If your name is Viola Buitoni, cooking is part of your DNA.
Viola Buitoni is a direct descendent of the family whose company wrote a crucial chapter of the history of Italian food.
The story of the Buitonis is made of good things, passion and love and reads like a novel enough to have been told in books and television productions.
The company has its roots in the early part of the 19th century. In 1827, in the Tuscan city of Sansepolcro, when Giulia Boninsegni and her husband Giovanni Battista Buitoni took over a small pasta shop and transformed it into the first large scale production company in Italy.
At the end of the 19th century, to meet rising demand, their sons Giuseppe and Giovanni opened production plants in Umbria. By the beginning of the 20th century, Giovanni’s son Francesco Buitoni, Viola’s great-grandfather, established enough to finance the talent of Luisa Sargentini and her husband Annibale Spagnoli, co-founding Perugina, the chocolate and confection company that would go on to become a household name all over the world.
Despite a course of study in economics in New York, Viola was drawn to a career path that, given a tradition this rich, seemed almost inevitable.
With 30 years of experience in the field of Italian food, she now lives in San Francisco with her family, where she teaches passionate home cooks the everyday art of Italian food. She also organizes retreats and trips focused on Italian food and cooking and occasionally contributes articles to local publications.
Born in Rome and raised in Perugia, after your high school diploma, you move to the United States to study Economics. Can you tell us about your professional beginnings? When did you realize that cooking would become your profession?
My first kitchen job was in the summer of 1989, an opportunity offered by a friend whose intent was helping me stay busy while I pondered the shape of my professional life. But the stove immediately ignited passion and I knew I found where I belonged. I was lucky enough to work with a chef who understood my potential and gave me the confidence and know-how to translate the flavors of my home’s culinary tradition to a professional context.
In a very competitive environment such as the culinary one, what were the main difficulties encountered at the beginning of your career?
Hands down being a woman. Things have changed today, but when I started it was still difficult. Kitchens were sexist and sexualized environments, where protecting oneself often meant having limited access to growth.
Do you remember the first dish you cooked for work?
Yup! The legendary Agnolotti del Plin, learned under the careful guidance of a superfine Piedmontese cook who had come from the Langhe to help the afore mentioned chef with the opening.
What can’t your pantry do without?
It’s a tough choice, but in the proverbial deserted island I would have difficulty without salted anchovies, wine vinegar and olive oil.
How do you define your Italian cuisine?
As the meeting of regional traditions and contemporary trends. I cook in a way that has few codes and a lot of instinct, crossing the richness and variety of local agricultural production and the best Italian food imports. I teach my students to re-frame cooking as an everyday art, around which revolve family and friends, routines and surprises.
How does a typical working day work?
It’s fluid, but it almost always starts at the computer with the organization of the calendar and the material for my various activities: 4 lessons a month open to the public, plus some private ones, articles for a couple of local publications, culinary retreats in Napa Valley and gastronomic exploration trips in Italy. The part I love most about my work day is where life espouses work. When I cook for my son, my husband and the many friends who gather at our table, I keenly observe the dance of hands and senses. Inevitably, I find myself making a new gesture, perceiving a scent to describe, listening to a noise to de-code. I let it decant until morning when I am back at the computer trying to capture everything on paper, intent on offering my students ever more accurate instruments.
Italian cuisine has always been loved in the US, but often also imitated incorrectly. How do you explain our culinary tradition to the new generations of Americans?
In the most obvious but least valued way, I invite them along to the stove and let them touch and taste what it means to cook like an Italian.
Your professional life is divided, above all, between San Francisco and New York. How do these two very different realities understand Italian cuisine?
I would say that, in general, not only for Italian cuisine, San Francisco’s audiences pay much attention to the quality of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The more a chef can create original dishes thatshowcases them in the best way, the more s/he is appreciated. It is no chance that San Francisco is where the farm-to-table movement was born.
New Yorkers, perhaps because of the limits climate imposes on agriculture,count on the chef’s ability to transform a rich pantry.
I especially notice this difference when I go to the market. In San Francisco, I lose myself in the variety of fruits and vegetables, the aromas of local dairy products and fresh bread. In New York, I am mesmerized by European-style cuts of meat, imported cheeses, smoked fish.
Moreover, on the west coast innovation is more appreciated, I would say almost a must, while east-coasters still refer to the codes of European cuisine.
What do you miss about the American cuisine when you’re in Italy and what do you miss about Italian cuisine when you’re overseas?
Hamburgers! In Italy we still have no idea how to make a hamburger that colonizes your senses, the kind that keeps you from thinking of anything but that hamburger while you’re eating it.I also miss the easy access to different gastronomic cultures.
When I go back to Italy I have some must-eats, saltless bread from Ellera and the salty Norcia prosciutto when in Perugia; in Maremma pizza with anchovies and onions; in Rome the a breakfast of maritozzo with whipped cream and sheep ricotta for lunch; in Pisa cecina; in Puglia mozzarella fior di latte; in Milan focaccia at Princi Bakery.
What advice would you give to those who want to make cooking their job on various fronts? (chef, wine and food writer …).
Before anything else, I would tell them to be absolutely certain that this is what they want to do. Food is a field where you work a lot and earn little, especially if you want to be in the kitchen.
Outsiders only sees the romantic part, but the daily reality is intense, tiring and all-encompassing. That said, I could do nothing else.