Special Post: An Interview with Silvestro Silvestori, Owner of The Awaiting Table Cookery School in Puglia
Once a year I do something very special: I take a group of 6-12 people on a culinary adventure to Italy. I don’t go to Tuscany or Venice on purpose. I go south, to Puglia, because most people don’t know anything about it, because it’s so special, and largely because one person showed me how magical a trip like this can be: Silvestro Silvestori, the owner of The Awaiting Table in Lecce.I first met Silvestro over 5 years ago when we both were attending a cooking school in France (me for kicks, he to gain insight into ways he might enhance his, at the time, young school). Within months of meeting him, his school was featured on the front page of the LA Times Travel Section and was written up in Food & Wine as one of the top cooking schools in Italy. And so I set off that next year with a group of friends for a week at The Awaiting Table, and that’s how it all began.I fell in love with Puglia and return every year with a different group. If you’re thinking of joining us in May, 2013, you’ll love a chance to get to know Silvestro a bit before we go. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and I’ve added my editor’s notes under his comments for perspective.MM: What drives you to do what you do: you spend so much time in this food world educating others? Why have you made this your life’s passion?
SS: Iâ€™ve always seen myself as a bridge between the Old World and the New. I understand both. I was formally educated in both. Iâ€™ve lived in both for decades. But I think without even realizing it, the two Worlds look at food, wine and culture in such radically different ways, and that some sort of guide or teacher is needed. And that is what I do.
The Latin European psyche favours a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to food, wine and culture. As an example: You grow fava beans between the negroamaro vines to replenish the nitrogen in the soil, and you eat fava beans when drinking wines made from negroamaro.
On the other hand, the New World picks and chooses freely from the worldâ€™s recipes, without the need for the supporting philosophies behind them. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but when someone sits down to a plate of pasta in Auckland, Dallas, Adelaide or New Castle, they are not having the same experience as someone eating a traditional pasta in Southern Italy.
So while I do teach cooking technique [and the cuisine of Puglia], I identify more as an academic, teaching the framework needed to understand food, wine and culture in ways that are not always inherent when viewed from the outside in.
MM: I’ve been to cooking schools all over the world and yet I haven’t felt compelled to return to the others. I think Silvestro has a way of cramming in so much learning while at the same time fostering a delightfully fun and relaxing environment for your holiday. It’s really magical.
MM: What are Puglia, il Salento and Lecce?
SS: Puglia is the region, one of twenty in Italy, and it makes up the heel of the Italian boot. The name originally covered Calabria, which is actually apluvial, meaning that it lacks rainwater, which is where the name came. Puglia on the other hand stands out among southern regions for not lacking fresh water. We have lakes. And it rains enough to keep everything lush. Itâ€™s quite literally a vineyard and garden dipping down into the Mediterranean.
The Salento is my region, and sub-region of Puglia, beginning more or less where the region becomes a peninsula. I say â€˜more or lessâ€™ because itâ€™s largely conceptual: Ask three people here and youâ€™ll given three different answers. And Lecce is the sub-regionâ€™s capitol. Originally founded by the Messapians, the city was taken by the Greeks, then the Romans and then just about every other culture that passed through the Med until the nation united in 1861.
Lecce is considered a national treasure here in Italy, due to its baroque architecture. Itâ€™s easily one of the prettiest cities in Italy, a nation not lacking in architectural beauty. Itâ€™s also a vibrant cultural capitol, with a very active art and theater scene, and a large university.
MM: My guests are always pleasantly shocked at the beauty they discover in Lecce and this part of Puglia. We make sure to do some touring of the town to understand the history and architecture, and Silvestro provides plenty of cultural and historical info every day as he introduces the day’s lesson and schedule. We also visit the seaside town of Otranto which is both beautiful as well as tragically historical. In today’s modern culture, it happens to have some great shopping!MM: How come people have never or only recently heard of Puglia?
SS: Thatâ€™s an excellent question. The south is simply not as good at marketing as Central Italy, Iâ€™m sorry to say. Puglia has more coastline that most countries, which is the biggest reason that in the last twenty years itâ€™s been the number one domestic touristâ€™s destination, here inside of Italy. Of course most of this happens only in the summer, and even if you visit then, youâ€™re unlikely to notice, as everyone will be speaking Italian the same.
