Is that a stupid tourist photo of someone holding up the tower of Pisa?! Damn right it is! That’s my brother, Chef Matt, and thankfully he’s better at cooking than he is at being a tourist! Frankly, we suck at being tourists and we’re glad for it!
If you didn’t know, Matt and I just got back from 11 days in Italy. I can’t even describe how much fun we had! One of us is married and the other engaged, so you can imagine what it’s like for the two of us to escape the country together. It’s a rarity to say the least!
Our trip started last year in Detoit at the Carmela Food Show. Carmela Foods is a purveyor of fine wine, dry aged beef, and really sexy imported goods! We were chosen by the team at Carmela to compete in their annual East vs. West competition, where two teams of chefs from Eastern Michigan go head to head against two teams from Western Michigan. We met some great friends that day, including Chef Chris Perkey from Osteria Rossa and the new Iron restaurant in Grand Rapids. Go try his food as soon as possible! He’s so good, I asked him to cook at my wedding! Anyways, first place prize was a trip for two to Italy to partake in one of the largest food shows in the world. We were lucky enough to win!
Fast-forward to Mother’s Day of this year….what a great day to start vacation right?! Wrong, it’s the busiest day of the year for the restaurant industry! In fact, that day alone is worth 2-3% of the YEARS revenue, so we ran the line until crunch time then hit the road for the airport!
Tip: For the best airline experience, drink plenty of red wine before your flight so you can sleep the trip away.
I didn’t sleep a wink during the flight. I had my usual wine at the airport bar, but rather than sleep, I bonded with a defense contractor seated next to me. It turns out we had a few mutual friends and common interest in guns…
We touched down in Bologna 14 hours later, after a brief transfer in Amsterdam. Of course while we waited in The Netherlands we had a bottle of Champagne and some cured fish so that made it better. Airport food always sucks, but this was certainly the least sucky I’ve had. I have to be careful now, because on my last trip home from Montreal, a fellow traveler called me out for eating garbage! Being a chef means upholding standards, although in my defense, there wasn’t much of a choice.
When we arrived in Italy, we were whisked away by our driver Massimo. The Mercedez was a welcome relief from the cramped airplane seats! We had a brilliant conversation via Google translate about food, motorcycles, American politics, and how great Italian women are. Don’t worry Alli and Lauren, he was provoking it and we didn’t partake in the girl talk 😉 One hour later we arrived in Parma.
I have to tell you, on first thought, Parma reminded me a lot of Michigan! There were plenty of hay fields, large farms, and rural landscape. The land is pretty flat and the climate was similar to when we left. We crashed for the night, looking forward to the show the next day.
When we arrived at Cibus (the food show), I was shocked at its size and the grandeur of the venue (Fiere di Parma)! The show was absolutely massive and probably holds the world record for varieties of olive oil in one spot! Unfortunately, it was mostly made up of high end grocery brands. We try not to be too bitchy, but Matt and I are very spoiled when it comes to food stuff. We try to support the small craft producer, not the mega farm/factories. Fortunately, there was a GREAT beer and wine section, so we enjoyed that for the rest of the day. We decided to take the rest of the week off from the food show. Why hang around one show for a week when there is so much to explore, right?! The next day the real fun began. Fun is a word meaning enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure, and I’m pretty sure it comes from the Italian word Fiat.
I’ll tell you one thing, driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart BUT if you’re as adventurous as Matt and I, the Fiat is the way to go. With it sleek curves, petite wheel base, smooth manual shifting, and spacious hatch back trunk, the 500 will make you feel like George Clooney benching a quarter ton of pure cast iron. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, makes you feel more manly than two 6’1″ men cruising the A1 at 175 kM/hr in a Fiat 500. Trust me.
We put almost 2000 kM on that car in 8 days! We visited about 24 cities, ate and drank as much local food, wine, beer, liquor, and amaros as possible! *We did this responsibly and do not condone drinking and driving* Wow, what an experience! We came to Italy without a plan and I think that’s what made the trip so magical! We opened up Google Maps, randomly picked cities, and strayed from the path often! Take a back road, go visit a small city, meet the locals, eat their food!
