Olive Garden cooking school in Tuscany?

Posted by on Feb 4, 2014 in Cooking, Culinary, Food, Let Me Vent, Things that make me scratch my head, Tuscany | 11 comments

Updated 02/2014

Olive Garden is one of those places that really sets my blood to boil. Every time I hear the word ‘Hospitaliano’ I begin to cringe and twitch. When I hear them say ‘When you’re here, you’re family’, I can’t help but visualize the corporate offices of a chain with nearly 700 cookie-cutter restaurants. I’d just love to show up there one day waving my hands saying ‘Ciao!!! It’s cousin Michael’. I wonder what kind of Hospitaliano I will receive when I help myself (as family would) in their executive lunchroom at the corporate HQ. Better yet, after you leave an Olive Garden, how many people that work there know your name, let alone consider you family? Do we actually buy into this stuff?

I’ve Got Your Hospitaliano Right Here

OK, marketing marketing marketing. But now their commercials focus on their ‘Culinary Institute’ in Tuscany? They imply that their chefs all go there to learn how to make true Italian food with the freshest of ingredients. They learn from a local grandmother, then come back to their local Olive Garden and you get the benefit of their new-found talents. Yeah, Right! This is just over the top. Is Olive Garden actually trying to imply now that they serve authentic Italian food? Do they really want us to believe that it is the real thing? Fresh? We are talking about a Boil-a-meal-in-a-bag-then-serve chain here, people. Their recipes are at best ‘Italian Inspired’, but by no means Italian. It would be like having someone serve you a sausage and call it a hot dog.

Their latest commercial talked about how their chefs came back from Italy with their new recipe, ‘Chicken Crostina’ . Ummm… sorry folks, no such thing, and I can most certainly guarantee that the grandmother shown teaching the chefs in the commercial wouldn’t put an Olive Garden Chicken Crostina in her mouth to save her life, let alone teach anyone to make it.

A Dose of Reality

So what is this ‘Cooking Institute’ all about? I did a little research, and I put some two and two together. It appears that someone in corporate found an independent cooking school in Tuscany and made a deal with them. Olive Garden ranks all of their chefs and managers (as any corporation would), and the top 100 win a one-week trip to Italy the following year. It appears that they send 10 of their people at a time. It sounds like a great performance perk, and they are certainly getting a ton of marketing mileage out of it. However, I can pretty much guarantee that they come home and look at the food they make at their local Olive Garden and simply shake their heads, having finally experienced the real thing. In any case, they then go back to their ‘line chef’ system and feed you the same junk they always have. Sigh.

Are You Looking for Something AUTHENTIC?

Some have asked why my opinion is so strong on this subject.  Simply put, I own a cooking school in Italy that actually DOES create a family experience.  We actually DO teach authentic home-style Tuscan cooking, and our vacations are the stuff of dreams.  So since you probably arrived here while searching Google for information about Olive Garden’s cooking school, please do me one little favor:  Have a look at our website and check out what we are all about.  If you are really considering a cooking vacation in Italy, I think what we have will be EXACTLY what you are dreaming of.

Win a Trip to the Culinary Institute?

Hey, it’s a great promotion!  However, if you are hoping to learn the secrets of Chicken-Gnocchi-Alfrefo Soup or Deep Fried Lasagna Bites, it just isn’t going to happen.  I suspect that you will get a more authentic experience, and by the time you come home to Olive Garden, you will be squarely in my camp.

Update 2014:

According to their website, Olive Garden partnered with the Rocca delle Macie Winery to establish the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany”.  As mentioned earlier, this not actually something that Olive Garden runs, nor is it a place they send their “chefs” to learn.  But rather an incentive for Olive Garden employees.  Nothing like what you see in the video:

Read More

Food Marketing Terms That Really Chap My Hide…

Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in Culinary, Culture, Let Me Vent, Personal, Things that make me scratch my head | 5 comments

Many of my posts here are about the oddities I find living in Italy as an American, but the reverse holds true as well. Having spent so much time in Italy, when I come back to the states, there are things that are normal to Americans, but rub me the wrong way because of my time in Italy. One of these that really gets to me is how we describe food in the states.

