There is a magical place at the top of the tallest hill in Rome. And within the past year, it just got infinitely more magical thanks to Alice Waters.
The American Academy in Rome, founded in 1894, is a blessed destination for artists and scholars alike to pursue individual projects and experiments. Unfortunately, for a good portion of the past century, the food that fueled these creative visions paled in comparison to the gorgeous, lush grounds of the campus and the incredible caliber of the fellows, residents, and visitors.
That all changed last year when Alice Waters paid a visit. Since then, kitchen staff along with the Academy fellows have established an organic garden consisting of raised vegetable beds and fruit trees as well as edible plantings along a pathway.
The kitchen is run by two chefs — one for each of the two meals served every weekday • who hail from Chez Panisse. The rest of the kitchen staff consist of great interns who arrive with little to no formal cooking experience and leave transformed. For the Saturday lunch — the only meal served at the Academy each weekend — the kitchen welcomes volunteers and usually sees a number of children of the fellows who show up ready to work.
Meals are prepared with whatever is harvested from the garden and supplemented by relationships with local farmers who raise their animals and grow their produce in a sustainable manner. One of the Academy's main suppliers is Bio Soledad, a fair trade coop of farmers working church land owned by the Pope himself. If the chefs still find their inventory lacking, they head to a nearby open-air market and buy whatever is necessary to fill in the gaps. They always try to buy produce that hasn't been sprayed with pesticides.
Like many countries around the world who have long practiced traditional farming techniques, farming in Italy pesticides is a rather recent phenomenon. Italy's Slow Food movement has helped spur education around the value of organic or bio food. This new demand may manage to convince many of the country's farmers that bio is both an ethical and lucrative pursuit.
The transformation of this industrial strength facility into a sustainable kitchen has resulted in consistently weep worthy meals. Fresh, healthy and incredibly delicious, the meals are prepared by chefs who care deeply about the food and use the best ingredients available. Italy has always been known for the quality of its food. The American Academy in Rome is destined, finally, for a similar reputation.
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(Images: Jill Slater, Jessica Helfand, Malcolm Helfand)