I am a veteran newspaper reporter who has transcended to the life of a kitchen slave. In April, I took a leave from The Sacramento Bee, where I work as a columnist and editorial writer, to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. Until at least September, I will be working five days a week at the restaurant, learning basic culinary skills and helping Oliveto prepare its nightly dishes. What will happen at the end of my sabbatical? Who knows? At the very least, I'll be a far better chef than when I started. I've been a dedicated home cook for more than 20 years, largely because of the inspiration of my wife, Micaela Massimino. Mickie and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in Italy, France, the Deep South, New Mexico, Vietnam and Japan, and we enjoy cooking food from all of those places. I also have some experience in writing about food -- particularly the environmental consequences of food production. In the 1990s, I covered the rise of industrial hog farming in North Carolina, while working at the Raleigh News & Observer. Since moving back to California in 1999 and joining The Bee, I've specialized in coverage of water issues and threats to the state's fisheries. When I am not cooking, eating or writing, I like to take long rides on my various bicycles, which helps build an appetite for more cooking, eating and writing.
Pork is a constant at Oliveto. The menu revolves around it. On any given day, prep chefs can be seen breaking down a hog into various cuts --shoulder, loin, leg -- and then processing them into porchetta, pancetta, scallopine, sausage or salumi.
Like Hollywood actors, some chefs will claim that they don't pay attention to the critics. The reality, of course, is that they do.
A good review, in a prominent publication or media outlet, can help launch an upstart restaurant or attract new customers to an old one. A bad one can sink the newcomer or spell trouble for a venerated establishment.
Some might say that lentil soup is an odd thing to prepare in the summer. That would be true in Sacramento (where I live). But in the Bay Area, where it is often cold and foggy, a lentil soup is just the thing to be enjoying on a back patio. I learned this basic recipe at Oliveto, one of many perks of working as a galley slave (intern).
If you are a fan of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, you probably buy chunks of it. You grate them and devour them. Eventually you are left with rinds that are too small to grate, but too precious to throw away.
If you are like me, these rinds pile up in the cheese bin of the fridge. At $16 a pound or more, how could you possibly throw them away?
Then the time comes to utilize these rinds. I am sharing a method I learned from a line chef at Oliveto, after I asked him about pasta recipes for a dinner party.
Sometimes it's best not to tell your dinner guests what you are about to serve them.
Sometimes you should just watch their eyes light up as they try that first bite, and then reveal what you've prepared.
This is one of those dishes.
Weeks before starting my internship at Oliveto, I began researching the knives I would need to be a swashbuckling chef apprentice.
I owned an old set of Wustof knives, but like a lot of home chefs, I had mistreated them. New knives were essential. They needed to be sharp. They needed to be versatile. They needed to feel comfortable in my hand.
My first step was to consult Paul Canales, the executive chef at Oliveto.
For the last two months, I've been part of this dinner troupe, as a stagehand -- a chef apprentice. Starting in April, I took a leave from my job as an editorial writer and columnist for The Sacramento Bee to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Rockridge.