V. Sattui Winery

Michelin-star chef Masanti leads a cooking class at Sattui

In Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Napa Valley Register
Monday, October4, 2010
By Kip Davis

Chef Masanti at St. Helena's Farmers Market

“Look at his hands. If there is dirt under the finger nails, buy your food from him.”
The importance of dirty hands is not exactly what you would expect to hear as the first words of wisdom from a Michelin-star chef who heads one of the finest restaurants in northern Italy. But this is how Stefano Masanti began preparing 40 foodies joining him for a trip to the St. Helena Farmers Market last Friday.

“If the hands are manicured and clean, it means that he (the vendor) does not grow the food. Don’t buy from him.”

This was one of several tips Masanti shared with the group during the two-hour visit to the market. The celebrated chef was in town to work his magic at V. Sattui Winery’s 125th Anniversary Harvest Ball Sept. 25. His visit to the farmers market was the first part of a V. Sattui cooking class he was teaching.

“First, we walk into the market,” he told the enamored group. “We see everything, the people, the vegetables, we taste, we smell — and then we buy.”

Class was in session. One eager student, in an obvious attempt to gain teacher’s approval, pointed out a particularly large and voluptuous eggplant.

“Big doesn’t mean good,” Masanti countered, pitting seasoned wisdom against impetuous naïveté. “Huge is rich in water, not in taste.”

The master reached for a piece of blemished fruit, brushing away a couple of flies from the pile.

“Eeww!” grimaced several students (mostly female) in unison.

“Flies are not stupid,” Masanti replied, a gleam in his eye. “This is the best one. You just cut this portion away and the rest is fantastic … and, I have to say, sometimes you save some money.”

The latter, thrift-based comment drew approving nods from many students (mostly male).

The teacher moved on to a batch of “melanzana” or eggplant, all smaller than the reject from before. He rubbed the skin with his finger and took an approving sniff.

“I suggest that you brush the skin a little,” he said, “and then smell. If you smell something it is a point of quality.”

“First, you have always to smell it,” the lecture continued, tempered by a generous dose of Italian charm. “Sometimes, it looks nice but on top they put some wax. And sometimes it seems not so good but the smell is fantastic. For cooking that is much, much better.”

Masanti and his students were gathering produce that morning that would be used later in the day during a cooking class/demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America. Of the 100 people enrolled in the class, 40 early risers showed up at the farmers market, perhaps hoping for extra credit.

“I don’t like the tomatoes that are all the same,” he counseled students before dispatching them in teams to buy produce. “I prefer different shapes because it means that they are all natural. I didn’t see carrots — did you see carrots? I think it’s not the season. If we need carrots, I will buy them in the Safeway.”

The Safeway comment aside, Masanti carried with him a bushel-full of fresh food credibility as he led the group through the market. The chef is part of the new wave of culinary creativity centered on locally grown and produced food. This “locavore” mentality, he said, is about more than just high-quality restaurant food.

“Buying local is much better,” he told the group. “I know that these things cost a little more, but in the end it’s not true. The first medicine is what we eat. So if you eat good things you have less (health) problems along the way. And second, in Europe industrial (produced) vegetables are supported by the government. So you pay part in the supermarket and part with your taxes, and it’s much more than what you pay in a farmers market.”

This is Masanti’s second year in a row to cook for the annual V. Sattui Harvest Ball, this year for about 400 winery fans. The black-tie gala included a lavish six-course meal prepared by the chef who, at his own expense, brought along his own kitchen staff of nine to assist him.

Masanti’s restaurant Il Cantinone is located in the small, ski-resort village of Madesimo near Lake Como in northern Italy. An avid proponent of the worldwide “slow food” movement, his establishment is one of a handful of Italian restaurants to have earned a coveted Michelin star. Masanti is doubly proud of the honor, considering his style of cooking.

Chef Masanti at CIA 2010

“The thing that makes us very, very happy is that we use only local food,” he said. “The farthest supplier is a fisherman at Como Lake, and that is 30 miles from us. Then, we cook with only (simple) ingredients … I mean potatoes, vegetables, no foie gras, no caviar. Common (ingredients), but good. So to receive a Michelin star with this kind of cooking was, to us, very, very interesting.”