Italian culture truly does revolve around food. It is so important, that an Italian company really can’t get away with slick marketing terms that are misleading. That is, if something is marketed as “fresh”, it damn well better have come from the farm 15 minutes ago. But in the states, all of these terms to describe food have become meaningless. So here is my list of terms I find to describe food in the states that make me say “Are you freaking kidding me???”

How many times have you been in a restaurant that advertises “The Freshest Ingredients”? Really? Are you treating me like I was born yesterday? I mean, everyone does it, from chain restaurants to fast food establishments. That tomato that you advertised as “Fresh” likely came from a greenhouse on another continent weeks ago. Spare me.

Home Made
How many restaurants offer home-made pie? Home made meatloaf, home made just-about-everything? So, did your chef make this at his house this morning and bring it to work? Why on earth do we respond to this?

So I walk into some fast food restaurant and see an “Artisan” sandwich advertised. ARTISAN? To begin with, How on earth does ARTISAN apply to food? Do they have some little old man in the back with a lifetime of experience sculpting the ingredients into a work of art? I mean, fast food assembly line sandwich shops advertise “artisan” food. Please!

Put this up there with artisan. What is “Hand Crafted Roast Beef”, anyway? How do you hand-craft that? And if you do, do chain restaurants really do it? I think not, so why use the term and treat your customers like idiots?

Again, like Hand-crafted, and used ad nauseum. So the meat in your sandwich is hand cut. Does that make it better? Really? Do you honestly hand-cut it?

I see this on menus all the time, like Pan-Fried Salmon. I have just one question: How else would you fry the salmon? In a pressure cooker? In an oven? In the sink? I don’t get it.

Cooked to Perfection
How many times do you see a description on a menu that tells us the food is cooked to perfection? How else are they supposed to cook it otherwise?

100% Real
This fist struck me on a pizza box from Papa John’s. 100% Real Cheese? Are they telling me that other Pizza uses fake cheese? That may be so, and great that theirs is real… but what is the other pizza made of? How sad is it that we have to wonder if our cheese is actually cheese!

Real Fruit Flavor
I love seeing this on juice drinks. So which it? Real Fruit? Or Real Flavor? Are you telling me that the flavor is that of REAL fruit, but it is fake? Am I supposed to get excited that it doesn’t TASTE like artificial fruit, even though it really is artificial? Or are you trying to pull one over on me, thinking I will believe you are selling me real fruit, when in fact only the flavor is supposed to taste real? Huh??? Argh!!

Natural Cut
Hello Wendy’s! Are you trying to tell me that your “Natural Cut Fries” are naturally cut? Or that the fries are natural, and you cut them?  Perhaps they are natural fries that you cut naturally? Because a quick google search will show anyone that there is very little natural about Wendy’s natural cut fries.

OK, I’m done with my rant… for now.

Read More

Who is Alfredo Sauce, and why do Americans keep asking about him?

Posted by on Mar 24, 2010 in Cooking, Culinary, Culture, Food, Travel Tips | 18 comments

I’ve heard it time and time again.  “I can’t wait to have Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy”.  Ummm, sorry friend… you won’t find it.  It isn’t Italian.  Well, that isn’t entirely true, actually.  You can get it in Italy, but you will never find anything like it it on a menu, and certainly not by that name.  To get you in the right frame of mind, imagine I served you a simple slice of toast with a pat of butter on it, and I told you this was a special dish I call ‘Bread alla Michael’, you would laugh, right?   Fettuccine Alfredo falls into that realm for an Italian.

