An Interview with Chef Alain Allegretti of Allegretti in New York
An Interview with Chef Alain Allegretti for the De Gustibus Blog
Chef Alain Allegretti is known for flavors and dishes that emphasize fresh, authentic ingredients of his native region of Provence. At his first signature restaurant, he presents his cuisine in a setting to match the classic elegance and comfortable charm of the French Riviera. The New York Times included Allegretti on its “10 Best New Restaurants” list in December of 2008.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alain Allegretti for an interview for the De Gustibus Cooking School blog this week. Here’s the interview:
It’s great that New Yorkers can escape to the south of France without leaving the city when they dine at Allegretti. What is the greatest challenge for you, when bringing the tastes and traditions of Nice to New York?
I wanted to bring Nice to New York with all its smells and flavor. Also, the simplicity of cooking. The challenge of doing that is to find the right product.
As is the custom in Provence, the menu at Allegretti changes with the seasons to feature ingredients at the peak of their freshness. We use the vegetables when they are at the peak of freshness in Nice, and we try to follow the seasons in Nice. For example, one classic dish is the ratatouille from Nice. I will only serve it during the summertime.
How do you bring the south of France to New York in wintertime? That must be quite a challenge.
In the south of France we are also using a lot of meat in the wintertime. Roasts, games, wild boar and pheasant. Putting fish with garnish that is wintry, and serving root vegetables.
Can you tell De Gustibus Cooking School students about your life as a Chef before you opened Allegretti?
I am proud to have learned from all of the chefs I have worked with and instilled lessons from each. Cooking with my grandmother taught me the importance of using the best seasonal ingredients and allowing their natural flavors to shine. From Jacques Maximin, I learned to be flexible with ingredients and to respect the product. From Alain Chapel, I learned a more precise and upscale style of cooking. And from Alain Ducasse, I learned that the smallest details in the entire dining experience make the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant. I’ve taken the best of what I’ve learned from all of them and incorporated it into my philosophy and technique.
Was it difficult for you to come to New York City (and leave Southern France)?
The reason why I came to New York is to have a bigger challenge than my own town. I’m not saying that it is as easy to be successful in a small town, but it’s not the same challenge of New York. Today you can find all the best Chefs in the world in New York City. And besides, I really love New York. It’s probably the most exciting city you can find in the world.
I know that you were born in Sicily, before moving to France as a child. And your name is Allegretti after all — is there any Italian influence in any of your cooking at Allegretti?
Nice was part of Italy for many years. We have the same quality of life in Nice. And yes, there is a lot of Italian influence in the menu. Why? Because there are some fantastic products in Italy and some of them match my type of cuisine. I don’t even mind using the products from Spain in my cuisine. It’s still the Riviera.
Do you work with any local farmers in the area?
The beauty of this restaurant is that it is small and we don’t do big volume so I can use small farmers. My parents own property in upstate New York so I can grow some of my own vegetables to bring to the restaurant. We served an heirloom tomato salad with burrata and everyone loved it due to the quality of the tomatoes… the tomatoes were ripe on the plant.
Is it still a challenge for you to find the precise ingredients of your region of France here in New York City?
I believe the earth of the South in Europe is different from the earth in America. The taste of the earth is completely different. The zucchini flower and the tomato taste different. If I go back to memory to the tomato picked just off the plant, that memory. As a child I would just eat a tomato with salt on it in Nice and it was incredible.
What are the key ingredients of the food of Nice?
Basil. The tomato is a base in the cuisine of the South of France. Olive oil.
Do you return to Nice often?
I try to go back two times a year at least. I like to go back and walk around the city to see if there are new products available like spices and olive oils. I always find a lot of ideas for the menu and my dishes.
How did you choose the dishes you chose for your class at De Gustibus Cooking School?
The idea is to give to the students something they never heard about before. Farrotto with mustard greens and sweetbreads for example. Ninety-nine percent of the class never heard what farro is. To learn about farro — it’s a primitive grain that is part of the wheat family. To show them something they have never learned before. The simplicity of the cooking.
Ricotta for example. What is it? How do you make it? I grew up making cheese and making my own olive oil. People today sometimes buy cheese without even knowing what kind of milk is in it. So, just the word Ricotta and what the word means. How it’s made. People were very receptive to the explanation of the dishes. I made mushroom and chestnut soup and braised lamb shank.
How was the experience of cooking and teaching at De Gustibus Cooking School?
The experience of cooking there was different because it was absolutely no pressure. The whole idea is two have 2 1/2 hours of fun. Just look at me and follow the flow with me. I try to be a good teacher, funny and very educated. The audience was very pleased.
The overall idea about this cooking is to teach them about the food I grew up with and to transform it in my way. The mushroom soup I had as a kid is different from what I am making today. But the base is the same. Now, you just try to bring it to the level of your restaurant. It is fine dining — refined. The food you eat at home is very comfortable, rustic food.
Is cooking for Americans a challenge for you?
Americans are sometimes a little afraid of trying new things. Seventy-five percent never had sweetbreads before. I know today I’ve changed some minds. I’m here to teach you and show you something new, but I will not try to convince you.
If they are coming to the restaurant the third time you become more comfortable with the guests and can suggest new things to them. It’s about the experience of trying something new or learning something new. Or sometimes you send them a middle course, something new and special to try. Just tasting a bit is not going to bite you!
We are using a lot of ingredients that are new to some people. Like pigs feet. We poach them, de-bone them and sear them. Today people are starting to like that. When you try it, it’s different. In Nice we’re using a lot of pork and we love using all the parts of the pork. Calf’s liver and the kidneys too. People are beginning to learn and open their minds to some new foods. We try to encourage them to try something new.
What advice could you give to New York City home cooks to inspire them?
Try to keep it as simple as possible. Just seasoning your food correctly is important. If you have the right ingredients, just keep it simple. If you have carrots, you can add just a little bit of olive oil, sprinkle them with some fresh herbs like parsley and add salt and pepper. But you don’t have to add something that’s going to change the taste of the carrots. At the end of the day, the simplest way to do something is probably the most elegant way to do it.
You can read more about the restaurant at www.allegrettinyc.com
Alain Allegretti’s Stuffed Sardine
Stuffed Sardine – Riviera Style (4 servings)
4sardines with heads removed, de-boned, de-scaled and butterflied
4 pieces of baguette-style crouton
2 breakfast radishes, quartered
3 quail eggs, hard boiled, halved
4 nicoise olives
4 sprigs chervil
50g spinach leaves, washed
50g swiss chard leaves, washed
1 artichoke hearts, small-diced
50g zucchini, small-diced
1 garlic cloves, minced very fine
50g white onions, minced very fine
To finish stuffing:
5 basil leaves, sliced
15g confit red pepper, diced
Place swiss chard, spinach, zucchini and artichoke hearts together in food processor until fine. Finish by hand if necessary to achieve even consistency.
Sweat in sautoir with olive oil. Add the rest of the stuffing and cook until dry, about 8-10 minutes. Add diced confit pepper and sliced basil and finish by adding egg, parmesan, and extra virgin olive oil; mix well. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Place a layer of stuffing on top of the sardine. Close upward into a vertical position (do not fold one side over to the other). Skewer with toothpick and cook in oven 3-5 min (depending on the size of sardine) at 375 degrees.
Remove skewer from sardine and place fish on top of crouton, holding sardine vertically; prop 1 piece quail egg and 1 piece breakfast radish side-by-side under sardine, with 1 Niçoise olive and 1 sprig chervil.