Wondering about one of the very best secrets to achieving simplicity (and absolute deliciousness) in the kitchen?
Simply reach for the ingredients naturally growing in the garden that time of year—a winning approach shared by the world’s best chefs. During autumn, that means apples and pears, sweet potatoes and squash, cauliflower, cabbage and more. Picked in their prime, seasonal produce bursts with flavor and nutritional value. It can also be affordable because crops are ample.
We chatted about seasonal cooking with acclaimed chef Tony Mantuano, owner of Spiaggia, the Michelin star-rated Italian restaurant in Chicago. A “Top Chef Masters” finalist and James Beard Award winner, Mantuano shares his thoughts on easy fall cooking ideas, his unquenchable love for fresh figs, and why sharing a meal with friends can be a powerful source of inspiration.
Q: You often talk about your grandmother from Calabria, Italy, as a key influence on you as a chef.
A: Yes. My grandmother’s cooking was all about simplicity. When she made her tomato sauce with tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, there was always the addition of pork neck bones, and I’d wonder, “Why pork neck bones?” But it was something that gave that tomato sauce this flavor that’s just burned in my memory. I can’t forget it. She didn’t make the sauce using 18 cloves of garlic, she used one. It’s about balance, subtlety and the restrained hand. Incredibly strong flavors come out of that cooking. Everything is balanced. When I cook and I smell it [tomato sauce], it’s the stuff that makes me happy.
Q: You got your start as a chef by cooking in Italy. What lessons did you learn there?
A: When it comes to Italian cooking, you must have the right ingredients. You need to make the effort to find the right ingredients. That’s one of the things I learned more than anything: If you want to cook in the style of Italians and that level of cooking, find the best stuff.
Q: What are your tips on selecting the best seasonal ingredients?
A: Number one, see what was grown locally. Understand that the closer the better and go to a store that supports that philosophy. Some stores won’t tell you where it’s from, but if you go to the store and a sign says “Grown in Michigan,” that’s the number one thing. Get to know the produce manager. For example, ask him, “Hey, when did this broccoli rabe come in? Do you have anything fresher in the back?” They want to keep you happy and don’t want you to go somewhere else.
Q: Why is cooking with seasonal produce important to you?
A: We go out of our way to use ingredients that are in season; it’s incredibly important to us. We won’t use things that aren’t. We have six restaurants, and a lot of times people say, “Well, I want asparagus.” I tell them that I do, too, but it’s not around right now!
Our menus change as the seasons change. During late summer, we’re heavier on produce. In the colder months [in the Midwest], we rely more on protein and less of a percentage of vegetables. You must adapt to what’s out there.
Q: When it comes to fall seasonal produce, what are some of your favorites?
A: Each season, I look forward to figs. They can be done both sweet and savory, which I love. Table grapes are great too and can also be treated both sweet and savory. We make focaccia with all different kinds of grapes in it and serve it in our café for breakfast and at our coffee bar. It’s very popular and it’s so delicious. If I see it, I must walk away because I know I’ll eat all of it.
I also like pumpkin, squash and mushrooms. For us, the king of mushrooms is porcini mushrooms and you’re seeing more of those in this country. I love mushrooms, all different kinds that come this time of year—and, of course, truffles.
Q: Is there a fall ingredient that you love to use when cooking for friends?
A: Figs! They really are so underrated. Figs with prosciutto and a slice of cheese and a piece of bread is a great first course. There’s no cooking involved; it’s pretty amazing.
Q: What is the best fall meal you can ever remember having enjoyed?
A: During a recent visit to a Piedmont [Italy] winery, my wife Cathy and I had these beautiful, fresh porcini mushrooms and squab. We enjoy eating game this time of year. We knew the chef and it was one of the greatest meals I’ve had in a long time.
Q: What is the key to cooking with simplicity?
A: Cooking is simple. If you master a couple techniques and have a restrained hand, you can have a satisfying meal. People are always like, “What about fish? How do I cook fish?” The easiest way to cook fish is to have a great non-stick pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook that flesh side down and keep the lid on. The skin will peel right off if it’s steamed and seared at the same time.
There are so many different tricks that you can use that make cooking easy and fun, and I always like to talk about them because it gets people to enjoy food.
Q: What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without, and why?
A: I can’t live without extra virgin olive oil from Italy. Whether it’s used as a drizzle over raw fish or even just eggs with truffles this time of year, it’s just one of those essential ingredients. I can’t even think of cooking with another fat. It’s an essential flavor that carries through from the beginning of cooking a dish and all the way to the point when you put whatever you cooked in it into your mouth, you always get that underlying flavor of olive oil.
Q: In an interview, you once said: “I love to share food with people.” Why is this important to you?
A: Sharing food with friends and family is when people get the most passionate. It’s the perfect setting for breaking down any pretense, and it leads to conversations and passionate discussions. If you share food with people, it’s the most sensual, most intimate … it breaks down everything.
Q: In your opinion, what makes a good at-home dining experience?
A: A great bottle of wine and great company make an ideal at-home dining experience. Turn off the TV, sit down, enjoy the company and take your time. Don’t worry about one course and eating as fast as you can. It’s hard to do if you want to spend time with the people you’re with. Instead, split it up into three smaller courses. Again, don’t forget the wine because it helps you relax, enjoy the food and slow down.
Q: As a former musician, what is your favorite music to play for friends at a fall gathering?
A: I’m a big fan of funk music from the ’70s, bands like Tower of Power or even newer bands out like Mayer Hawthorne or Wolfpack, who play ’70s and ’80s funk. Funk is my favorite music to entertain with because it’s so fun and relaxing. I enjoy seeing people move with the music!