My Stomach is Unsettled Tonight

When you were growing up, if you had a little stomach ache, maybe your mother gave you some chicken broth.  Perhaps some simple rice, or a little toast?  If your stomach was unsettled, she gave you something light, right?  In the pasta culture of Italy, one of the most common things ‘mamma’ would have given you is a very simple pasta, called ‘pasta in bianco’.  That translates to ‘white pasta’… or more indirectly, ‘without any sauce’.  Of course, mamma would never have just given you pasta without flavor, so she put a little butter and Parmesan cheese on it to get you to eat it.

It is the most basic of pastas.   You will never find it on a menu in Italy, because who in their right mind would go out and pay to have Pasta In Bianco?  It is so simple, so basic, that if you really wanted it any restaurant could give it to you, so to advertise it on a menu would be like Ford advertising that their cars have steering wheels.  Duh!

To go to a restaurant with the purpose of ordering this dish would be like going to a Chinese restaurant with the purpose of ordering plain, steamed, white rice.  It simply is what it is.  And if you DO ask for it in a restaurant in Italy, the waiter may show concern for you, thinking you may not be feeling well.

The Pregnant Wife

So why am I rambling on about stomach aches, anyway?  This is how ‘Alfredo Sauce’ was born.  As the story goes, there was a restaurant owner of a touristy restaurant in Rome back in the 1920’s.  His name was Alfredo, and at the time he had a pregnant wife. She was regularly having pasta in bianco, because she couldn’t keep anything else down.  The story they tell you now is that one day Alfredo rushed into the kitchen to make a special dish that she simply could not resist, and he suddenly invented Fettuccine Alfredo… well, it makes for a good tourist tale, but it is just Pasta in Bianco. It is what any Italian would make on any given day for any pregnant woman suffering from nausea.

One day, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were at his restaurant and had this dish that the wife had been eating.  That day the pasta happened to be Fettuccine, and of course she was having it ‘In Bianco’.  They loved it,, and gave Alfredo a picture of them to hang on his wall along with a golden spook and fork.

Alfredo gave them the “recipe”.  I put recipe in quotes for a reason. Try to imagine if a visitor asked you for the recipe for buttered toast.  To any Italian, giving the “recipe” for pasta in bianco is just like that.

When they went back to Hollywood, they began to serve it to friends, telling them about Alfredo’s restaurant in Rome.  Alfredo suddenly found Hollywood elite visiting his restaurant, looking for ‘Alfredo’s Fettuccine’, so it made its way to his menu.  Pasta in bianco was now ‘Fettuccine Alfredo’, at least for the steady stream of tourists that frequented his place.  Many actors also contributed photos, of course.  The restaurant became a very popular tourist destination for Americans.

Off To America

After several years, Alfredo sold his place to the person that runs it now.  But he later got involved with another group of entrepreneurs, who opened another Alfredo (including Alfredo’s in New York, Vegas, and Disney).  Fettuccine Alfredo became even more popular in America as a result, to the point that it became a staple in just about every Italian restaurant in the US.  Of course,, as good Americans, we need to make everything bigger and better, so ‘Alfredo’ became a ‘sauce’ for just about everything, almost like a Starbucks ingredient for coffee.  Chicken Alfredo, Shrimp Alfredo, Tomato Pesto Pasta Pine Alfredo….. ugh.  People began to add cheese, pepper, starch, and who knows what… to the point that any white creamy thing that went with pasta became ‘Alfredo Sauce’.  In America.

New-Yorkese Cuisine

That is how much of what we believe to be Italian food came to be. Imported, morphed and combined shadows of what the real Italian thing was.  I call it ‘New Yorkese’.  Buca Di Beppo is not an Italian chain, it is a New Yorkese chain.  Maggiano’s? New Yorkese.  Olive Garden?  No, I won’t even give Olive Garden such a high designation.

You won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy.  You will never find olive oil and herb dipping sauce with your bread.  There will be no Chicken-Pesto pasta, and you won’t see a meat lover’s pizza.  You will also never see Alfredo Sauce.  That is, unless you happen upon the restaurant that exists with the sole purpose of capitalizing on the fact that you are seeking it out.

