In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible.   We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless.   Bon Apetito.

Cooking at Riserva di Fizzano kitchen with Olive Garden

Less than half of us in the kitchen

Our leisurely morning began by pairing off and studying our recipe assignments for dinner.   I paired with Linwood, the engineer from NC.  Our assignment was the contorni (side dish) caponata – eggplant tomato casserole.    Seemed like all about the chopping and we quickly determined we would have it easy as opposed to Rick’s group of three with three complicated appetizers or the pair with fresh pasta as their assignment.    The final pair had two side dishes of stuffed peppers and sliced, roasted potatoes.    The head chef, Aldo, would be responsible for the grilled steaks!

Olive Garden hat

Chef Rick Henderson models his hat

All the recipes are from the book, Regional Italian Cuisine by Hess and Silver and published by Barron’s.   Exquisite book which we were delighted to be given signed copies as a gift.   Weighs a ton but fabulous!  After lunch we were outfitted with our own Olive Garden caps and borrowed chef’s coats and shown the VERY strict hand cleaning requirements.   Basically, wash your hands as often as possible and/or wear gloves.

Linwood and I worked straight through our chopping of eggplant, onions, tomatoes and celery and followed the directions with the able assistance of second chef Anton who kept us on track and found bowls and demonstrated chopping to Linwood (you know, knuckles curled under to not cut the tips of the fingers).   If it had not been for Paolo encouraging additions to the recipe with the announcement “I have earned the right to change the recipe”, we would have kept to our exact specs.    But he had various additions to the recipe including raisins, pine nuts, a finely chopped pecorino pepper and extra sugar (“that’s not enough to carmelize all those onions”).    It was fairly simple with chopping taking more time than anything else and we were done.   Easy peasy.

Caponata cooking in a pan

Halfway through Caponata

I stuck around and took pics of the others working including Rick stuffing zucchini boats and a couple actually rolling and cutting fresh spinach pasta.    All in all, we took about an hour with all of us in the large kitchen moving between prep and cooking areas.  Tons of fun and guidance from all four chefs in the room with Anton being the lowest man on the totem pole, then Jackson (from Brazil), then Aldo our one-star Michelin chef and, finally, Paolo.

Stuffed zucchini ready for the oven

We took a short break with champagne with Georgetta to celebrate the cooking.    Just prior to each course being brought to the table, the cooks were taken back to see how it was being plated/presented and then asked to explain the dish when it was delivered.

Kitchen scene during dinner prep

Menu:   stuffed gratin zucchini, pan-fried bread pockets w mozzeralla and tomato with Chardonnay Villa Vescoville.    Then “straw and hay”: fresh spinach pasta with mushroom cream sauce served with Greco di tufo wine from the Puglia region.    Next was the grilled beef filet with aromatic herbed olive oil, stuffed peppers, potato mushroom casserole and our sweet and sour eggplant stew served with Riserva di Fizzano made from grapes outside our window in a particularly rich year of 2008.    The meal was completed with the most incredible pairing of dark chocolate cake with sour cherry amaretto sauce and Dolce Luna sweet red wine.   (Stay tuned for some of the recipes next week!)

Making the fresh pasta

That final pairing caused us all to effusively thank Georgetta for her selections whereupon she told us ”The pairing is like finding the soul of the culinary arts.   Just like you will see beautiful art tomorrow in Firenze where some artists have found the right light and color and viewpoint and have been able to create it for you to experience, it is important we all pay attention to the combinations and balance we consume every day.    That is the heart of the Tuscan experience and we are grateful you have been able to join us for this program.”    WOW.   Nailed it.   She went on to explain, as she had all day with various pairings, how the dark chocolate has bitter, the butter in the cake has fat/oil and the Dolce Luna had sweet to perfectly balance the taste buds.    Absolutely correct.

Spinach pasta making by the team

We ended the evening with her discussion based on the Italian saying, “At the table, we do not age”.    She reads that to mean we can be people who have never met each other and yet we have spent 3 hours talking and dining together and now have inside jokes and comfortable conversation on various subjects.   It is this tradition which is also essentially Tuscan, and we are all in danger of losing the connections between family and friends if we don’t do this more often.

Wonderful evening.   We said fond farewells to Aldo and the kitchen and wait staff as they will not be on duty in the morning before we pack up to leave for Firenze.