When traveling up north, northerners almost always smile when they hear my accent in Italian, so deep is the perception of Puglia as a warm and ingratiating place. It opens doors. Itâ€™s also seen as having the best fruit and vegetables, the best seafood and the best bread in all of Italy. The red wines are well respected nationally [and internationally].
MM: Why are you always going on about regionalism? (I’m glad Silvestro is answering this question – it helps me when potential guests of my trip ask if we’re going to make pesto, which happens to be from northern Italy.)
SS: In Italy, there is ONLY regional cooking. A national cuisine is only now starting to form, but doesnâ€™t go back past the 1960â€™s. Students start many questions with â€˜Now, in Italy, do you have X or Yâ€™, or â€˜Well my friend is from (insert city) and she says that everyone in Italy does Zâ€™. If you think of Italy as a bunch of tiny countries pushed together very, very recently, then youâ€™re closer to understanding how things work here. Students are surprised that my staff has never even tried most of the dishes that the students consider to be â€˜Italianâ€™, a concept that only appears outside of the country.
MM: It seems to me that much of our perception of “Italian food” in the US is really driven by what is more Italian-American cuisine out of Little Italy in New York, or what we saw the Soprano’s eating in north Jersey. And if you are still finding it hard to think about how regional Italy still is in many ways, think about how different New York is from Texas, or Seattle from Charlotte. The accent, the dialect, the foods, the culture, the traditions all vary in the regions in Italy just like they do in these very differing cities and states.MM: I know that cuisine in Italy is very regional, driven by the history of the regions and by what grows locally. What are a couple of the favorite dishes from your region that guests learn to prepare when they attend your school?
SS: We follow the seasons with our menus, but there are some dishes are that so important to understanding the cooking of the Salento, that they tend to be fixed, bolted steady into every week. La peperonata is one of them, a lusty rendering of finely julienned bell peppers, sweated in ogliarola (extra virgin olive oil of the region), then tossed with bread crumbs, salt and raw extra virgin oil.
Why is it fixed? Well, it’s excellent and you simply can’t grow tired of eating it. But there is something deeper than that too. It’s simple but it isn’t simplistic: yes, it’s easy to do but you have to earn the flavours, coaxing them out over time. You could argue that this is the Salento on a plate, where the former, very healthy cooking of the poor (those that had limited ingredients but lots of low-cost labour) is now the cooking of the wealthy, those that have today’s real premium, time. This is the way the world seems to what to eat now, healthy foods that are homey, genuine. These are dishes that are about the food, and not the prowess of the cook.
MM: Trust me, you will want to make la peperonata often after you return, it’s delicious! But if you join us on the trip, you’ll learn how to make the pasta of the region (my friends north of Rome don’t even know how it’s made in Puglia, just to reinforce Silvestro’s point about regionalism) and you’ll learn to love the dishes that are traditional.MM: What, in your mind, makes your cooking school such a unique experience and why do you think you are successful in getting visitors like me to return each year?
SS: It’s hard for me to say just why our school is special, because I think every school owner would say that his or hers is special. But if all the nice reviews are to be believed, I’d say that our school stands out because we aren’t a clichÃ¨ experience. Italy was very, very poor until very recently, and a lot of it still is. But there is something that the European poor have that the New World wealthy want, and that is cuisine (‘cuisine’ as in the cooking of a specific place, say, that of Provence, or the Salento, etc).
Rather than painting the touristy view of ‘wasn’t povertry just great?’, we tell a more vivid story with many more brush strokes, revealing a much, much more fascinating picture of a place. We discuss the food and wine that came about because of the unique mix of geography, history, immigration patterns and hyper-localized agriculture.
MM: Silvestro is being modest, so let me share that from my experience, the fact that no special skills are required to have a wonderful week at the school, the opportunity to learn authentic things about the region, the interaction with locals on a personal level (the people I’ve met in Lecce actually remember me when I return each year), becoming friends with the charming staff (you will just love them), the really fun time shared in the kitchen preparing out meals, the unique outings, and the incredibly special shared meals with guests and staff all come together to make The Awaiting Table a very unique experience compared to other cooking schools.