L’Originale Alfredo

You can go there.  It is in downtown Rome.  They will have beautiful outdoor seating, they will have a people that will serenade you, and you will see the pictures all over the walls.  And yes, you can order a dish of Pasta in Bianco.  ummm, I mean Fettuccine Alfredo.  You will be joined by nothing but other Americans that were looking for the same place, for the same reasons.  You will find no Italians, no other Europeans, nada.  This place is there just for Americans.  If that is what you are after, by all means go and have a wonderful time.  It is truly a pretty place.  But for those that are looking for something authentic, by all means, keep walking.   Since they don’t cater to Italians here, they can get away with low quality ingredients, producing low-quality food.  Why?  Because you are a tourist and you won’t know the difference.  Why not stay home and go to Olive Garden if you want bad Italian food?

Actually, if you find yourself there and suddenly see what I am talking about, there is a great place next door called ReCafè, which makes fantastic pizza.

But if you really, really want it…

Hey, just because it is extremely simple, doesn’t make it bad, right?  Actually, Pasta in bianco is a wonderful light dish, just not something one would pay a premium for.   So when you are in Italy, don’t worry about the fact that it is not on the menu.  If you want it, order Fettuccine In Bianco.  If you want creamy, you can ask for Fettuccine Con Panna.  It will be what you are looking for, but will be much better than what you will get at the Alfredo place.  But if you go into ANY Italian restaurant and ask for ‘Alfredo Sauce’, they will certainly ask you who Alfredo Sauce is.

Read More

How do they get the flavor out of the food in the states?

Posted by on Nov 5, 2006 in Cooking, Culinary, Culture, Food, Let Me Vent, Things that make me scratch my head, Travel Tips | 3 comments

I’ve been back in Los Angeles for a week now, and last night we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner for the first time since I got back.  This may not seem like a big deal, but for us it is always a tragedy.

The restaurant was Pomodoro in Woodland Hills.  I don’t want to say it is a bad place by American standards.  Actually, it is one of the better chains.  It is just that I was in Italy having the real thing a week ago, and by those standards, even the best place in the states simply stinks.

To give you an example of what I mean, let me go back about a month.  I was having a mega craving for roasted chicken and roasted potatoes.  In the states, we would generally call it Tuscan chicken, since it is generally a central Italian thing.  In Soriano, there is a place that makes roasted chicken and potatoes that are to die for, and this craving I was having needed to be addressed.

We decided to go to a place called Rosti in Westlake Village.  It is a tiny chain of just 4 restaurants.  We had been there in the past many times, and it had always been good.  In fact, it has always been the closest thing to real central Italian food we had ever eaten in the states.  The problem was that I was craving the real thing, not the ‘closest thing’.  I had the memory of Italy in my head, not the memory of a cheap imitation of Italy.

So we go to Rosti and order Caprese, followed by roasted chicken and potatoes.

The Caprese was a disaster.  But t wasn’t their fault… it was ours.  We had the memory of the real thing.  Caprese is pretty simple… it is hard to mess up.  I mean, Mozzarella, Tomato, basil, and oil… How hard can it be?  The problem is that the tomatoes we get here in L.A. taste like water, not tomatoes.  The mozzarella is never fresh, and even at best, it has absolutely no flavor. So in the end, you get something that looks like Caprese, but tastes like nothing.

Then came the main course.  The plate looked awesome!  There were my potatoes and my roasted chicken… Yummmmm!!!  That is, until my knife hit the chicken.  It didn’t feel right.  When I tasted it, I suddenly frowned and wondered how they got the chicken flavor out of the chicken.  Then I tried the potatoes, and I could feel the effects of the microwave used to heat them in my mouth.  I was devastated.  It was like craving an In n’ Out burger and settling for a Big Mac.  The problem was that this is as good as it gets.  The only way to satisfy the craving was 8.000 miles away.  Why can’t we make decent Italian food here?

