It’s day one of the International Journalism Festival and Perugia is abuzz. The crowd is made up of established journalists, eager volunteers and members of the public seeking to take advantage of the festival’s impressive line-up.
A detectable intellectual energy infiltrates the ancient streets of Perugia, but at 6.30 on a drizzly afternoon there is sudden shift in the atmosphere. A paparazzi-type mania has gripped hundreds of women.
‘Il chef più sexy d’Italia’ is in the building! Carlo Cracco has arrived, heads turn and camera crews flock to shoot his entrance. A stampede ensues as hundreds jostle to ensure their seats in the auditorium.
Who is Carlo Cracco and why is he so popular?
Of course, the idea of the celebrity chef is not a new concept. In the UK, culinary TV has dominated television screens for decades. With recent broadcasts such as The Great British Bake Off and Masterchef drawing huge audiences, there is little sign of it slowing down.
But there is something different about Cracco. Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey both play to the typical TV personality stereotype, with the ability to make frying vegetables look like carefully constructed stagecraft. The British celebrity chefs are also armed with TV-friendly gimmicks: Ramsey swears on television, Jamie Oliver speaks in Mockney, Nigella Lawson indulges in unabashed camera flirting.
In comparison, there is something decidedly laid back about Cracco. During his talk at the International Journalism Festival, journalist Barbara Sgarzi asks him if he tweets, to which he replies, ‘occassionally but i don’t have a team.’ She asks him about food bloggers, and his reception to the topic is frosty. He laments the death of a time when Michelin guides were the Bible of cuisine. Now with over 100,000 food bloggers posting on the internet, everyone can be an expert. The real experts, he argues, have been lost in the crowd. Whilst Cracco is not a social media-savvy celebrity chef, he has a knack for writing recipe books.
Sgarzi asks about Cracco’s latest publication, ‘A qualcuno piace Cracco.’ The book is something of a literary journey through time and space, in which Cracco has sought to unearth recipes harking back from the 15th century, reintegrating them into modern recipes. He completed extensive research on the regions of Italy, exposing the Sicilian secrets of pastry baking and Bolognese insider knowledge on how to make the perfect pasta sauce. Cracco explains the difficulties he experienced in obtaining the information. There is a sense that some aspects have been lost to the passage of time, as often recipes were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. If recipes were written down, frequently they were penned in dialect.
Cracco explains that first and foremost “la ricetta è sempra aperta.” Meaning: the recipe is always open, it’s flexible and adaptable. If you don’t have something, change the recipes and find something else. He uses this kind of attitude to fill in the gaps in his research with instinct.
Is pragmatism therefore the secret to Italian culinary perfection?
There’s a certain degree of severity in Cracco. In YouTube clips he’s often barking ‘che schifo!’ (how disgusting!) at various quivering Masterchef contestants. Sgarzi probes him: Why the harsh treatment?
Cracco is used to having to justify his critical nature. He once defended himself in a Vanity Fair article: ‘io non sono cattivo, io sono severo.’ (I am not malicious, I am stern’). He jokes to Sgarzi that journalists, like chefs, are often labeled as “crazy bastards.” He argues that severity in the kitchen is an absolute necessity; if the dish doesn’t have professional precision, it doesn’t reach the professional standard. The cook needs to be told if they want to win and improve. It’s the only way.
In other words, Cracco is not a media puppet. His role on Masterchef, and more recently on Hells Kitchen, is to teach Italians that cooking for family and cooking professionally are two entirely different ballgames.
Sgarzi enquires about what’s in store for Cracco’s future. He has a number of projects lined up for the Milan Expo in 2015. An exhibition which will run for 184 days, cover one million square meters, and expects to welcome over 20 million visitors into the city. The event will provide an education on food and the planet’s precious resources. For Milan and indeed for Italy, the event will play a crucial part in continuing the Italian tradition of excellence in the kitchen and perhaps provide a healthy dose of flag waving.
What about the trend of “Instagramming” food? After all, it’s become almost an obligatory part of the dining experience. Cracco argues that by the time you have whipped out your phone and posted your image, the dish will no longer be the optimum serving temperature of 34 degrees Celsius. It is this kind of no frills attitude that has earned him such a dedicated following amongst the discerning Italian audience. It’s perhaps key ingredient to being an Italian celebrity chef.
Words: Laura Goodson;
Edited by Stephanie Ostroff.
Image: Roberto Baglivo.