Funny story……we went out of our way to visit the region of Barbaresco. I LOVE wine (If you haven’t noticed) and this region is famous for kick ass wine! We were headed from Parma to La Spezia and, somewhere along the way, I noticed the name Barbaresco on the map. To be honest, I was a little distracted by the roaring power of the Fiat in my hands. With my wanderlust, I didn’t put too much thought into the decision beyond “Oh, let’s go there!” You know what I mean…Its like AHH, piece of candy or OOO, something shiny! When we arrived, it was NOTHING like I expected. “Where are the vines? Where are the beautifully manicured vineyards? Where are the people?” I thought. This town looked like a bad mash up of an Italian hillside village and Detroits west side! We decided to turn around and head out. That’s when I seen the sign……..we were in Barbarasco not Barbaresco! Luckily we found a small wine shop and the woman inside was a gem! She was clearly passionate about wine and was incredibly knowledgeable. She helped us pick a few great local bottles and we were on our way!
One of the greatest thing about Italy in my opinion is that each region has its own specialty, honed and crafted over hundreds of years! Now for you Americans out there, a region in Italy is not like a region in America. When we think region, we think the Midwest or New England. An Italian region is TINY, more like a large county. A 30 minute drive means a complete change in flavors! Name it…Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello di Zibello, and Parmesan Cheese in Parma, Balsamic in Modena (pronounced MO-din-uh), Salame Finocchiona in southern Tuscany, Pizza in Naples, Sfogliatelle in Casserta, fish on the Amalfi Coast, the list of incredibly delicious things to eat in Italy is unreal!
Italy is such an inspiring place, especially for Chefs. It’s like Mecca for food and wine! Now most people will say, what did you learn? Will we see Pizza on your menu? No, you won’t. Will I serve a gorgeous Italian meal that I copied from a quaint little trattoria? Hell no. Why not you ask? Artists use the works of others to provoke thought, rather than something to copy! At The Mulefoot, we take great pride in creating artful dishes with local products that fit into our style of casual-yet-sophisticated modern American Cuisine. I was inspired by three major things, pride, tradition, and simplicity.
Why do so many Americans want to run away from their homes? I LOVE Imlay City! After 11 days away, I couldn’t wait to come back to my home, my job, and my family! Yeah, sure there are I things I don’t like about my community but I get off my ass and do something about it! There will always be things to improve or maintain, but there are even more GREAT attributes already here to enjoy. Italians take PRIDE in their communities and it’s clear to see. Matt made a great comment when we were in Lucca that kind of caught me off guard. He said, “Wow, this town just never stopped existing!” He was spot on! Lucca is an ancient and medieval city just north of Pisa that began as a settlement in 180 BC! It simply never stopped existing because the community takes pride in it! They have beautifully maintained walls, cannon turrets, and gates from 16th century AD!
Italians also take pride in what they produce. If they make Balsamic, they only make balsamic. If they make Parma ham, they only make ham. If they make ceramics, they only make ceramics. I’m not suggesting you don’t diversify but I AM suggesting that whatever you do, you make it the BEST you can! They also take the time to pass their lifetime of knowledge to their children who carry on the craft! There are quite a number of producers in Italy that have been going strong since the 14-,15-,and16- hundreds! We don’t even have the capacity to grasp that ammount a of time being from a country that is only a few hundred years old! They embrace traditional methods with respect and reverence.
In respect to food, my biggest inspiration was the combination of pride, tradition, and simplicity. One of the most important lessons a Chef can learn is when to stop. Young chef’s have a terrible habit of trying to put as many exotic ingredients into a dish as possible! Take a lesson from the Italians….Choose the BEST products from those who have invested their life in perfecting the craft and don’t cover it up! The Napolitanos give you a choice of two pizzas, marinara or with basil and cheese. That’s it! They bake it in a brick oven then dress it with olive oil. Nothing more. They do this because they believe they have the best tomatoes, the best Buffalo Mozzerella, and the best basil. They are actually insulted if you bastardize those flavors by covering them up with other ingredients. Don’t even think about putting salumi on a pizza……that’s intended to eat raw! Ironically, we always put pepperoni on pizza here in America. I am a huge proponent of experimenting and invite my team to try new things on a daily basis, but the key is to let the quality of the ingredients shine.
If you know me, you know how important traveling is to my life. It’s where I get rest, inspiration, and a greater respect for people. With my busy work schedule, I find it necessary to take a break at least once a quarter and I use that time to explore the world we live in. For me, the ability to learn other people’s culture is what makes life worth living. All in all, I recommend that everyone takes a trip to Italy at some point in life. Whether you travel for the sights, history, or culture, you will find tons of amazing things in Italy!
Thankfully, the best of culture can be experienced through the stomach!
Executive Chef and Owner
The Mulefoot Gastropub