If thinking of school food doesn’t bring up any memory of delicious food, hold on. School cafeterias can not only serve tasty meals but also fair food.
At the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo in Italy, the educational headquarter of the Slow Food Movement, students, professors, and staff enjoy fantastic school meals.
Tavole Accademiche (Academic Tables in English), the name of the University cafeteria, offers a new vision and model for school food programs. It’s not the mainstream, aseptic school cafeteria where food has lost its character of conviviality and goodness. Instead, Tavole are a cozy environment that serves education and good food with fair costs and attention to raw materials.
Tavole is a great example of a school cafeteria done exceptionally well. That’s why I’ve asked Ilaria Abbà, an Italian third-year undergraduate student and long-time friend of WE Factory, to give us an insider’s look at Tavole Accademiche.
If you’re running a food program in your company and need inspiration, make sure to grab a pencil and paper. This is packed with ideas! I’ll leave this to Ilaria.
The Pollenzo Bubble: the Cradle of Gastronomy
Before moving on to talk about Tavole, we need to start off by describing the largest context of it.
We will now begin to treat nature’s greatest work: we will expose man’s food to him, and we will force him to admit that what makes him live is unknown(Plinio, XX, 1)
Founded in 2004 by the international non-profit association Slow Food in cooperation with the Italian regions of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, The University of Gastronomic Sciences is a private non-profit institution. It attracts students from all over the world who want to learn gastronomy. But what is “gastronomy”? To clarify what this means, we refer to the Manifesto of Pollenzo.
“Because gastronomy is everywhere: it does not only concern certain foods, certain ways of cooking and consuming them, perhaps only certain traditions or certain places on the planet. Every product of the earth, the seas, the woods can be gastronomy. Each mode of consumption can be gastronomy. It is the study of everything that has to do with food intended as a cultural and scientific value. Gastronomy has to do with living, human, animal and vegetable conditions. It is passion and love for life, wherever it occurs to the primary and perennial need for nutrition.”– The Manifesto of Pollenzo
The UNISG Students on the path to becoming Gastronomes
To become ‘Gastronomes,’ we need to taste, experiment, and explore different foods to raise public awareness and ethical responsibility. Next to theory, we do participatory observation and get the first-hand experience during our study trips all around Italy and abroad. That way, we learn the importance of the value of food as the original community bond between all living beings.
I suppose that the desire to provide ongoing education and providing a place for us to meet the chefs, and where ideas could blend with flavors and stories came naturally over time and gave life to the Academic Tables.
A Unique Location For Tavole
Located inside the University campus, Tavole opened in 2013 to give a new meaning to the word “school cafeteria” by reinterpreting the idea of shared food and a moment of meeting.
Interestingly, previously, the building housed Guido Ristorante. Founded by Guido Alciati and his wife Lidia Vanzino, it revolutionized the history of Piedmontese cuisine.
It was 1961; Lidia was the artist in the kitchen, and Guido was the room maître. Lidia became the most renowned ambassador of traditional Piedmontese cuisine thanks to her agnolotti del plin––Times even called her the “Agnolotti’s queen”. The peculiarity of Lidia’s agnolotti lay in the plin (nip in Piedmontese dialect). She used to close them by making a gesture with the thumb and shaping them not as perfectly squared but a little irregular.
Guido has moved to Fontanafredda estate in Serralunga d’Alba (20 km away from Pollenzo) and is managed by their sons Ugo and Pietro Alciati. I waited on tables at Guido and gained so much experience. I not only learned a lot about Piedmontese gastronomy but also about the restorative art of the dining room.
Already in the fifties, Guido and Lidia Alciati invented a new model of a restaurant where, long before the phenomenon of slow food, they proposed genuine raw materials and personally sourced them from local farmers.
A School Cafeteria With a Zero Waste System
The philosophy behind the Tables complies with the Slow Food movement motto “Good, Clean and Fair.” And, of course, food is prepared to avoid waste as much as possible.
The system acts to “Zero Waste” thanks to an online booking system. Each student can book their lunch from their phones through an app until 2 pm on the previous day. We may choose the dishes we like more, taking advantage of the credits of the University tuition (next to the piggy bank menu). The menu always consists of a vegetarian and lactose-free dish, a first course, a second course, which is often gluten-free, and a dessert.
Renowned chefs visit and cook at Tavole
In addition to the 5 permanent chefs, every year, 15 global chefs are invited to Tavole. Using local and seasonal products and preventing waste, in compliance with the Slow Food principles of “good, clean and fair,” the visiting chefs prepare their most significant recipes.
Over the years, many chefs took over the kitchen of our school cafeteria. Some are Davide Scabin, Niko Romito, Alice Waters, Ferran Adrià, Alex Atala, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Michel Bras, Carlo Cracco, Massimo Bottura, Enrico Crippa, Ana Ros and Fulvio Pierangelini.
