The day before lockdown in NYC my best friend and I decided to make a blow-out dinner. We didn’t need a pandemic to spark the idea of cooking a huge meal with friends, we do it often and with great relish, but this had the vibes of a last supper kinda jam, so we wanted to do something even more special.
Peter my buddy had been collecting this amazing cookbook series called “In Bocca” his entire life. They were extremely rare, printed in the 70’s on cardboard, and had these wild illustrations and very unique recipes from the 20 regions of Italy. He had recently found the last book to complete his 20 year quest of completing the series, so we thought we’d cook a meal from them.
As we live in Brooklyn, so grocery shopping is more than just hitting up the local grocery. We have specialty markets, like Pino’s and Caputo’s, or little mom and pop stores that sell impossibly good, authentic product that you only know of by paying years of ridiculously high rent to live in NYC. So we hit up these places to make the best version of these dishes we could imagine, sparing no expense.
Camera in tow as always, I documented the day, going from shop to shop, casually interviewing the purveyors, the butchers, the mongers and chatting about all of our favorite topic, food. This is the real pleasure of living in NYC for me, the people, the shared experience, and talking with folks who are masters of their trade, no matter if it’s in rotten milk or dead flesh, these are people that are dedicated to what they do, usually following a lineage of similar family members that if you let them will show you the magic that they know so well.
Fortunately New Yorkers aren’t really camera shy.
Back at home we dove deep into the books and got to cooking. Peter and I are definitely not chefs, but we do know how to cook, and we definitely know what’s good. So the process is always fun and interesting, there is constat laughing and cursing, and always a dramatic undertone of possibly ruining an entire meal. I will say this; I find “reality TV” really boring, but, there is one show I live and die for, and that is the Great British Baking Show. The reason is that the people on there are, like us, not bakers, but their passion, their love, and reason d’etre is baking. That’s where the authentic drama comes in, because succeeding at something you love can bring great elation, but failure truly devastated, and you feel it through the screen. Watching well seasoned chefs cook is like watching porn stars fuck; boring, Because everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen.
Food taste bests with drama, ask any Italian mother.
So there we were, a rainy, tempestuous day down in deep Red Hook, salty air cooling down the steamy kitchen. We had somehow completed 4 dishes and documented the process for better or worse. Friends started to trickle in through the door, a select handful who we know would be honest and good company, this, the last of gatherings for who knows how long, to sit at our table and share a meal.
Was it a success? Of course. Not because we nailed each dish but because food did what food is supposed to do when it is at its best; bring people together and satiate not just appetite but communion. I know it sounds hokey but Bourdain told me something once I’ll never forget, “just eat the fucking cake”.
Food can be elevated to this illusive level, too revered to speak plainly about (this is the beauty that is Chef’s Table). I think you can do that because of how powerful food can be, the feelings it can give you, the way it can control you, and the memories you can make around it. In reality, food is something that connects all of us, one of the very few things that make us human: we all eat. Doesn’t matter the country, the language, the color, the shape, the anything we all stuff our faces. These are wild times, a year has been turned upside down, we’ve all been looking inward in our confines and examining life a little closer. Food, this meal, and the idea of breaking bread, mean a lot more to me now, and while it can seem all very important, just eating the fucking cake is probably the most important thing to remember, because that’s what makes it real.
While the experience was amazing, honestly it was just another Tuesday night for us doing what we love to waste our time doing; cooking, eating and bullshiting with friends. What was really surprising was the love this project got online after I cut it up and made alittle website for it. Celebrity chefs and epicurean royalty were stopping by virtually to be interviewed and share their story with food and these books. I even got to talk to the illustrator of the series, Rodo, now in his 80’s in Rome, and still as passionate about these books as his paintings would suggest. We even partnered with the World Food Bank, and Food Bank of New York and did a live event with Atlas Obscura to raise money for those suffering from the pandemic. It seemed that these books connected not just me and Peter with what we love but a lot of people.
At one point I got a random phone call from a woman named Allesandra in Sicily. She was the daughter of Antonio Raspa, the very man that created and published the books originally. She was in tears, and couldn’t believe anyone even remembered these books. She told me amazing things about them that I would never otherwise know, like which recipes where from her mother, and that the handwriting printed in the book was from her aunt. To me, this was the real gift of the books, and what I think Bourdain would agree with is the real gift of food.
So how did this little film that one person shot one random night get nominated for two Taste Awards? I really don’t know, but I sure hope it was because they saw true love on screen. Now I’m just freaking out about even possibly winning. Just being invited to the party that has honored some of my greatest idols is like a dream.
If you wanna experience this little trip come on by www.italyinbocca.com and see the whole film, and buon appetito!