March 15, 2009
In Rome, the Academy Learns to Cook
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
SCHOOL dining halls generate powerful memories, but often not the kind you want to remember: Matted scrambled eggs. Wilted lettuce. Infamous casseroles that seem to have no identifiable ingredients.
For decades, the dining hall of the august American Academy in Rome hewed to the tradition that has long underpinned higher education — fine libraries coupled with awful food — even though it is housed in an exquisite villa overlooking this ancient city, in a country renowned for fine, fresh ingredients. Each year, the academy presents its coveted Rome Prize for a year of study to several dozen scholars and artists. But ask former fellows what they associate with this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they often pounce on the food.
“The food was genuinely dreadful,” said Kristina Milnor, a classicist at Barnard College who was a fellow in 2004, recalling a watery rabbit stew containing stringy bits of meat. “Twice, my friend got the rabbit head on his plate. It became a joke: Is this lucky, like getting the coin in the pudding, or unlucky, like a bad omen?”
Worse still, administrators noted that many of the fellows, who are supposed to cross-pollinate ideas during their year in residence, had stopped coming to meals. “If people aren’t coming because the food is terrible, then the kind of exchange we want to encourage just doesn’t happen,” said Carmela Vircillo Franklin, the academy’s director.
So two years ago the academy challenged Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and her team of chefs to lure fellows back to the table. The academy wanted its new food service to be in line with its conservation goals, Dr. Vircillo Franklin said, so ideally, it would be a cafeteria that could feed the 50 to 70 scholars and their families each day with nutritious food that was mostly local, leaving a minimal environmental footprint.
The model has been tried before — Ms. Waters has been a pioneer in the field — but rarely with such immersion. Some universities, like Yale, now offer sustainable-food options in their dining halls. Ms. Waters has been collaborating with Berkeley public schools to create a lunch program in which students learn to grow and cook local produce and consume it in their cafeteria.
And in what is perhaps the most visible show of her devotion to the concept of sustainable eating, Ms. Waters has publicly urged Barack Obama to set a national example by bringing more healthful food to the White House — including an on-grounds vegetable garden. The president recently hired the Chicago chef Sam Kass to further that idea.
The academy, with its small size and proximity to the Italian countryside, has run with the concept. It now offers a menu that mainly relies on ingredients that are delivered by local farmers, grown on the academy’s sumptuous grounds, or foraged by the academy’s fellows in field trips to local meadows and forests. All food scraps are composted and not much is thrown away. In a town where residents talk a lot about food, the new food at the academy quickly became the talk of Rome, and a dinner invitation became a coveted commodity.
Keeril Makan, a composer from M.I.T. and a current fellow, had four friends to dinner on a recent night. They were among the 70 people seated at the long wooden tables in the villa’s dining room.
“When you tell them the chef’s from Chez Panisse and the location is so beautiful, everyone wants to come,” Mr. Makan said.
The transition wasn’t exactly effortless, said Mona Talbott, the chef Ms. Waters deployed for the task. “When we first looked in the kitchen, we found cryo-bags of vegetables that could stay there for months and precut frozen fish,” she said.
But she said the work has paid off in unexpected ways: “We came with a mandate to create a new model for institutional dining — to change the culture of institutional food so that it’s seasonal, nutritious and local. But it has become more than I ever expected. We have created a real community.”
Indeed, food has now become a group project at the academy, an almost irrational center of its intellectual life. Perhaps the highest compliment is that one of last year’s fellows in music composition has returned — this time to intern in the kitchen.
On a recent afternoon, a group of volunteer kitchen assistants — fellows as well as some visiting relatives and friends — sat in the dining room schmoozing about art, life and food as they shelled walnuts for an upcoming meal. “Oh, remember the day when the oranges came?” said Rosa Lowinger, an art conservation fellow from Los Angeles and volunteer nut peeler.
Meals are centered on what nearby farmers are growing. The kitchen’s principal supplier, a traditional farmer named Giovanni Bernabei, delivers whatever produce looks good in his fields. His portrait hangs over the kitchen, a kind of culinary pope.
Though fellows are appropriately appreciative of art and literature, the arrival of a new food season is a big deal here now. Most restaurants in Rome will serve caprese all year, but you won’t find tomatoes at the academy in the winter; they are not in season.
Little goes to waste. The hedges at the academy provide bay leaves. The nuts from its trees are used to make noccino, a liqueur. The fellows pick olives from which to make oil. And the academy’s garden — which used to contain flowers — now overflows with salad greens, radishes, herbs and peppers. The fellows maintain the garden.
“To feed artists and scholars is amazing since they appreciate the process and connect with the passion,” Ms. Talbott said.
Like many of the fellows, Andrew Kranis, a New York city architect, said he would take the culinary lessons home when his fellowship ended: “It’s about doing the right thing environmentally and getting nutrients you wouldn’t get elsewhere. I’m going to be thinking a lot more about what’s local and where the seeds come from.”
One recently arrived fellow, George Hargreaves, the landscape architect who designed the Sydney Olympic Park, said he was thrilled to be eating food that is inspired by the owner of Chez Panisse, the most sought-after table in his home city, Berkeley. All the more so, because the night they arrived the menu included a not-so-Mediterranean meal of pulled pork and greens that reminded Mr. Hargreaves of his Southern childhood.
The dining room is clearly now the place to hang out, even though all fellows have kitchens in their apartments at the academy, and can cook at home if they chose.
Cathy Lang Ho, a designer from New York, said, “The fact that the food is so good brings us together — a lot of the social life happens around meals.” She sat at one of the academy’s communal tables with her husband and their toddler son, Rio.
As the adults chatted over local roast fennel and free-range chicken, Rio, fixed in his booster seat, scavenged his parents’ plates for strips of fried potatoes that were made with — what else? — the academy’s homemade olive oil.