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Fabio Trabocchi's Italian Regional Cookbook, Cucina of Le Marche on StarChefs.com

Cucina of Le Marche Italian Regional Cooking
by Fabio Trabocchi
(Harper Collins, 2006)

Interview with Fabio Trabocchi By 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 Maestro but 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.

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.

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.

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Cookbook: Cucina of Le Marche

by Tejal Rao
February 2007

The theater is inevitably evoked when seated for dinner at Maestro in Washington DC, where Fabio Trabocchi designs his high-concept Italian cuisine. There, each dish is plated with the surgical precision of long tweezers and the theatrical flair of the open passe, front-center of the dining room. And so Trabocchi’s new cookbook, a highly personal delve into the little known cuisine of Le Marche, Italy, surprises with its sepia-toned pages and mostly pictureless recipes. Trabocchi illustrates the regional specialties with only a handful of photographs near the center of the book, photos that could pass for touched up 19th century daguerreotypes: family-style plating, rustic backdrops of worn tablecloths and wood, ladles of broth over bowls of paysanne-cut vegetables, and a whole suckling pig bound with string. Without the crutch of design and distraction of photography on every page—which so many cookbooks rely on—Trabocchi’s family recipes and short stories stand on their own to communicate his eloquent culinary philosophy: chefs are products of a specific place and time.

For those who’ve watched Trabocchi confidently lead his team of cooks by headset system in the grand open kitchen, what might seem even more surprising than the limited dish photographs is the small black and white one of Trabocchi himself on his family’s balcony as a small child. While the book is about the food of his childhood, it’s hard to imagine Trabocchi as an untrained culinary student proudly serving his family one of his first invented recipes, a simple chestnut soup (page 38). But before he zipped off to Spain, England, Russia and finally established himself as part of DC’s culinary pantheon, he reminds us with Cucina that he was a starry-eyed boy filling his head with his first “heavenly” smell of black truffles (from the full basket of a truffle-gathering monk in the woods by the hill-town Sant’ Angelo).

The stories have notes of pastoral bliss, yes, but for those tired of the romantic imagery and over emphasized old world quaintness of the rustic cookbook genre, Cucina doesn’t fall into that trap. In a time when chefs and consumers alike are idealizing and celebrating the farm and the farmer more than ever, Trabocchi proudly notes he comes from a pedigree of farmers under Italy’s mezzadria system but goes on to explain how in the 60’s, when he was a kid, the cities lured workers away from their family farms with factory jobs and big-time agriculture took over. As the sharecropping-like system collapsed, his father became a long-haul truck driver whose few days home were always celebrated with family and food—the book is dedicated to him.

The recipe-driven book is sorted simply by appetizers, pastas, meats and so on, and prefaced with a personal story, often witty (in a fussy olive appetizer recipe he shrugs, sure they’re time-consuming, all that sitting around and stuffing each individual olive, but hey, the national pastime is gossiping so it’s perfect!). He celebrates Le Marche’s quirks with explanations of dialect differences from Italian, scattered jokes, and well-researched traditional recipes. A basic section at the back gives recipes for stocks, tomato sauce, and two pasta recipes, one for stuffed pastas and one for noodles.

While Trabocchi admits to specific nostalgia for life on the farm, the book itself is not a simple romantic contemplation. In fact it seems more of a study in how history and scent-memory can all, in context, provoke meaningful spontaneity and originality in the kitchen. The proof: Smoky Hay Turbot (page 117). The idea came about one afternoon while reminiscing with fellow Italian sous chef about the smell of burning hay, when the two noticed a piece of turbot lying on the counter...mischief ensued. At Maestro the proof lay in the eating; the turbot arrived plated on glass through which long strands of hay were visible, referencing his affectionate memory of the countryside, authentic in terms of philosophy, but somehow new. In Cucina that same turbot is adorned only with olive oil-mounted mashed potatoes and fleur de sel, served family-style of course.


Smoky Hay Turbot with Potatoes
From Cucina of Le Marche by Fabio Trabocchi (Harper Collins, 2006)
Adapted by StarChefs.com

Yield: 6 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 2-3 pound-turbots, split lengthwise, filleted and attached to the bone
  • 4 handfuls clean hay
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 12 fingerling potatoes
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Fleur de sel, to taste
Method:
Rinse the turbot under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Divide the hay, rosemary, and thyme between 2 Dutch ovens or other large, heavy pots with lids. Set one pot aside for the fish and nestle the potatoes in the other. Cover and place of medium-high heat. After about 45 minutes, remove the potatoes and peel them using a cloth napkin to protect your fingers from the heat. In the meantime, cover the pot and take off heat to stop the smoking. Fold in ½ cup olive oil and chopped parsley, and season to taste. Cover and set aside somewhere warm until serving, reheating only if necessary.

Place the second pot of hay over medium-high heat. While it heats, place 2 large skillets over medium high heat with 4 Tablespoons of butter in each. When the butter begins to sizzle, add 1 turbot filet to each skillet and sear for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden. Baste the fish frequently with butter as it cooks. Repeat until all filets are seared.

When the pot begins to smoke, place the seared filets inside, cover, and cook for 8 minutes. Transfer the fish to a platter, cover with aluminum foil and rest another 8 minutes. Once rested, remove the fish from the bone and place on a plate skin side down, sprinkled with fleur de sel and drizzled with olive oil. Serve immediately with the potatoes.

 

INTERVIEW WITH FABIO TRABOCCHI
continued
 >>

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.

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.

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!

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.

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…

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.

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.

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?

 



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