Until a few years ago, gastronomy - as defined by Treccani, the Italian encyclopedia of science - was merely a matter of gourmet food and its place in our culture. Today, however, when we talk about gastronomy, our definition has expanded to include previously overlooked areas - such as sustainability. Much of this new approach we owe to an idea, conceived in the heart of the Langhe, which in 2004 gave birth to the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo. The university has trained around 3,200 gastronomes from all over the world, helping to broaden the very definition of gastronomy.
Founded on the initiative of Slow Food, in collaboration with the Piedmont Region and the Emilia Romagna Region, the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo stood out from the start with its extremely broad and varied didactic approach. Currently, its educational offering includes a three-year degree in gastronomic sciences and cultures in English and Italian, two degrees and eight masters, ranging from 'new food thinking' to agroecology and food sovereignty. These courses and field studies help to train gastronomes who are passionate about good food, have skills in politics, economics and ecology. They emerge with a 'trained' professionalism to operate in an increasingly complex and in some ways problematic world scenario when it comes to climate change.
“Today you can find news, information, videos, books and films, in every possible place and on every possible topic concerning food and gastronomy. Can we consider everyone gastronomes? Definitely not,” says Nicola Perullo, deputy rector-full professor of aesthetics at Pollenzo. "Being a gastronome today means, for me, going far beyond information: it rather has to do with what I would not hesitate to call an awareness of a different order, which passes from information to transcend it into a further level of training… Something immaterial, deeply spiritual and ethical."
These definitions require us to think beyond pure theoretics. At the conclusion of her career at UNISG, where she earned a master's degree in food innovation and management, Sharon Mendonce, of Indian origin, did an internship at FAO, where she remained to work as a food and nutrition consultant.
“It has always fascinated me to study food from different perspectives, and to work in different parts of the food system,” she says. “Before arriving in Pollenzo I had studied nutrition and dietetics, chemistry and human development, then culinary arts. I hoped that the University of Gastronomic Sciences would help me connect the experiences made up to that moment in the 'world of food' so that I could produce innovative ideas myself that would help change the food system. And so it was."
“There was so much to learn in the classroom, but also in our travels in the area, and in meeting students from all over the world and from different academic and professional backgrounds."
According to Mendonce, being a gastronome in 2022 means above all, "questioning what 'good' means when it comes to food. And to recognise that there are different interpretations of 'good' - also because most of us live in multicultural societies."
When almost twenty years ago, on this campus on the outskirts of Bra, the Piedmontese town where the Slow Food headquarters is located, the project was built on the idea of the gastronome. At the time food and catering was still a relatively niche sector. There is now a lot of talk about food, everywhere. But talking about food, operating in food and understanding food is increasingly difficult.
Eleonora Bergoglio of the Alumni Network explains how it is essential to ensure that children are able to "insert themselves into the connections between the different fields. We do not aim to give excessive specialisation but to provide a broad overview and supply their bow of arrows. Post-pandemic, their professionalism has moved even further online: many kids are involved in food storytelling or work in innovative apps. And they are increasingly interested in the topic of food policies."
Sophie Huntke, for example, attended the master in food culture and communication is now team lead sales of the TooGoodToGo app, which seeks to reduce waste in the food world: "I wanted to work with people who were trying to make this world more sustainable. Geography, history, legislation and marketing, during university I studied every aspect that could come into contact with food. But the most important lesson is that you can call yourself a gastronome even if you don't produce the food. For example, if you care about the value of food, it isn't wasted, even if you don't do it with your own hands. This makes us proud and unites us."
Alessandro Di Tizio, from Abruzzo, attended the Triennial in Gastronomic Sciences thinking of becoming a cook: "When I entered I realised that it could give me something else, for example, a solid humanistic education. During my journey, I became passionate about craft beer, but in the end, I decided to do my thesis in ethnobotany. I have travelled the world interested in recovering and saving the traditions related to the use of wild plants. And today I arrived at the research and development centre of Mirazur, Mauro Colagreco's restaurant on the French Riviera, applying foraging to haute cuisine."
In recent years, universities offering training in the gastronomic field have multiplied in Italy and throughout the world. But does the world really still need ‘gastronomes’? "There is an urgent need for gastronomes to the extent that there is an urgency for awareness, for global and relational thinking, for interconnection," says Perullo.
“Today everyone is very well informed thanks to the network, but the idea of discovery is lacking. The market is increasingly fragmented and fast, so career prospects can change quickly." But this is not necessarily a bad thing: "There are those who come up with the idea of being a food critic and end up wanting to become a cheese refiner, those who dream of being a restaurateur and become the manager of a large company: the fundamental characteristic of contemporary gastronomy, in short, is its unpredictability, its liquidity."