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Leaving one's country is never easy but the American dream is something that has always inspired chef Luigi Diotaiuti to reach for more. A native of Basilicata, a region in southern Italy, the chef has always sought to bring to flavor of his homeland to the American palate. For 17 years, he's done just that at his Washington, D.C. restaurant Al Tiramisú.
Chef Luigi's impressive career includes being a member of the prestigious American Chef Corps at the White House, being a mentor to elementary school children and being a judge at the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition, among others.
His celebrity clientele has included George Clooney, Bill Cosby, Hillary Clinton, Harrison Ford, Wolf Blitzer and Pelé. Through it all he's maintained a down-to-earth personality and contagious enthusiasm for teaching others the joy of cooking Italian food.
During the Year of Italian Culture in the United States sponsored by S.Pellegrino, FDL had the pleasure to catch up with this talented Italian Chef who works and lives in America, to discuss his passions, dreams and everything in between.
You grew up in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, when did you first dream of coming to America to be a chef?
Coming to America was the first thing that I did in my career which I didn't have a plan for. I was supposed to come for a month or two, and when I came, my whole life ended up changing. I ended up staying because I realized that Washington had a lot to offer, and even though I knew it would be difficult, I was up for the challenge!
At your DC restaurant Al Tiramisu you prepare authentic cuisine from Basilicata. How do you incorporate local ingredients into your traditional Italian food?
Basilicata is home to the first human settlements in Italy. We still uphold agricultural practices such as the transumanza which were taking place in antiquity. This passion and dedication to tradition along with the unique terroir, and multilayered cultural influences in our history is what sets us apart. We have DOP products like caciocavallo Silano and Podolico, Senise peppers, pecorino di moliterno and the Sarconi beans . In January, I was proud to return to Tursi to oversee Pasta Lab 2013 where professional chefs teamed up with home cooks to recreate traditional pasta recipes on the verge of being forgotten such as manate, strascinate, rascatielle, foglie d'olivo, etc.
Recently, you cooked a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings at the James Beard House. What did it mean to you to cook for such prestigious event?
I prepared 7 courses for a dinner entitled "The Beauty of Basilicata". Serving a dinner at an establishment like the James Beard Foundation is the ultimate accomplishment of a chef. For me, it happened on my birthday, and I was able to represent my homeland. It was also an honor to me to have one of my mentees, a chef who I trained years ago, cook there the week before, and then he returned to attend my dinner. It was as if my career came full circle that night.
You were inducted to the American Chef Corps at the White House, an elite group formed by some 80 chefs around the country. Do you feel you' ve crossed the final frontier? What are your career goals?
I feel as though I'm just getting started. I have many more dreams and goals to achieve. I am very happy to be a part of the American Chef Corps and look forward to creating cross cultural events with the US and Italy as well as the countries which I travel to for marathons. In the beginning of my career, I was awarded the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano by President Scalfaro, and it was a huge honor to be recognized by the Italian government. Now that I am an American citizen, it means a great deal to be honored by a country which I had to work very hard to establish myself in.
As a mentor and judge at the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous chef competition, you guided young talent in the kitchen. What advice would you give a young person who would like to go into culinary field?
I would advise young chefs that they need to learn the basics. The origins of ingredients, how traditional dishes are prepared, and how to maintain standards in the kitchen. Nowadays many chefs are quick to want to be famous, but they don't know enough about food in order to uphold the respect for our industry. It bothers me when young chefs create their own interpretation of dishes and then try to pass them off as part of tradition. They need to understand the real reasons why each dish has been prepared in a certain way for centuries and its significance before they can take the creative liberty to change it. Sometimes it is mother nature itself that has created recipes. Terroir is the perfect integration of nature and the human beings who live in it. It is the aspects in history - harvests, festivals, celebrations, war, famine, etc. combined with terroir from which traditional dishes evolve. The more that young chefs can learn about farming, produce, chemistry, history, and culture, the better chefs they will become.
You also mentor students at a local elementary school who sometimes cook at Al Tiramisu. How important is it for you to reach out to the community? What do you hope students can learn from you?
It is very important to me to reach out to the community- it is the one thing that we miss the most in our busy culture in the US. Community is such an important part of life in Italy and Basilicata that we take it for granted. Here in Washington, it has always been a priority for me that Al Tiramisu is a part of the community. Fortunately, my clients feel the same way. Many people come here just to visit the staff, or celebrate an important occasion in their life, because we have become a part of their lives. I am also fortunate to have a staff who has been with me since the very beginning, and we ourselves are like a little family after being together for 18 years. This is unheard of in the United States.
When I invite elementary school kids in to cook, it is as if I am welcoming them into the family. I want them to have the same opportunities that I had to learn how to cook. It gives me great pleasure to pass my passion on to future generations. In addition, I hope to teach them to eat healthfully, and to view cooking as one of life's greatest pleasures.
You've said the ultimate American Dream for you is to have Michelle and Barack Obama visit Al Tiramisu on date night. If they came, what would you serve them?
I would like to make them an Italian dinner and make them feel as if they are a part of what they are eating. I would provide them with a taste of not only great food, but culture as well. Since both the President and Michelle Obama are interested in promoting healthy eating and growing local produce, I would be sure to highlight the best local produce we have to offer here in DC, along with my own house-made specialties like duck prosciutto, radicchio, onion and balsamic marmalade, limoncello, chocolate and other liqueurs, and traditional Italian ingredients. I would present them in an elevated Italian way - marrying styles and traditions that they couldn't get elsewhere.