This past spring, Falk College nutrition students in the Mediterranean Food and Culture Class had the unique opportunity to cook in the Tuscany home of renowned Italian Chef Jacopo Tendi. And in late October, Chef Tendi had his first opportunity to visit Syracuse as Falk College returned the favor.
Or, to be more precise, returned the flavor.
Tendi was the featured speaker for the Oct. 24 Joan Christy Lecture Series on Food and Culture at Falk College. The lecture series is made possible by the Christy Food and Culture Fund, which was established in 2005 through the generosity of Syracuse University nutrition alumna Joan Christy ’78, G’81 to provide support for a lecture series in the nutrition program.
For about five hours that morning, Tendi cooked with students from Chef Mary Kiernan’s Nutrition Science and Dietetics (NSD) 216 class in the Susan R. Klenk Learning Café and Kitchens at Falk. Tendi and the students created a Tuscan menu of chicken cacciatore, fresh seasonal vegetables, potatoes gnocchi with a pumpkin sauce, four different kinds of crostini, and biscotti that’s made to be dipped in a Tuscan dessert wine.
“But today,” Tendi said, smiling, “we’re not going to dip in.”
During his Christy Lecture demonstration that night, Tendi showed how to make the chicken, gnocchi, and biscotti, and the food made earlier in the day and at night was served to the guests. Tendi was joined at the demonstration by his 19-year-old son, Riccardo, who recently finished culinary school in Italy and like his father was visiting the United States for the first time.
For Tendi, there were other familiar faces in the audience: Nutrition majors Mara Baker, Tess Palin, and Alyssa Quinn, all of whom had cooked with Chef Tendi in his home in Tuscany in May.
“Reconnecting with Chef Tendi was a wonderful experience. He remembered all our names and welcomed us with the same warmth as at home in Italy,” said Quinn, a senior from Cicero, New York. “In his demonstration (at Falk), I wasn’t aware that bruschetta (for the crostini) could be made with cabbage –it never occurred to me.
“Chef Tendi once again expressed his innovative abilities with his recipes, and they were delicious,” Quinn added. “I still can’t stop thinking about how good the chicken cacciatore he prepared with the NSD 216 students was.”
Teaching Nutrition and Sustainability
NSD 452/652 is the “Mediterranean Food and Culture: A Florence Experience” class taught by Nutrition and Food Studies Associate Teaching Professor Jane Burrell in the Spring semester. The class explores Mediterranean culture, lifestyle, and cuisine through lectures, readings, and discussions that prepare students for a 12-day immersion trip to Italy.
While in Italy, students travel through the countryside to tour farms, observe olive oil, pasta, cheese, and wine productions; cook with Italian chefs; and enjoy farm-to-table meals. The trip ends in the heart of picturesque Tuscany–the home of Daniel and Gayle D’Aniello Syracuse University Program in Florence–and includes visits to Tendi’s home, where fresh ingredients are readily available from his vegetable garden, fruit trees, and olive trees.
Tendi spent more than 20 years teaching at Syracuse University Florence and now hosts students at his home for cooking demonstrations and takes them on visits to organic and biodynamic farms near his home. Tendi says he enjoys teaching students and he often talks to them about sustainability and how it applies to cooking your own food.
“To make a pasta dish, you need no more than five or six ingredients,” Tendi said. “If you buy a premade past dish and look at how many ingredients are in it, you can imagine that it’s not something you want to eat. It’s mainly preservatives and flavors and colors to make it look good.
“With good ingredients, you don’t need to do that; the force of the ingredients come out,” he continued. “This is what I like teaching to young people because they’re our future generation and maybe they’re the ones that will change how we feed ourselves.”
Jacopo and his wife, Anna, founded a non-profit organization, Salati Bene, which promotes educational programs regarding nutrition and sustainability for Italian and American students.
“It was a surreal experience to cook in Chef Tendi’s home this May with the guidance of him, his wife, and his daughter,” said Palin, a senior from New Hampshire. “My biggest takeaway from that experience was that you do not need loads of ingredients to make something delicious. You just need local food cooked well to make a spectacular dish.”
Baker said what she learned most from cooking with Tendi was how to cook and improvise with fresh ingredients.
“As someone from North America who loves to cook, being able to cook in Italy and experience the cultural differences firsthand was extremely valuable,” said Baker, a senior from Toronto. “Ever since my return from Italy, I have made more of an effort to make my meals completely from scratch when possible.”
Feeding Your Body and Heart
The Syracuse students who had an opportunity to cook with Tendi and his family in Tuscany were excited to see him at Falk and came away from the demonstration with an even better understanding of his methods and philosophies.
Palin says she learned about different cooking mediums and their uses, particularly pairing the right pans with the type of stove in your home. By being able to observe Tendi in his home and then in an unfamiliar kitchen, Baker said she realized that “it’s not just the ingredients that make the dish, but it’s the atmosphere.”
“While Syracuse has state-of-the-art kitchens, Chef Tendi had a harder time navigating the kitchen as he’s used to his cooking methods and his own kitchen at his home in Tuscany,” Baker said. “Establishing a comfortable and relaxing atmosphere in the kitchen is important as it adds to that sense of comfort and joy that comes with food.”
The emphasis on cooking with joy–and cooking with your family–was at the heart of Tendi’s lecture and demonstration at Falk.
“It’s important that parents cook with their children because that’s the way to infuse in children the joy of cooking,” Tendi said. “Cooking is with love, passion, and joy; it doesn’t have to be a competition or war like with the TV shows. You don’t have to win anything, just enjoy. And if you’re spending time with your relatives or friends, you feed your heart, too.”
For the students who were in Tuscany to witness Tendi in the kitchen and with his family, those lessons will always be an ingredient in their meals.
“Cooking with him in his kitchen was a stress-free, relaxing experience, and coupled with the wonderful dining experience in his backyard is something I have taken home and implemented in my own house,” Palin says. “I prioritize cooking and eating with my roommates, even on busy days as that’s the time to relax and bond with my roommates.”
“Cooking with Chef Tendi reignited my passion for cooking at home again,” Quinn said. “Cooking is a time to let the creative juices get to work, and I take that into consideration every night when I cook at home. I’ve begun experiencing new ways of cooking a variety of produce since my experience with Chef Tendi, and plan to continue to do so.”