When I was chosen to judge the Barilla Pasta World Championship, a friend asked the obvious question: “How does a schmuck like you pull that off?” The jury contained five Michelin-starred chefs and one food historian. What it lacked, apparently, was a minor novelist.
The event’s emcee phoned me, wondering how I should be introduced. I have lived in Italy, I speak the language, and maintain a modest paunch in tribute to my love of pasta. “Maybe I could represent the everyman eater?” I suggested, hopefully. “Palate of the people?”
I made my way to Parma, a hub of Italian gastronomy known for crumbly Parmigiano Reggiano, buttery prosciutto and the world’s biggest pasta corporation, Barilla, which was sponsoring the television-style cook-off.
On the morning of the contest, I sat on a swivel chair at the judges’ table and anxiously prepped by jotting down foodie-sounding words: “nutty” and “acidity” and “citrusy.” To my right were five Italian chefs in immaculate white tunics. To my left was the only other civilian, Francine Segan, an American food historian. “Have you ever judged something like this before?” I asked her. “Many times”, she said. “How should one prepare for a tasting?” “Eat green apples. Do not drink coffee.”
I pursed my lips to hide my cappuccino breath. Shorly afterwards, a buzzer rang, starting the 30-minute timer for the first of three finalists, Accursio Lotà, a Sicilian by birth who works at Solare Ristorante in San Diego. His offering was a seafood version of spaghetti alla carbonara, replacing the traditional combination of guanciale (pig’s cheek) and eggs with a fishy fantasia of salmon roe, sea urchin eggs, tuna bottarga, and osetra caviar, plus scallops, mazara red shrimps, amberjack, cuttlefish, clams, mussels. The chefs admired his execution. I found the mass of seafood a little muddled, and the link to carbonara theoretical at best.
Still, the dish was inventive, in keeping with the contest’s theme, “The Future of Pasta” – a topic of much concern to the industry with “carbophobia” (as pasta folk seethingly describe it) having dented traditional markets. The Pasta World Championship is a way for Barilla to promote its wares beyond Europe and the Americas by presenting it as more versatile than diners imagine.
While foreigners tend to view Italy as a nation of jolly rule-flouters, social conformity reigns, especially in the kitchen, where deviation is heresy. Putting spaghetti with meat sauce? Heathen! It’s tagliatelle! The pasta industry is confronting a dilemma that tests Italy itself: how to retain its glorious heritage while pursuing needful innovation.
“We are very proud of our country and our history and that is sometimes a kind of a trap,” acknowledged Paolo Barilla, vice chairman of the family conglomerate and chairman of the International Pasta Organisation. “Sometimes we become too lazy to look at the changes and the challenges. We prefer just to talk about tradition.”
The young talents slicing and dicing for first prize, the company hopes, will become global pasta missionaries. Not one of the 19 original contestants works in Italy (though several were born there). An exemplary case was the second finalist, the Japanese chef Keita Yuge of the Quintocanto restaurant in Osaka, who melded Italy and Asia in his delectable fusilli with scampi, finessed with iriko dashi, miso and yuzu zest. The scampi dissolved in the mouth, with corkscrew pasta deftly twisting up a creamy lentil paste, notes of anise sneaking through. I scarfed down my portion – only to note that the other jurors were still daintily appraising. Segan kept leaning past me to listen to the pros.
The last finalist was Omri Cohen, only 25 but already a chef at the highly rated West Side restaurant in Tel Aviv. He cooks only kosher food, which is rare at the elite level, and presented a sumptuous fish linguine. Bearded and tattooed (a chef’s hat on his forearm), he exuded confidence, roasting sage and aubergine with a blowtorch, squeezing tomatoes like oranges, wafting aromas to his nose – even directing the cameraman at one point. In conclusion, he slapped his chest, declaring, “My heart is on the plate.” I double-checked his ingredient list.
I gobbled down his superb dish, the grouper steamed to perfection and wrapped in kale leaves, served with tomato romesco sauce of perfect sweetness, if a little overspiced. Finally, we judges stepped out to render our decision. The chefs, it seemed, wanted a consensus winner rather than what I’d expected, that we’d simply score each dish in secret. A second surprise to me was that our deliberation room contained more than just the jury, including vociferous characters I couldn’t identify – local VIPs apparently. The most forceful speechifiers, however, all wore white tunics. One alpha chef in particular drove proceedings toward his favourite. “Could I ask a question?” I ventured, hoping to propose a differing view. They talked over me. Meekly, I raised my hand. Still no luck. I gave my ballot to a tabulator, and awaited the result.
The award went to Lotà. Bubbly was popped. The runners-up embraced. Then lunchtime: pasta, naturally. I sneaked off to wander the pretty streets of Parma, pleasantly plumper but with doubt in my stomach too. Should I have spoken out more forcefully in favour of Yuge and Cohen? Or would it have been inappropriate to bother experts with my amateur tongue? Instead, an old saying tripped off it: “Better to keep your mouth shut and have the world think you’re a fool,” I murmured, “than to open it and remove all doubt.”