To better understand their philosophy and their recipes, after class, we have the opportunity to meet the chefs informally during the so-called tea-time.
Tea-time with the Haitian-Genoese cook Thérèse Theodor.
My favorite tea-time was with Thérèse Theodor. I remember how she was able to convey her passion for cooking, good food, and her native land. She is originally Haitian but has resided in Genoa for over 30 years. There she works as a home cook and caterer, where she intertwines Haitian flavors with Italian ones. With us, she shared her personal journey of migration and migrant food.
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2019: The year of female chefs at the school cafeteria
A strong female presence marked the year 2019. Out of the 15 restaurants invited to Pollenzo, 7 were led by female chefs. They came from countries like Italy, Austria, Catalonia (Spain), Japan, Mexico, Russia, and Uruguay.
Karime López, the young and talented Mexican chef chosen by Massimo Bottura to be the executive chef of Gucci Osteria in Florence, brought her cuisine rooted in her native Mexico but also elaborated by her multifaceted international experience.
With her border cuisine between Italy and Slovenia, Antonia Klugmann shared her passion for the harvest of wild herbs and her continuous search for local products. She served polenta with pumpkin, gnocchi of durum wheat semolina with cuttlefish, and as a dessert a sorbet of strawberry grapes, yogurt, and persimmon.
10 Menus for 10 Students: when students take over the school cafeteria.
As guest chefs are invited to take over the Tavole and tell their stories through food, students get the same chance through a year-long project called 10 menus for 10 students.
Storytelling is the common thread of 10 menus for 10 students. Instead of developing only one menu, the participating students who cook for all the fellow students, are asked to contextualize the list of dishes by telling a story. They may take inspiration from their home country or from what moves their creativity in the kitchen.
With 10 menus for 10 students, the Tables offers experimentation and knowledge–sharing through food.
Good Mood Food: where Sicily meets Israel
So far, my favorite project was “Tell me what you eat, and I tell you who you are–Meal of Diversity” by the Israeli-Sicilian group called Good Mood Food, who cooked at Academic Tables in spring 2018.
The combination of Israeli and Sicilian cuisine might sound bizarre to most people, but there are more similarities that one might think of. Here is how the three chefs, Achi Dakar Raanan, Shalom Simcha Elbert, and Bartolo Causarano described Sicily and its food:
“Having experienced various overlaps of peoples for hundreds of years, Sicily has one of the richest cultures, together with the richness of its land and soil. From capers, olives, dried tomatoes: the diversity of gastronomic products is the true mirror of the island.”
And here’s what they said about Israel:
“Not far from Sicily, always overlooking the Mediterranean, there is the small state of Israel. Founded only 70 years ago, Israel is still looking to find its own culinary identity. Through innovation, resilience, and determination, Israel has been able to create a great variety of products and dishes, which do not disfigure in comparison with those of countries with an older history.”
Sicily and Israel are melting pots of people and food. In the same way, the University reflects this idea; It’s the place where Achi, Shalom, and Bartolo met and cultivated their ideas about cooking together.
Tell me what you eat, and I tell you who you are – Meal of Diversity.
The six-handed menu included:
Foreigners in Contact: Harmony of vegetables with crunchy hummus (based on onion, turnip greens, curly endive, celery, carrot, leeks, black cabbage, potatoes, chickpeas, paprika, za’atar).
Pleasantly Aggressive: Veal cheek stew with Israeli spice mix, Jerusalem artichoke puree, and sumac cauliflower.
A Sweet Encounter: Ricotta cannolo, citrus soup served warm and tahini ice cream.
The traditional braid of challah bread and Sicilian bread made with sourdough were served with the dishes.
“The menu that we have worked out together for us shows that although thousands of miles separate our two cultures, we have this incredible gift called food that allow us to try and do something good together.”
Tavole, hosting a discourse on food and migration
Together with the Wine Bank (a cooperative company to build the historical memory of Italian wine, select, storing and conserving the best wines of the peninsula), the Tables also host tastings and events.
Migranti Film Festival is an international cinematographic event organized by the University in collaboration with Slow Food. During the festival, screenings of the films in competition, conferences, speaker corners, and gastronomic workshops revolve around food and migration. The Tables become the “Migrant Tables,” which bring to the table some unique dishes from different continents of the world.
At the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, the lunch break is more than a time of the day to feed your body. The school cafeteria offers a critical moment to share food between people around the table.
I will bring this experience with me, remembering that the lunch break can successfully be the carrier of encounters and knowledge. Not only other Universities but also companies should consider offering an experience similar to Academic Tables. It acts as a glue for the community, for the team, or for people who haven’t met yet––and can do so around the table.
Ilaria is a student of the Undergraduate Program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. She is passionate about the agri-food system with a holistic view that involves hard sciences as well as humanities. Ilaria is driven by a constant desire to travel and learn more about the tables of the world. You can find her as @abba_ilaria_ on Instagram.
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