The Art of Ingredients with Enrica Rocca

Photo Credit: Eataly

If you don’t like people who love Chicago, good prosecco and quality ingredients, then you should probably stop reading this now. If you do like these types of people, then you’re about to become obsessed with Italian chef, restaurateur and cooking school founder Enrica Rocca. In the words of Julia Child, “People who love to eat are always the best people,” and Enrica is one of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with in a long time.

Are you looking forward to your visit to Chicago?

This is the third time I’ve been to Chicago in one year. I came the first time last November when I had my first cooking class demo at Eataly. I came for that and then I came for a couple other things, I can’t even remember what. Then I traveled to NYC where I had quite a few things, and then I came back in April and now I’m coming again!

I love Chicago, I mean I love New York, make no mistake, but New York you can never get away from all of the noise and chaos and traffic, and this and that. I find Chicago a more relaxing place, it’s a more human size of the whole city thing and it’s beautiful. I was just in New York for a few days and I couldn’t wait for the peace and quite of Venice.

Do you live in Venice full time?

Yes, most of the time I am here.

Did you always know you wanted to get into cooking? What led you to do that?

I always liked eating, always, since I was a child. And I had a father who was a great cook and he loved people, so we always had a house full of guests. And as soon as I had the opportunity, I just jumped on it and I started my first cooking school in Cape Town. That’s where it all started and then I opened a restaurant and then I opened a second restaurant. And then I decided that Cape Town didn’t offer me enough ingredients to grow with my passion for food. I needed to have a bigger playground. I needed access to different types of foods, so I came back to Europe.

Photo Credit: michealoliver.co.za
Photo Credit: michealoliver.co.za

Opening your first restaurant versus opening your first cooking school — was it a similar process or was it totally different?

It was completely different because a restaurant offers you a window on the street. You get much more visibility with a restaurant and with the cooking school you don’t get that. You really have to make a much bigger effort to go and get the clients and to get the press to talk about you. It’s a much more complicated and slow process. With a restaurant you always have food critics who will come see you, it’s easier to get people in through the door. It’s not like that with a cooking school. The cooking school in London was very hard, it was really a big challenge for me.

Why do you think London was so challenging?

In London there is something that opens every minute. It’s like New York, you know, something new happens every day. It’s much more difficult to attract people. So in London, you have to be very different and bloody good to actually make a name for yourself. You have to be very serious with what you are doing, which is fine with me. I think it’s right because there are too many people, with smart marketing, that manage to flood the market with absolute rubbish. In London, it’s a little bit difficult, those places have a short life.

In the financial crisis of 2008 there was a big clean up, because all those who were not very serious started closing one after another. Once the financial crash happened, people could afford to go out a lot less and people became much more selective. And that’s when you saw the bad things just start disappearing from the market, they just didn’t survive.

And yours did survive!

Yes, mine did survive very well!

Photo Credit: New York Times
Photo Credit: New York Times

So what do you think is the most important technique in northern Italian cooking?

The most important fundamental is the quality of ingredients that you choose. That’s the most important thing, but that’s not only in Italian food, that’s with any cuisine. That’s where everybody really has to put a lot of effort and money, because nowadays eating well is not cheap. Which is why so many people just go for fast food, because it’s cheaper than actually going and buying ingredients and then having to cook them. And then to make a dish you have to go and buy 4-5 different things and you might not use all of it. You know you can’t really go out and buy one carrot!

Studies in England prove that people throw away approximately 35% of everything they buy. People do not have enough knowledge about food, so they are totally obsessed with expiration dates and if something is expired they don’t even check if it’s still good. Most things are still good after the expiration date but most people just see the date and they throw it in the bin without even tasting it. There is just a huge amount of waste.

Until about 35 years ago, people used to spend approximately 70% of their disposable income on food, it was a luxury. People put the most money there because people didn’t travel as much as they do today. People didn’t expect to have the Louboutins, the flat screen TV, to own the house, to have two cars in the family, and the computer and the latest smart phone and things like that. So people had more money and they put it into food. Nowadays all these other priorities have taken away most of the budget and the percentage of disposable income spent on food is about 9%, and sometimes even less.

What are your favorite Italian ingredients to spend money on?

Well I have to have at least two or three. You know like olive oil, it’s fantastic and I love it. I can live on bread and olive oil, honestly. A good piece of bread and olive oil and a good salt, it’s fantastic. I would think that tomatoes are very important, and pasta because you know there is so much. Nowadays with tourists that come here (to Venice), everybody equates Italian food with pizza and pasta — they don’t think that we eat anything else but pizza and pasta. So now you find restaurants that just sell pizza and pasta and they are packed, because that is what people want. But there is so much variety in Italian food.

Pizza is really a specialty of Naples and not necessary something that is associated to Venice or northern Italy. Again, tomatoes are more attached to southern Italian cuisine than that of northern Italian cuisine. For example, one fundamental thing we use in northern Italian cuisine is different stocks. We use lots of stocks because we do risottos, casseroles and lots of soups, and we need good stocks. A stock is really fundamental — I always have stocks at home.

