Tejal Rao: This is not the typical “chef cookbook.” What inspired you to take the route of rustic home cooking rather than the high concept Italian cuisine you’re best know for at your restaurant?
Fabio Trabocchi: Over the past few years I’ve been pushing the limits at Maestrobut my roots are Italian—that’s the foundation of my cooking. Whenever you create something new I think it’s good to look back and think about where you started. There are so many factors that have inspired me and influenced my cooking. Another way to look at it is as an interesting exercise in relating back to the consumer, to the guest. I wanted to connect with them and make Italian food accessible; I also didn’t want my first book to be pretentious. I have a lot more to learn before I make one of those “chef” cookbooks.
TR: In the book the Smoky Hay Turbot is a great example of how a great dish is created spontaneously and inspired by tradition. Is it still on your menu?
FT: No, it’s not on the menu anymore. But it’s a really good example of the beginning of my career, when I didn’t even know that I was starting a career as a chef. It’s clear now I’ve been influenced by certain things in my childhood like the flavors of the field.
TR: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
FT: I just bought a fairly new publication: Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. It’s a different kind of exercise, getting back to basics.
TR: In a way, that’s similar to your book, celebrating regional cuisine and the classics while figuring them out…
FT: Yes, and it’s also really unexpected coming from a chef of that level. It’s so interesting to find out the why and how of a classic dish. Another of my favorite books is L'Encyclopédie Culinaire du XXIe Siècle by Marc Veyrat; it's also very traditional. It’s in three volumes, which are all really great: the first is about the traditional French cooking he started with, the second about where he is now, and the third volume, which I especially like, focuses on botanical cuisine and Veyrat's knowledge of mountain herbs. I also really like Michael Mina’s book.
TR: What are your favorite recipes in your book?
FT: Every single one is true to a moment in my life. The book is a very personal reflection, not just in the sense of the recipes, but in the storytelling. It’s really a story about how this kid grew up (me!) and didn’t know he was becoming a chef. His father was not a chef, but taught his son about food. They spent hours at the markets together picking out the right ingredients then filled a jar with fountain water and went home to start cooking. Some of my favorite dessert recipes have been reinvented at Maestro and it’s interesting to see what shape they take when they come back, like the Crema Fritta. I love the Risotto Marchigiana because it’s such a quick fix. If you don’t know what you’re going to make it’s so easy to put together. And the Porchetta, the whole suckling pig, is great.
TR: The pictures are so rustic—the lighting, the wood in the background. Did you take them at the restaurant?
FT: Yes, actually we took them right next to my office!
TR: In the introduction you talk about your trip to Le Marche to research your book. How much time did it take?
FT: Peter and I only went for a week because that was all the time I could take off, everything else was memory and testing. It was great to discover things I’d forgotten that were really amazing.
TR: Did new dishes evolve while you were recreating the old ones? Please tell me about one.
FT: So many! It’s like Pierre Gagnaire's idea of studying where something comes from, new dishes naturally come out of that. We smoke a dorade which gets the flavor of charcoal and then we serve it with smoked potato soup, which comes cold. The crispy seared fish against the cool texture of the almost mousse-like potato, it’s great. The first time we made the fish on charcoal we nearly burned the restaurant down…
TR: Was there any dish, or taste, that proved impossible to replicate?
FT: Not really because almost every recipe is simple. Well, a couple are complicated in the sense of being labor intensive, but I broke those down into day 1 and day 2 to make them accessible. I love those recipes that purely reflect a special time of the year. Some dishes turn out differently though because the products are so different, like the Lasagna. It’s a challenge, as a chef, to keep them simple and not go overboard adding this and that flavor. I tried to keep them personal and simple, which is much better.
TR: How often do you go back to Italy?
FT: Not as much as I should. I’ll be headed back at the end of the month though.
TR: Any plans for a second cookbook?
FT: Not for something immediately. I’ll talk with some people though and see how things are going. Who knows?