(CNN) — From pizza to spaghetti, Italy has given us some of the world’s best loved foods and many of its restaurants are considered among the finest on the planet.
In the 30 years since the biannual gastronomy contest was launched by French chef Paul Bocuse, there hasn’t been a single Italian winner.
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But things could be about to change.
However he’s not allowed to use Italy’s best weapon — pasta.
Italy’s great hope
Italian chef Martino Ruggieri, whose signature dish is this meat Trulli, is the country’s culinary champion.
Accademia Bocuse d’Or Italia
Ruggieri, 31, from Itay’s southern Puglia region, will compete at the European competition in Turin in June 2018.
If successful, he’ll go straight to the world contest in 2019 in Lyon.
The deputy head chef of Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris recently beat three other Italian chefs at the national Bocuse d’Or selection which took place at the academy, located in the town of Alba, a UNESCO-listed Langhe region renowned for premium white truffle and rich Barolo wine.
During the long live cooking race, Ruggieri impressed a tough jury of Michelin-starred chefs, amid stadium-like cheering, with a “metaphysical” meat dish shaped into tiny, root-style dome dwellings of his native land, surrounded by a “magical circle” of red peppers, figs, pine dust and red turnip on rough grey terracotta platters.
Italians often use the phrase “to eat with the eyes”, and Ruggieri’s meat Trulli looked more like a contemporary art sculpture than something to gulp down.
His other veggie dish symbolized the cultural mix of Italy’s south, featuring a patchwork of bright spices, pumpkins, oranges and mayonnaise.
Form equals substance, and Italians must learn this if they want the Bocuse d’Or world title.
Going for gold
The Puglia-born chef conquered a tough jury of Michelin-starred chefs during the Italian selection.
Accademia Bocuse d’Or Italia
“Italy deserves the Olympic podium. We’ve always made the mistake in attempting to replicate a French, high-sounding cuisine but we need to impose the Italian style, a blend of tradition, creativity and innovation,” says Ruggieri.
Victory would mean ending years of humiliation for Italy, during which France’s chefs have ruled elite world cuisine.
Rivalry, it seems, can be a great motivator.
“The French aren’t better than us, they’re just good at marketing what they have”, says Ruggieri.
“Our cuisine is simpler, but with stronger flavors than the French one. All we need to do is make it refined, with its own Italian style.”
Chef Giuseppe Raciti, who was defeated by Ruggieri in the Italian Bocuse d’Or rounds, thinks French cuisine is “more classical but heavier to digest: ours is lighter and healthier because Mediterranean.”
Italian cooks don’t use butter like the French, but extra virgin olive oil.
“The French are so nationalistic and proud”, adds chef Paolo Griffa, another top contender who lost out to Ruggieri.
“They’ll never admit that no other country in the world has our premium products.”
While Italy never made it to any Bocuse d’Or grand final, France has won the gold medal seven time. Norway has taken it on five occasions.
Even the United States managed to secure the prize in 2017 with Mathew Peters, executive sous chef at New York restaurant Per Se.
It’s like a football world championship, Italy may get to the semi-finals but then it’s game over, says Francesco Oberto, Michelin-starred chef at Da Francesco restaurant in Cherasco, who isn’t above some culinary fighting talk.
“The French are so stuck up, they flip out when it comes to the Bocuse d’Or,” he adds.
Fellow Italian chef Matteo Baronetto, “the French are more precise than us, technical, with the risk of turning cold and ascetic. Italians are creative, we improvise and don’t follow the rules.”
The chef’s training pit at the Accademia Bocuse d’Or Italia is decked out with high-tech equipment.
Winning the competition is a matter of precision and rigor, and chef Enrico Crippa, president of the new academy, is adept at both.
Each day he looks after his private “vegetable garden” to make sure his special “Salad 21…31…41…”, served at Alba’s three Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo restaurant, is worth its 45 euro price tag.
“Our champion will be given a cooking gym, a training box where he can replicate his top dish each day here in Alba,” says Crippa.
“He’ll be paid with a contract as a real professional cook and hosted by our city. We will put at his disposal also a restaurant to test his creations.”
The trouble is Italy has so far invested little in promoting its cuisine at the Bocuse d’Or contest.
It previously lacked sponsors to fund its chefs, who must exclusively focus on preparing for the big event for months, putting aside their work at leading world restaurants.
However the academy has now gotten private and public sponsors to step in to help redeem Italian cuisine.
The training pit in Alba will be identical to the one used at the Bocuse d’Or contest, with high-tech sleek equipment and a support team.
There will be a psychologist to help Ruggieri handle stress and food designers to suggest how to turn the dish into a work of art by selecting the best tableware.
Molecular chemists will help with food substances and graphic experts will design the most appealing menu.
Ruggieri will be trained hard to beat his foreign contenders.
Assisted by his commis chef and personal coach, he’ll prepare the same dish — which is yet to be chosen — an infinite number of times over until he reaches perfection in just 5.35 hours, as the Bocuse d’Or rules state.
One thing is sure, he’ll never get to cook his beloved ear-shaped orecchiette pasta with turnip greens, despite it being his favorite recipe.
Pasta has been banned because it does not have the status to compete at global levels as opposed to meat, fish or vegetarian recipes.
“I had to choose a local product and being in Piedmont, renowned for its gorgeous rice fields, I picked Carnaroli rice”, says Crippa.
Also, a common ground is needed to compete with other countries. World jury members coming from Japan and Norway have no pasta culture, explains the chef.
The goal is to show that Italy is not just pizza and lasagne, but elite food that is able to blend creativity and technique, giving tradition a twist of innovation.
Taste of pride
France has won the contest seven times, most recently with chef Thibaut Ruggeri in 2013.
JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Even without the pasta, Italy is out to tell the world it can win the Bocuse d’Or.
“We want our cuisine to taste of national pride”, says Crippa.
Ruggieri is preparing to flex his muscles. He’ll be trained according to high standards, including cleanliness levels and the environmental impact of his dishes, how tidy he leaves the kitchen after the cooking and how much food is wasted in the preparation.
It’s like when Italy’s football squad sets out to win the world cup — exercising seven days per week is crucial — in a setting that recreates the original battle field.
“We’ve never had any serious training in this for the Bocuse d’Or, no real money invested, no sacrifices.
“Somehow we never took it seriously. But now, thanks to this new academy, our champion will get all the support he needs”, says Baronetto, who is an expert of technical rules.
Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.