On Sunday afternoon I got a chance to learn Italian American cuisine interpretation from one of Ed Levine's favorite chefs: Tom Valenti. He's owner and executive chef at Ouest and the soon-to-be-opened West Branch on the Upper West Side. Like many other Italian-Americans, I wanted to expand beyond the marinara sauce, meatballs, and sausage and peppers of my mother's repetoire. Luckily the menu was Arancini (Rice Balls) and Linguine with Tuna and Pepperoncini, two dishes most of us didn't have too much of growing up.
These were not childhood dishes for us, because none of us are Tom Valenti. He grew up on "the kinds of food that snowstorms were made for", all cooked by his Italian grandmother (who makes her way into every dish he makes).
The two-hour class consisted of Valenti and his sous chef quickly making the provided recipes, with various anecdotes and bits of information pieced in, which everyone furiously scribbled on their note pads. We were introduced to porcini mushroom powder, and canned black truffles—which taste pretty awful on their own. We learned the best thing you can do to marinara sauce is add a can of olive oil packed tuna, and to preseason raw tomatoes and let them sit for a good while. Without even roasting them, they will look and taste like candy.
When we finally carried out the recipes, that's when the real experience arrived. We got to cook with other people who will not yell at you while you prep ingredients, who are there because they want to be there. But best of all there was Tom Valenti, the most warm-hearted and gracious chef on Earth, walking up to your table, tasting your sauce, and raving about its perfect flavors.
While we cooked, a bunch of mini Tom Valentis ran around, helped students with whatever was needed, and gave tips on how to roll rice balls—one hand for dry ingredients, the other for wet. One gracious assistant chef offered to take pictures of me getting my hands dirty. My recommendation for next year's event is a photographer doing just this for every student.
Students ran around and bumped into each other, tasted each others dishes, asked Valenti for tips, and discussed their other classes. Time whizzed by because we didn't have to chop or measure our ingredients. We did however get to personalize the perfectly cooked al dente linguine with our version of "appropriate seasoning". At least we took the recipes home and could spend quality time with them—like any self-respecting Italian cook would do—so we could impress our own Italian grandmothers (or significant others).
One thing I wish Valenti taught us: How he can chop garlic so fast, without looking, and without batting an eye. I'm looking forward to the opening of West Branch, to acquire an even more detailed portrait of Valenti's childhood in a more casual setting--one two-hour session with him is simply not enough.
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