Actually, it is our own fault.  We live in a move ‘em in and move ‘em out country. It starts with the farmers and ends with your meal.  The farmers mass produce everything, having to make a bigger tomato that gets to the market faster so they can grow more tomatoes.  Technology gets us bigger and cheaper tomatoes faster than ever. The price of this is flavor.  The chicken ranchers are replaced by chicken ‘mills’ that pump them full of hormones, giving us bigger chickens than ever.  They are big and cheap, so who will notice that they don’t actually taste like chickens?  

As we walk into restaurants they take our orders as soon as possible and deliver us our food as quickly as possible.  We mistake this for good and fast service, but it isn’t that at all.  In fact, they want us in and out quickly so they can get reuse your table as many times as possible that evening.  But food just doesn’t cook that fast, now does it?  So they have to precook as much as possible.  They can’t waste the time and energy to make things from scratch, so they buy the majority of what you eat in frozen form from a huge distributor.  Food is prepped quickly and reheated so that they can use fewer people in the kitchen with higher efficiency, all the while getting your order to you in lightning speed. 

The process is beautiful, and the only thing you lose along the way is flavor.   But even that is ok, since we are preconditioned to think that is the way it is supposed to be.

Then we wonder why the Italian food is so much better in Italy.  Go figure!

Read More

Baseball, Italian Style

Posted by on Sep 29, 2006 in Culture, Sports, Tuscany | 0 comments

On my last trip to Italy, I was hoping to attend an Italian NFL football game. Actually, it was the ‘Silverbowl’. Unfortunately, Paola wasn’t feeling well, so we ended up skipping it. Still, while browsing one of the sites, I followed a few links. One of them brought me to the Italian Baseball League. I discovered that there was a game on July 1st ina town not too far from where I am (Actually, it ended up being about 80 miles away).

  Grosseto Baseball Stadium

The Grosseto Baseball Stadium

So I figured, what the hell! It is important to note that the Italians have 3 major sports: Soccer, Soccer and Soccer. Well, to be perfectly fair, they also follow Soccer. So, the fact that I discovered a baseball league was something I couldn’t pass up. So I made the trek to Grosseto, home of the ‘Grosseto Prink Orioles’, the team that just won the European World Cup of Baseball, as well as the Italian Championships last year. They are in the Italian version of the majors (Series A1). What I discovered when I arrived at the ballpark was awesome!! The ‘stadium’ was much larger than I had anticipated. I would say that it could stand against many minor league fields in the US. More impressive was the crowd… THEY HAD ONE! Remember, if you ask 1,000 Italians, maybe ONE can tell you the difference between a strike and a ball. OK, so there is probably curiosity factor. Still, it is a crowd.

The game is about to start, and Mickey Mouse (really) throws the first pitch. The game starts, and I very quickly realize that these fans (around 1500 – 2000 of them) are real fans. They know the game, and are there for their team. No curiosity factor here.

The game moves on scoreless… inning after inning. The players were pretty good. I wouldn’t say any were good enough for U.S. Minors, but pretty close.

Grosseto Baseball Stadium

Grosseto Baseball Stadium

All the while, I am there with a local friend of mine, to whom I am teaching the ins and outs of baseball. As the top of the 7th is about to end, I tell him about a tradition we call the 7th inning stretch. While I am still explaining it, the batter strikes out and all of the sudden they start playing ‘Take me out to the ball game’ over the loudspeakers as the announcer announces the 7th inning stretch. Too cool!

After the song, the announcer mentions the presence of some Americans from Boston at the game. Apparently that was somewhat akin to mentioning the presence of a few rock stars :-)

I ended up meeting the Americans, as well as the announcer (Ciao Guido), and he ends up announcing yet another American from Los Angeles… Wow! I’m famous now!

In any case, we get to the bottom of the 9th, still scoreless and go into extra innings. The game finally ends at around midnight at the bottom of the 12th, the home team victorious.

Believe it or not, it was more fun than any Dodgers game I have ever been to!

Read More