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1990s Archive

Cooking Lessons at a Grand Hotel

Originally Published May 1997

Sushi meets tiramisù when the indomitable Marcella Hazan led a week of cooking classes at the Cipriani, in Venice. Her personable, scrupulously detailed books on Italian cooking—beginning with The Classic Italian Cookbook in 1973—have set the standard for the genre. Teaching with her were her son, Giuliano, author of The Classic Pasta Cookbook; husband, Victor, author of Italian Wine; and—an incongruous but brilliant addition—Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, chef and part-owner of the acclaimed restaurants Matsuhisa, in Los Angeles, and Nobu, in New York City and London.

The group was small—about 20 people—and international, with students from Brazil, Guatemala, India, Australia, France, and Switzerland as well as the United States. And the level of cooking expertise in the class was high: A few of the students even had their own restaurants or catering companies.

Our schedule gave us ample time to roam the city. Apart from a tour of the Rialto fish market, we had most of each day to ourselves. In the early evening we would meet in the Cipriani’s demonstration room for class, a wine-tasting, and dinner at a long table by windows looking out on the moonlit lagoon and, beyond, the Piazza San Marco.

Marcella taught the first night, two massive stockpots steaming on either side of her like temple fires. In her slow, husky voice, cigarette close at hand, she delivered the rules of Italian cooking. “Forget about the main course if you’re talking about an Italian meal. The first is as important as the second.” Italian food is only fattening “if you eat it in the American way. Italians have very small portions, and we do not use butter at the table.” She cautioned us against piling on the garlic: “Don’t overdo it, please. It’s supposed to be a perfume, not a shock.”

Each class was based on a menu so that we would learn how to time our cooking, and so that we’d have a proper dinner afterward. Marcella devoted a good deal of time to discussing ingredients—how to buy them, how they react to different cooking techniques. The cook has to know the ingredient well enough to coax it into full expression; it must be “managed,” says Marcella. She passed around a few grains of Carnaroli rice, one of several varieties ideal for risotto, so we could see their white, chalky centers and translucent edges. Of course, such a rice could simply be steamed; but then it would not have the characteristic creaminess of risotto, produced when that translucent envelope dissolves—which it will only do if the grains rub against one another constantly, for a long period. “It’s not that we like to stand in the kitchen to stir the rice,” said Marcella. “But if you don’t do it, you don’t get risotto.”

As each lesson neared its end, Victor introduced us to Italian wines that possessed what he called “idiomatic tastes”—that is, characteristics that strongly expressed their regions. Among many others, we sampled Dolcetto, a popular grape in Piedmont; Merlot from Veneto; Pinot Grigio and Tocai from Friuli; Sangiovese from Tuscany; even Fiano, an ancient Roman grape from Campania.

Nobu Matsuhisa was in his element as he worked with the bounty of the Rialto market. His friendly, dynamic, and gracious manner thoroughly charmed our class, and so did his food. “I try to go very slow,” he told us, but he cooked our dinner in a flash. He showed us how to make sushi, using rapid, precise hand motions that looked like the culmination of centuries of culinary art to dab a slice of tuna with wasabi and curve it around an oval of sticky rice. He also whipped up dashi, an essential stock used for soups and sauces; lobster salad; sprightly yuzu sauce, made with a fragrant citrus fruit native to Japan: his signature “new-style” sashimi, raw fish with sizzling hot sesame oil poured over it to sear the edges; clams steamed in sake; and much, much more. “So, this is my secret sauce,” he’d often say after demonstrating how to make a recipe, flashing a brilliant smile. “Now not so secret.”

Giuliano Hazan, moving with the steady deliberateness he seems to have inherited from both his parents, showed us how to make the homemade egg pasta of Emilia-Romagna, generally acknowledged to be the best in Italy. Like his mother, as he cooked he often measured by eye rather than by cup or spoon; and, also like his mother, did not hand out recipes, which made the students grumble. (The Hazans want students to learn to cook by watching rather than by reading a recipe.)

Our final class, featuring the recipes of Marcella, Nobu, and Giuliano, was eclectic to say the least and great fun. How often can you learn how to prepare—and then eat—a dinner that begins with sushi and ends with tiramisù?