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Storytelling In The News: #156

Authenticity and the story of authentic Italian food

May 21, 2004

What if authenticity is as much a matter of time as of place? This interesting question was posed by Jonathan Reynolds in the New York Times in the context of Italian food, and since the question of authenticity is central to organizational storytelling, the article deserves a glance here, even if it is not exactly headline news.

Authenticity in organizational life

Organizational life today abounds in inauthentic initiatives and behavior. Management puts up slogans in posters and plaques around the organization, which in due course become the subject of wry comments and cafeteria jokes. The CEO reads some book or hears some consultant and suddenly the organization is awash with talk of the latest management fad, which is patched on to the organizational culture like a multi-colored Band-Aid. While change is inevitable, managers often fail to take the time and trouble introduce the change in a way that respects the traditions and history of the organization, so that it emerges organically -- and authentically -- in the life of the firm.

Authenticity and change are therefore in tension, but not necessarily at odds with each other. It's a question of how and when the change comes about.

Is there such a thing as authentic Italian food?

A similar discussion takes place in food circles and one area where the question gets people very excited is that of Italian food. What constitutes authentic Italian food?

''There is no such thing,'' reports a friend of Reynolds -- a veritable Gustatory Pontificator. ''Italian food is all regional. Tuscan, Neapolitan, Venetian. The only purely Italian food is Chef Boyardee.''

''Fine,'' said Reynolds ''Let's go to an authentic Tuscan restaurant.''

''There is no such thing in this city (i.e. NY).''

''Well, how about authentic Roman?''

''Doesn't exist.''


''Nope.'' One by one, the G.P. shot down every region, every city.

''So you're saying that, basically, there is no authentic regional Italian food in all of New York?''

''That's about it.''

Teodora: an authentic Italian restaurant in NY

Reynolds however points to several NY restaurants that he considers authentic Italian restaurants. "Bellini is good for Pugliese; San Pietro is expensive but true Salerno; I Trulli is now back to their roots; Barbetta is Piedmontese and very good when she's around. Bussola is very Sicilian -- they make a lot of their money, by the way, on their heavenly gelato. And Teodora and Bianca make excellent Bolognese dishes, though Bianca puts white truffle oil on stracchino cheese, which isn't authentic. Teodora on 57th Street is unsung, but lots of Italians go there.''

Reynolds in due course visits Teodora where the chef and owner, Giancarlo Quadalti, is from Emilia-Romagna. He's been there for seven years -- since it opened. Quadalti explains how to cook an authentic broth -- it takes time.

''That's because downtown is smaller; (they) don't have so much time. You see, I take time with the broth, three or four hours. You have to boil very slow -- if you boil too fast, it becomes not clear. Have to clear up every 15 minutes. You can cook less - but you get less flavor. And you must use cold water, because it will release the flavor; hot, it will seal up the pores right away. If you need the broth, water cold; if meat, water hot.'' Downtown, the broth is good, just not quite as good, and it is served with passatelli, which you can make at home in a potato ricer.

Out comes a piadina, a circular flat bread the size of a small discus, cooked on a griddle and now mounded with broccoli rape. (It is also served with stracchino cheese or cold cuts.) At first, it seems unalarming to the point of blandness -- no yeast, no spices other than butter, which is not exactly a spice, and super-refined double-zero flour -- but after three bites Reynolds can't stop eating it. Quadalti beams. ''You can't find another piadina in this city, but this is the real one. Most people don't know; most of our clientele are Europeans. Piadina is complicated. You have to feel it in your hands. I don't weigh it; I don't use measurements.''

Quadalti grew up on the outskirts of Ravenna, surrounded by animals and vegetables: ''Not a farm, just a field outside with goats, pigs, quails, rabbits, ducks. You walk outside and throw some seeds on the ground, and three months later maybe you get a surprise -- tomatoes, salad, parsley. If it comes, it comes; if it don't, it don't.'' He finished regular school at 13 and went to culinary school for three years, then began cooking in local restaurants. He came to America in '89 and hasn't stopped working since.

''Emilia-Romagna is the No. 1 cooking in Italy," says Quadalti. "We have everything there -- it's where prosciutto di Parma comes from, balsamic vinegar, pasta by hand. We have hills, flat and sea, clouds, humidity. You see, we have this green valley. It is called 'the crib' -- the crib of Italian food. Because of this crib, all the food is good.'' He laughs again. ''And Bologna they call 'Bologna la grassa' -- Bologna the fat. A compliment, because in Bologna everybody eats everything.''

The obsessive search for authenticity at restaurants may grate after a while and turn trendy -- should it be a crime to find Pecorino when technically there should be Parmigiano-Reggiano? In fact, Quadalti's cooking may not be identical to what he knew as a boy. He is innovating, but with full knowledge and understanding of and respect for the traditions and history of the cuisine from which he comes.

Bottom line on organizational authenticity

In organizational life, change must take place, and storytelling is the vehicle by which it happens. If the change flouts the traditions and history of the firm, it will be seen as inauthentic. If the change emerges, with knowledge and understanding of and respect for the life and traditions of the organization where it is occurring, then it has a chance of being seen as authentic.

A book that reasonably illustrates authentic change is Patrick Lencioni's "The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive" (Jossey-Bass, 2000) where the change that takes place is authentic -- no posters, no plaques, no rah-rah picnics.

This may be contrasted with the inauthentic change that takes place in "Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results" by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen (Hyperion, 2000). Both books will be reviewed in these pages next week.

Giancarlo Quadalti's Capon Broth

1 large onion, sliced in half
1/2 9- to 10-pound capon
2 stalks celery \
2 tomatoes, halved and seeded
1 carrot
3 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt.

1. Heat a small, heavy skillet over high heat. When very hot, add the onion halves cut side down and cook until very charred. Put the onion into a large stockpot along with the remaining ingredients. Add 8 quarts (32 cups) cold water and place over medium heat.

2. Slowly bring the broth to a simmer. Skim off and discard any foam on the surface. Adjust heat and barely simmer, skimming as needed, for 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

3. Strain the broth, discard solids and refrigerate until the fat solidifies on top. Discard the fat. Use the broth for the passatelli (see recipe).

Yield: About 4 quarts.

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