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It took me a year to find a restaurant that was prepared to let me work in their kitchen. It was a long-time dream to do something like this. I wanted to be a part of life on the ‘other side of the wall’, separating the kitchen and the dining hall.
I am not a chef, nor a cook, and cooking is only a hobby. Perhaps some of you may pay me a nice comment for a dish or two I have made. But, for sure, I am not a high-class cook, yet this world excites me.
So much is embroiled in the world of cuisine that one can really not stay indifferent to its attractions: it involves colours, creativity, culture, traditions, history, celebration-habits, family, flavours, spices, decoration, equipment, design, employment, legal issues, service and marketing and many other aspects from all walks of life.
I decided to look for a restaurant that would allow me to work there. Any work.
It had to be in ITALY. Italy, I am thinking is one of the seven wonders of the world. A combination of great food, rich culture, and great people. Italy is beautiful.
And so my Italian 2017 story starts;
I spent days sending letters to restaurants which I saw fit. The few answers I got were a polite rejection.
A friend gave me the name of Uri, a chap who has a guest house/hotel in the village of Preci, (Umbria, Italy). Uri, the hotel owner, agreed to discuss the matter, but only face to face.
In the meeting (March 2017) he made it clear that his business was going in another direction and therefore there would be no place for me.
Disappointed, my good lady and I headed to the City of Perugia to catch the flight back home. We drove through beautiful scenery, admiring the nice Umbrian countryside, mountains, green landscape, rivers, and small untouched houses far from each other, with sweet farm gardens, buildings with terra floors with granite walls.
The airline would not change our flights, so we had to find a hotel in the city of Perugia, where the flight was departing from. We had nights to wait.
I have never heard of this place. As we checked into the Geo-Jazz Hotel (a great place to stay), we learned about the usual Italian sites of the Medieval city centre at the top of the mountain, and the hundreds of restaurants to choose from.
So, I asked the reception which was the BEST restaurant, and the guy, without any hesitation said: “La -Taverna”.
La-Taverna? It sounded somewhat Greek to me, but if this is known as the best, so be it.
We took a walk through the beautiful old city of Perugia before going to the restaurant at the time we had reserved our table for.
An old paved curved stairway will take you through a narrow path onto a small yard, all in the style of old Medieval Perugia. The restaurant is only modestly advertised.
Walking in, I was impressed with the arches of the old-style ceiling, the red floor, and neat view of white-tables which were well made, properly set, with meticulous spaces between the items at the top of each table.
Two ladies, not “student age”, but very energetic, offered us glasses of Prosecco. I noticed the smile. They lead us to our place, and some “cover” starters we placed on the table. A long plate with fresh “Fennel-fingers” in live-oil, plus freshly made slices of homemade bread to stimulate your appetite.
It did the job.
We chose some of the dishes displayed on the menu. The service was impeccable and a visit to the bathroom confirmed that a clean surrounding is a management philosophy.
Moments after, in the corner of my eye I caught sight of a gentleman, around my age, dressed in chef’s attire, going from one table to another talking to the guests. Then our turn came.
Chef Cludio Brugalossi
He is a character, you can tell from the first second you met him. He is tall, impressive, dressed for a photo session. He has a razor-sharp look and a deep voice. His English is fluent, and his excellent communication skills are noticeable. You feel you are in a sort of a “screening” as you talk to him. His vast experience in having this type of conversation led him to “fast track” to who you are. I asked him if he would allow me to work in his restaurant during the month of August, 2017. ‘And why would a fine gentleman like you want to work here?” he asked.
I had my answer. I told him of my impending round age birthday. “A late mid-life crisis” I was trying to make him smile as I appealed to him. “I need a change” I explained, “A while away from my office, a break from my responsibilities, a new environment, a boost to my cooking hobby”.
So here it came. “OK”, he answered. The lightning-speed agreement was unexpected.
“Well”, I told him, “You will not be allowed to change your mind, as I am coming back here on the first of August, for at least two weeks. Our deal has to be firm”.
“Come with me then,” he said as he put his arm around my shoulder in a fatherly way, directing my straight into the kitchen.
“Guys!!! Stop your work” he commanded. They all did. It sounded to me like a military command: “ATTEN-TION!!!”
“Meet your new colleague” he told them. “Zahal will be here in August and let’s welcome him”.
The kitchen was hot, flames from flambéed dishes were streaming out from hot pans, beautifully presented portions, ready to serve, were r on a separate counter, a kitchen well-equipped, well-lit, and very clean, left an impression of consistency with the experience I had in the dining room.
“Bravo, welcome!!!!” they all answered like a well-orchestrated choir.
We shook hands. I had found my August holiday cooking venue.
“I will report to work on the first of August
Claudio was born in Italy, and grew up in the years of post war Italy. He spent some of his life in the United States, where he worked as a cook after being discovered by a Chef who he speaks highly of. Listening to flashes of information that come from his story, it is that very Chef who has shaped the concept of Claudio’s attitude to culinary management.
Claudio returned to Italy to start La-Taverna, which became the centre of his life. You notice the change of the tone when he starts to talk of his enterprise. He speaks about the demanding customers who would not always share their joy from that night’s dinner, but rush to place a complaint on the Internet if even the tiniest thing goes wrong.