Photo Credit: enricarocca.com
Photo Credit: enricarocca.com

When you are here what skills are you going to pass on during Chef’s Kitchen at Eataly?

At Eataly you only have an hour and a half for a demo so you have to keep it simple, otherwise you end up teaching nothing. It’s not a lot of time to demonstrate things properly, but I am going to do some pasta, they are very big shells, and I’m going to stuff them with fresh tuna and then make a fresh tomato coulis, so there is no cooking. You just put the tomato, the herbs and the olive oil in the food processor and you just make a very simple, cold tomato coulis that you serve with the fresh stuffed pasta, but with raw tuna. So it’s a pretty sophisticated dish but very simple to do. It’s fantastic.

Then I’m going to make some mini pizzas by using a slice of grilled eggplant. It’s really, really nice and you cook them quickly and really you don’t even miss the dough. And then I’m going to make some mackerel filets and then put some breadcrumbs on it with citruses, I love working with citruses a lot.

Are you going to be doing any wine pairings?

Yes, but that is organized by Eataly — we usually serve my prosecco upon arrival.

Photo Credit: checkplease.wttw.com
Photo Credit: checkplease.wttw.com

Can you tell me more about your line of prosecco?

The prosecco? I did it really for myself more than anything else. Alone in my house I consume approximately 1,500 bottles of prosecco a year – you know between cooking classes and friends coming over and my own consumption. You know it just goes like mineral water. I am sitting, by the way, with a glass of prosecco while I’m talking to you. I wish I could send you one! You see I am difficult because I like good things, and unfortunately prosecco is a wine that Italians are not capable of appreciating. They see it like it has to remain a cheap wine and there is a huge amount of crap on the market. My idea is that prosecco is not at all a cheap wine. And it’s the good ones that are less cheap (they’re still never very expensive) but they are very good.

So once I found the prosecco that I really liked, I thought okay, I’m going to label it for me at home. It’s nice when my clients come by and they see that I have a prosecco with an Enrica Rocca label. But then I started thinking that maybe other people would appreciate it, so then we started marketing it. I have the brut and the extra dry. The brut has less sugar than the extra dry, so one is slightly sweeter, but the extra dry is really the real prosecco. Prosecco was born as a slightly sweet wine and only recently they created the brut, because the brut is better to match with food. If you know what to choose, you can actually have a whole meal based on matching prosecco.

So what makes a good prosecco?

The flavor. When you open a bottle of prosecco you should be hit with fruit – and mainly pear. Pear is extremely important. If prosecco does not have fruit it means it has not been properly vinified.

What is the process of making a prosecco?

You know that with champagne the bubbles are created in the bottle, because the champagne goes through the second fermentation in the bottle. Prosecco is completely different. Both fermentations are done in stainless steel vats, and only one grape is used and this grape is called Glera. Where as with champagne, they use three grapes and two out of the three grapes are red grapes, but when you press the red grape the juice will be white. So if you press a red grape and remove it immediately from the skin you will obtain a white juice.

Next time you buy red grapes, if you cut it in half and you look inside, you will see that the pulp is actually white. So the moment you actually break the skin, the coloring from the skin goes to the juices and to the pulp and that is what makes red wine. But if you remove the skins very quickly, you will have white juice. So champagne is actually made with one white grape and two red grapes. But the Glera is a white grape and it is a very light grape, so it’s a very light wine that you can drink at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Photo Credit: enricarocca.com
Photo Credit: enricarocca.com

What do you eat with your prosecco?

The bubbles actually clean your palate, so prosecco is nice to eat with a slice of salami or a piece of cheese, something that has a bit of fatness. It’s very pleasant. Prosecco would never be a wine that you drink with a red meat or anything like that. You will always eat it with white meats, fish or seafood. Otherwise you can completely kill it — the meat overpowers the prosecco.

Photo Credit: enricarocca.com
Photo Credit: enricarocca.com

In addition to creating your own line of prosecco you also came out with your cookbook, Venice On A Plate: But What a Plate! Can you tell me a little bit about the process of publishing the cookbook?

The cookbook was really born as a tribute to Venice. Venice as a city is a gold mine because everybody comes to Venice. They say we have close to 30 million tourists a year. So, of course there is always a lot of strain on the city, which is delicate, it is built on poles — it’s a really fragile place. So everybody takes from Venice and nobody gives anything back to Venice. So I decided that I wanted to give something back to my city and create this book, that’s actually put together with two big cultures of Venice. One is food and the other is the Murano glass.

Photo Credit: enricarocca.com
Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Gabriel

I decided that we needed to give importance again to the Murano glass, so all of the pieces published in my book are from incredible Murano artists. There are modern ones, but also people that have died, from a long time ago. They are credited with giving Murano the reputation that it has around the world. It was very challenging to find 60 objects that actually contained food, but we did it and it’s really nice because it’s not only a cookbook but also a book of art.

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