Masanti said the star designation changed things a bit at his restaurant in the tiny town hidden in the Italian Alps.

“Before we had the Michelin star, we had people coming from 50 miles around us. Now they are coming from Japan and far away. It’s totally different. It’s also more difficult because they come with a standard (in mind) … foie gras, caviar, you know…and then we serve a potato, we serve vegetables. Ninety percent of the people say it’s amazing, 10 percent say ‘What, no caviar, no foie gras?”

Masanti and others said that the Michelin organization seems to be changing, slowly, with the times.

“The whole world is changing,” he said, “At one time, you went to a Michelin star (restaurant) with a suit. It was sometimes intimidating. Now, you are casual. This thing I love. Now, with less money to spend, the people who go to a (Michelin star) restaurant, they want to have fun and relax with nice atmosphere.”

Cooking class

Casual and fun were at the top of the menu at the cooking class in the impressive demonstration theater at the CIA in St. Helena. As students entered, they passed the huge cooking island heaped with the morning’s bounty of farmers market produce. The animated Masanti, his wife, Rafaella, (a professional sommelier) and staff appeared ready to impress.

Masanti and crew had planned to prepare two recipes highlighting both the chef’s innovative style and fresh, local ingredients gathered earlier at the farmers market. The first dish – Vegetable Ravioli – zucchini, celery, tomatoes, onions, fennel and, yes, the Safeway carrots were uniformly diced and sautéed in extra virgin olive oil.

“What about garlic?” an inquisitive student shouted.

“We don’t have garlic,” Masanti replied. “No one bought any.”

Italian without garlic? Talk about working without a net. This guy must be good.

Flour, egg and water were combined and expertly formed into a ball of fresh pasta dough that was then passed around the group of 100 to “feel and smell” the fresh texture. Other fresh dough prepared in advance was then put through a hand-cranked pasta machine, flattened into sheets and formed into vegetable-filled ravioli.

The ravioli were plunged into boiling water that, Chef said, must be salted “to taste the same as the Mediterranean Sea. If you’ve never been to Italy to taste the Mediterranean Sea, it is about 25 grams (1 ounce) of salt per liter of water.”

Students then enjoyed the cooked ravioli finished with a light tomato sauce paired with V. Sattui’s 2008 Henry Ranch Pinot Noir. Both pasta and vegetable filling were prepared al dente enhancing both texture and freshness.

The next dish was simple, with a twist. Pasta pieces left over from the ravioli preparation were cooked and combined with butter that had been lightly smoked. The preparation was rustic and rich with just a hint of smokiness that paired well with the V. Sattui 2008 Mounts Zinfandel.

Earlier in the class, students were asked to create their own recipe from a list of ingredients provided. Three of the recipes were randomly selected and the authors invited to prepare their dishes with help from Masanti and his staff. In what was called “La Competizione” (the competition), the three dishes were judged by panels of fellow students. La Competizione ended in a three-way tie.

Masanti has taught cooking classes in the Bay Area for the past nine years and has been a frequent visitor to Napa Valley. He clearly enjoys the region and has witnessed first-hand its evolution as a food and wine Mecca.

“More so than in Italy,” he said, “you come here and feel the wine country. You feel, you smell wine.”

His view of the changing American culinary scene is equally complimentary.

“Six years ago in the United States, you could find Italian style, French style but not American style,” he said. “Now you have an American style. And you are better than us (Europeans) in the (culinary) schools.”

Many European chefs are envious of America’s relative freedom from tradition that allows American chefs to try new things.

“Maybe because I’m Italian, I know how to prepare spaghetti,” he said. “The American chef doesn’t and so he studies and then he starts with a new approach to cooking it.”

“You know,” he continued, “We are Italians and to mix Italian with Chinese, it is not possible. Mix Italian with French, it is not possible. In the United States, it is possible. So in the United States, you have new things, new tastes, new experiences.”

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