I chose The Awaiting Table to take guests to each year for specifically these reasons: it’s not a touristy type of school and it’s not a overly-simplified pasta demonstration that you leave and forget within an hour. Rather it’s an in depth culinary experience that stays with you as you leave, and you’ll be forever grateful that you took the time to immerse yourself.Silvestroâ€™s Bio
In 2003, Silvestro Silvestori opened The Awaiting Table Cookery School in Lecce, Italy, a small cookery school based on the simple yet seemingly radical idea that a cooking school in Italy could be much more than 12 students standing around watching someone stuff an oven.
And that the face of upscale tourism is changing, where historically travellers used their money to buffer their comfort zones from the things they came to see ( ‘I want to go to India to see how real people live there, of course I’ll need a five star hotel to do so’), to a new model that favours connection, hands-on learning and enjoying a participatory role with the people and places they visit. (‘We helped pick grapes in Alsace while staying with the other pickers in a beautiful farmhouse’).
He held his small classes in the middle of the gorgeously baroque city of Lecce, the city considered a national treasure here in Italy. The classes quickly blossomed, earning an international reputation within the first two years. Combining forces with a local baron in 2008, Silvestro created a larger kitchen, held in a private castle, again, just meters off the main piazza, this time in a small provincial town, in the deep Salento. The larger kitchen allowed for special, once-a-year courses featuring larger classes, which are often themed, such as, the making and bottling of the annual tomato sauce, the vincotto, the quince paste, The Awaiting Tableâ€™s birthday, and come November, San Martino, the best holiday in all of Italy.
Six years ago, he began to take a month off each spring to bicycle the entire Italian south- la Sicilia, Calabria, Basilicata and la Puglia-visiting the best vineyards and cellars along the way.
After three years of training, he graduated as a nationally-certified sommelier here in Italy, and in 2010 opened, Terronia: the New Wine School of Southern Italy, held at the castle, an hour south of Lecce. Students now read along as he bicycles the Southern Italian wine route, then they visit later in the year to try the same wines at his wine programme,
His cooking school has been praised in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Wine & Spirits, Travel+Leisure, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times and countless editions of the domestic Italian press. He’s appeared on Chinese, Belgian, Dutch and American television, and Italy’s most respected newspaper called him, ‘A national treasure’, for his work in preservation and promotion of Salentine cuisine.
As a writer, he has been published in:
In English: He writes both food and wine features for Wine & Spirits, a New York and London-based magazine.
In Italian: He writes for a number of local publications, usually regarding the keeping alive of culinary traditions (to date unavailable outside of Italy). He remains the only male member of Le Donne Del Sud (‘Women of the South’), an organization that seeks to promote and preserve Salentine food ways.
He is currently at work on a book on the food and wine of Puglia in English for a major Italian publisher.
As a photographer his work has appeared in:
Food and Wine, 2008
Wine & Spirits, 2009- to present
The London Times, 2009
La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012
Il Corriere della Sera. 2009. 2011. 2012
Il Quotidiano 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012
With multiple humanity-based degrees from Italian and American universities, Silvestro has worked as a butcher, a wedding cake decorator, a bread baker, a wine maker, an olive picker, cook, waiter, and at his last job before opening the school, as a high school teacher in Northern Italy.
‘If I have anything new to say on the subjects of food and wine, it’s because my background was an odd one. On one hand, I have a lot of very pragmatic, ‘blue collar’ work experience – I baked bread or picked artichokes, not because I loved doing so- and I did- but because it paid the rent. But I also did so while I attended university both here and in the US, so I have a humanities background as well.
â€˜Only after our having school for several years did I realise that this is indeed uncommon: you either work with food, without an education. Or you have an education but never get your hands dirty. I did both, for more than 10 years. I still am, in fact. It was tough at the time, but it now allows me to inhabit both mind sets, those that do it for a living, and those that have the resources to appreciate the final product, two groups that rarely meetâ€™.
Silvestro is passionate about what he does – won’t you join me on my next trip to Puglia to see for yourself?
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