it all and find inspiration in other places. If there is one place on Earth that I can gain more inspiration than any other, it is Florence, Italy. Florence has taught me new ways to appreciate my craft and the food I work with.
My first trip to Italy, in 2007, was a study-abroad opportunity at the Apicius International School of Hospitality. It was my first trip out of the country and I was naively amazed that people could live so differently from the way I was used to living. On that trip, I stayed across the street from the city’s central market. At times, I felt literally sucked into the market by the hordes of people, their bodies funneling me into the center of delicious chaos.
Hurtling into a food market with seemingly endless booths of fresh produce, seafood and meats, cheeses, cured meats, olive oil and wine was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start or end, who had the better fresh seafood or best olive oil. I wanted to stop at each stand and speak my broken Italian to the vendors and do my best to fumble through ordering what was to become my dinner in just a few hours.
At the market, I found that Italians buy only what they need for that day’s meal and possibly for breakfast the next morning—so different from the American grocery shopping trip that usually ends with an oversize cart filled with processed foods and frozen meats that will last for weeks. This experience had a huge impact on my culinary journey. It taught me that buying fresh foods was not only possible but also quite simple.
That transforming experience was the first of many for me in Florence.
I returned there in 2011 and 2013 with students from Robert Morris University in Chicago, and I had the opportunity to co-teach several classes at the same school where I had been a student a few years previously. One of my favorite daily experiences on those trips was to stop at a pasticceria for a heavenly slice of focaccia topped with tomatoes, rosemary and cheese (and maybe some butter cookies, too) and then stroll around the city, taking in the ancient buildings and gardens and watching the rowing teams practice on the Arno River. In the evenings, I would visit my favorite trattoria for a plate of piping-hot handmade pasta with an amazing sauce, a mix between a traditional Bolognese and a cheese sauce—slightly acidic, rich and oh-so-delicious.
On my most recent trip, in 2013, I learned a new cooking concept: how to make a white ragù with tough cuts of meat simmered slowly in white wine, stock, fresh herbs, garlic and other aromatics. It’s called a white ragù because of the lack of tomatoes, and it is absolutely perfect to accompany freshly made ricotta gnocchi on a cold spring night.
These experiences have influenced my career and my personal relationship with food. At Spire Farm-to-Fork, you can taste the influence of Italy in our handmade pastas and gnocchi. (The idea of pre-made or processed food items are not on most Italians’ radars.)
I take a lot of pride in the fresh food that I create and serve, and this comes, in large part, from the time I’ve spent in Florence. In Italy, food is more than a daily necessity—it is a way of life. At Italian restaurants, a meal can last several hours while diners enjoy the company of friends and family, good wine and, most importantly, food that has been passionately made by chefs who know no other way to cook. At Spire, enjoying the people, wine and food without feeling rushed is our greatest Italian influence.