“…the economics of scale mean you have less choice, not more. It means chefs aren’t trained to have comprehensive skills, just to be short-order cooks….
Have you noticed that every salad you order has the same mix of leaves and all your chips have the same taste and size? It means fewer rare, seasonal and regional dishes, less delicacy, less tricky preparation or ingredients….
The same collations of ingredients turn up in chains that imitate each other, chasing customers up and down the high street.”
AA Gill, in The Sunday Times
It’s coming up to one o’clock, and I’m beginning to feel a little nervous.
Somehow I’ve managed to organise an interview with a chef who is normally in conversation with such celebrity critics as Tom Parker-Bowles and Jay Rayner. He’s been written up by The Guardian’s Pascal Wyse, The Telegraph’s Matthew Norman, and The Independent’s Christopher Hirst. Giorgio Alessio, chef-patron of La Lanterna in Scarborough, has even been on Woman’s Hour for heaven’s sake.
But he greets me at the door of his restaurant with a broad smile and a warm welcome and I’m instantly at ease.
A chef that champions the individual chef, and the individual customer
Giorgio Alessio is a man ahead of his time. In a world becoming ever more standardised and uniform, he stands for the individual. He stands for the lone chef who, like any artist, creates his own unique masterpieces. And he stands for the customer who does not gravitate, sheep-like, to the big chains, but who is instead discerning and curious, looking for something special, something unrepeatable.
Not even a sous-chef…
Striving for the excellent means being obsessive about quality. “The only way to really keep control of what comes out of my kitchen” he tells me, “is to prepare it and cook it myself”. Aside from the front of house staff he employs only a kitchen porter to wash up the pans, everything else he does himself.
And he does all the shopping himself too, which means rising early on a daily basis to snaffle the best of the morning’s catch. Over the years he’s developed close relationships with all kinds of local suppliers – fishermen, farmers, cheesemakers and other specialists.
“The only way to really keep control of what comes out of my kitchen” he tells me, “is to prepare it and cook it myself”
A surprising fusion of Yorkshire and north Italy
The best produce, he tells me, spreading his hands to indicate that what he is saying is a blinding flash of the obvious, is the freshest; and that means it usually comes from somewhere nearby.
“But of course” he adds, with a philosophic shrug, “I can’t deny who I am, where I come from”. And indeed, Giorgio is lucky enough to have been nurtured on the fragrant wonders of the Po valley and other goodies from further north – thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar, soft delicate leaves of ham, earthy white truffles. He comes from a land that flows with Barolo and egg-rich pasta. He is inured with all the techniques and instincts of the north Italian chef.
So the result is a heady and creative fusion of north Italian techniques, and ingredients painstakingly selected from the best of the North Sea harvest and the fruits and vegetables yielded by the rich Yorkshire soil.
It may sound on-trend, but for this Piedmontese, who has been quietly combining and sampling ingredients in the north of England for the last 30 years, there is nothing sophisticated or modern about it. It’s just common sense.
“Hmmmm”, I was pondering aloud, “I suppose that means you substitute bacon for pancetta?” Alessio looks shocked. By way of an answer he hands me a big hunk of smoked pork, reverently removing the covering and waving it under my nose. “Smell that!” he commands, and I breathe in the heady, salty, herby scent. “It’s nothing like bacon. Pancetta…. pancetta is pancetta!”
The results of the juxtaposition of Yorkshire with north Italian cooking can sometimes result in sheer genius. “Here, let me give you something to taste to explain what I mean,” says Alessio, leading me towards his larder. “We’ve put a Scarborough frito misto (sea trout, sea bass, link, cod) on the menu this evening, and I’m going to serve it with balsamic jelly.” He offers me a spoon of it and watches attentively as I taste with care.
It’s a revelation. It’s simultaneously sweet and acidic, with a dark, rich, loose consistency, strong enough to perfectly counterbalance the saltiness of the fish. Scarborough and Modena make a perfect marriage.
“We’ve put a Scarborough frito misto on the menu this evening, and I’m going to serve it with balsamic jelly.”
Why we should all be more adventurous
But whereas Alessio’s standards remain immutable, the food he sends out to the fortunate customers in his restaurant changes constantly. The emphasis he puts on fresh food means that the menu changes with the seasons, naturally. But Alessio’s passion for food means that he is constantly experimenting, and trying out creative combinations. “Come”, he tells me, leading me on towards the freezer, “try this, it’s gorgonzola ice cream”.
Well, I’ll try anything, mostly; I’m open-minded. But I had to admit to some misgivings about this invention. I take a spoonful of the cold, creamy confection and nod politely, while Alessio continues.
“try this, it’s gorgonzola ice cream”.
The chef’s true role
“I see the role of the chef as being the link between whatever is being harvested locally – whether animal or plant – and the eater. I was shocked, truly shocked,” he tells me, “to see when I first arrived that English people don’t generally eat fish. I’m coming from a country where people will eat anything that moves in water, and here your sea contains such riches”.
How the customer is duped
“And there’s so much on offer here”, he adds, with an expansive wave of his arms, “but the customer is being duped. You’ll see local produce advertised at every fish and chip shop – but I went down to the market this morning and there was one cod there weighing two kilos. And I was the one that bought that – it went in my Scarborough frito misto.”
Alessio sighs and adds, “the customers have to take some responsibility too. “The trouble is that people have got used to being able to order the same ingredients, and them looking the same, throughout the year. They expect squid in spring, and sea bass in July!”
“I was shocked to see when I first arrived that English people don’t generally eat fish. I’m coming from a country where people will eat anything that moves in water, and here your sea contains such riches”.
Cooking by numbers – the modern malaise
Fear of the unexpected, Giorgio believes, has led to the increasing popularity of the big chains, even at the top end of the market. I found I was remembering an expensive outing to Rick Stein’s flagship restaurant in Padstow. The food was good, the menu possibly approved by Stein himself. But the cooking was done by someone else.
“They’ve taught people to expect everything to be the same. They want what they know, what they can rely on. They don’t want to be adventurous”
The result is that chefs feel pressurised to offering a drab, homogenous cuisine. “Instead, what people should be doing, is seeking out their local restaurateur. They should be looking for chefs who are striving for excellence rather than consistency. It’s the difference between buying your suits in a department store and going to a tailor: or between treating yourself to an original painting and buying a print.”
The antidote – tailored alchemy
“When I cook I put all of myself into what I’m creating. I may want to change the menu at the last minute if I see something exceptional. Then I’ll be combining and melding that with other ingredients that I’ve dug out – my suppliers know me now and they’ll often seek out special ingredients for me”.
There are consequences of this highly individual approach. “People ask me, ‘if you’re so good, why don’t you open in London? But if I did that, that would mean a compromises; I’d have to change how I cook, how I run my restaurant.”
I find I’m looking down at my empty plate with a sense of wonder. “That was incredible…. extraordinarily good… what’s in it?”.
“You don’t really expect me to tell you?” asks Alessio with a triumphant, mischievous grin, closing the fridge door firmly.
And he’s right to guard his secrets. In an age of big brother uniformity, of homogenous high streets, irradiated unbelievable vegetables and ubiquitously branded restaurant chains, Georgio Alessio is the living, breathing example of the sort of chef we should be seeking in our own neighbourhoods. We need to find a skilled culinary creator who we can get to know, appreciate and trust, and to whom we can say with fearless anticipation, “I am in your hands!”
Some of Alessio’s secrets are, however, available to owners of his book, White Truffle, Yorkshire Pudding, available on his website.