This was one of the reasons that I would not be allowed to touch any of the dishes that eventually reached the diners. “There is no room for any error” he explained.
At the back of the management-desk in the restaurant you can see a photo of Claudio’s late American wife, whom he lost to an illness. He does not talk much about the issue, but you can feel that this is a vulnerable topic.
I witnessed Claudio in the kitchen, coming in, testing, tasting, demanding, controlling, affirming, commanding. He has an appearance that reminded me of military-commanders I saw during my military service.
Uniform, clean, tidy, organized, authoritative, coherent with a sense of direction. He does all this with much respect to his staff. He also knows how to respect them and how to be sensitive to them.
Needless to say, that a person who carries virtues such as these could also become a challenge…
Chef Cladio received me with mixed feelings. He did not want to be an easy prey to bureaucratic authorities who may see my presence as illegal employment (although no money or any benefits were involved in our arrangement). But, as said, for very good reasons, he did not think that my cooking skills were fit to meet the standards of his restaurant.
THE JOURNEY, going by car from Bucharest to Perugia
It was thanks to Marilena, to my business-partners Sagit and Shay, to the managers of MediHelp that this long break was made possible.
It is not always possible to leave a management position in the hands of your trusted team and take a month off.
This was the prime time for our car, our bicycles and many other accessories that I had collected over the years “to use one day when the occasion comes”. So, we packed lightweight clothes, music gadgets, and bicycles we placed on the roof; we then went on our adventure. We arrived in Perugia and checked in to the same sweet hotel, and on the 1st of August “I reported for duty”.
Working in La Taverna
The route from the hotel where I was staying to the restaurant involved climbing 350 steps up to old-town Perugia. Cars are not allowed. To speed my way back, which was much easier, I took my bicycle with me. That morning climb became a challenge of its own. It took half an hour of extensive climbing, and walking to get to the restaurant, so I was already exhausted after a “morning’s serious exercise”.
During the first morning climb, I had time to think of my objectives. What must I achieve in this adventure;
As I write this, it is post the time of La-Taverna experience.
I have succeeded and acceded the expectation I set for myself!!!
I have learnt to cook quite a considerable number of local Italian dishes, which I will share with my beloved family and many friends.
I have exposed myself to the wonders of restaurant management, which is real difficult and challenging work. I hope I am allowed to say that Claudio is a new friend, and for sure I felt a sad vibe as I said goodbye to Ulli, Willie, Nasim, Patrick, Claudia, Nicoleta, Franco, Georgi, Bubi, Patricia, and my sweet great new friend, Priscilla.
They were all sorry to see me go. I cannot wait to see them again.
The life in this kitchen is demanding. Over a split second, as an unexpected number of guests flock into the dinning-hall, orders are coming in the speed of a one per ten seconds, the orchestra called the “La-Taverna kitchen team” starts to perform.
The cooking island in the middle has containers of ever-lasting boiling water for the pasta. Pans are flying around. Ladles carry boiling water from the middle tank to a pan. A drop of butter, rosemary and a garlic-tooth, Italian “passata”, some pre-made ragout, and when it’s boiling the Pasta is added. Two-to-three minutes of hot manoeuvring and the dish is placed on a plate. The kitchen is booming with the day’s dishes smell intoxicating. White bean soup with mashed courgettes, starters of Italian Pâté and prosciutto or Parma ham on slices of quality bread that was made that morning. Brown, deep-flavoured lentil soup. Beef-steaks, seafood platters, spaghetti, rigatoni, pappardelle in any combination you can think of.
Additional servings of thin-sliced potatoes, rack of lamb sizzled with white wine, garnished with a variety of layers of vegetables with mozzarella cheese.
All this was happening simultaneously. The team is well arranged and trained for such an occurrence. Spices, pans, pots, bottles, and ready-to-serve plates are flying around at an unreal speed. The team copes with all the orders. Tasting the food is done. No spoon is used again before washing. Opposite where I was positioned, there was a dish washing station. Dishes came back from the tables, and they were rinsed before they were placed in the dishwasher, a sort of double hygienic measure but also a precaution to avoid the dishwasher getting clogged up with leftover food. In another spot, Patricia is preparing loads of pasta for the dishes that will be ordered today and tomorrow. It’s a real factory. Everything is coordinated and movements of hand or body, steps in the small available paths, are a matter of careful planning. There were moments I could imagine this scene as a dance in a ballet. I was sorry I could not compose the music for the dance I saw.
Claudio does not interfere much in the work during these moments. The shouting of “Yes-Chef” I saw in TV shows
made me expect a loud rude and aggressive “Claudio-Management”. This was not the case. He knows how to make his point, and when he goes silent and when his voice gets deep, you know you are in trouble.
I have completed my time and my work in La-Taverna. On the last day, Friday the 11th August 2017, my Mom honoured me by travelling from Israel to Perugia, and we celebrated her 82nd birthday in the restaurant.
It was indeed a great experience.
This is a good time to thank you Claudio. You made me very happy.
Goodbye, La-Taverna. See you soon!