Going and then returning

The difficulties and dreams of Aurora Storari from Rome, chef de partie at Hedone, London, at just 22

29-01-2015

To the right, with Moreno Cedroni, Aurora Storari. Roman, 22, with a training at Alma, an internship at Mentone’s Mirazur, after the Cucina italiana Master she arrived at Hedone, London, 1 Michelin star. She was soon promoted as the starters’ chef de partie

Memories. Unlike many people in my field, I don’t come from a family of restaurateurs and so I will not tell about how I was born among steaming pans and boiling-hot ovens. My career simply starts with some happy memories. The aroma of my grandmother’s pasta with chickpeas, the dough of her fried calzoni, which I would watch leavening on the table, the ricotta and sugar I would eat as a snack, the afternoons spent in the kitchen with my nanny.

When three years ago I decided to enter a kitchen, I was then little over 18, I would have never thought I would be here, today, writing this article. I already knew as a child that I wanted to take up this career but was forced to choose a different set of studies: I enrolled in a scientific lyceum. At the end of the five-year course I had to choose which university to attend. I soon realised the question was not what to choose, but what made me happy. What could make me happy for the rest of my life? I have no doubts: cooking.

Aurora’s Borlotti beans cooked in mussel water, mussels cooked in lemon steam and 'nduja, when she was at the Master di cucina italiana, which starts again on February 3rd

Aurora’s Borlotti beans cooked in mussel water, mussels cooked in lemon steam and 'nduja, when she was at the Master di cucina italiana, which starts again on February 3rd

Few people believed in my decision. What could a graduate with 88/100 from a scientific lyceum ever do in a workplace that is so harsh, without any fundamentals? I struggled for months, with my parents, with those who thought I was too fragile for this kind of work. And with myself, because leaving a sure and simpler life and venturing into something completely unknown is scary, indeed it is. So I decided to open the doors to this laborious world, hours and hours of work, cuts, burns, discipline, me, only 19-years-old at the time and weighing 40 kilos, scared by the future.

The first uniform represents to me all for which I had fought until then. Dreams, fears, the years spent hating school because I would have rather filet a fish than translate Latin, the fights with my father, trying to make him understand that having top grade in physics wouldn’t make me an engineer. That jacket is the proof that determination could take me somewhere.

As I had no foundations in cooking, I decided to enrol at Alma, Gualtiero Marchesi’s Scuola internazionale di cucina italiana, and attended a course on basic techniques. At the end of those 4 months, they offered me an internship in France at Mirazur, which had just got the second Michelin star. At the time I didn’t even know how important it was for a restaurant to receive such an acknowledgment, so I simply decided to go and put myself to the test and continue my growth. I was convinced that a newbie like me couldn’t do much in such a place, instead, I happened to work in one of the most difficult sections in a kitchen: sauces.

A big kitchen, with lots of guys at work shocks you. Standards are high and there’s lots of pressure. After the summer, searching online, I found a Master that was still under development, organised by Massimiliano Alajmo with the participation of the Cavalieri della cucina italiana and the collaboration of Confcommercio Vicenza. In fact, I know little of fine dining but those 9 months at the Master are the most incredible and stimulating thing I ever did in my life: I would have never, never thought that the world of cuisine could embrace so many others. I take on subjects such as history of art, philosophy, chemistry, nutrition, later applying them on food. The list of people I should mention, what with chefs and teachers is too long but having a personal contact with such varied experts makes me understand that it is important not to follow a trend but to have your own, well-defined identity.

Spaghetto indeciso: sweetness, sapidity, acidity, softness

Spaghetto indeciso: sweetness, sapidity, acidity, softness

From that moment on I start to understand that my profession cannot be limited to mere implementation: of course, technique is essential but it is the means, not the end. In this Alajmo was of utmost inspiration because few as him know how to reach the essence of food in order to bring it on the plate with the highest simplicity. Mauro Defendente (who teaches of nutrition) and him are now my guardian angels because they were capable of putting order in my mind, giving a leitmotiv to everything.

I understand that I’m finally on the right track when on the last day of the Master I present my dish: Spaghetto indeciso. I believe that today it is still one of my most representative dishes. Pasta, Italian essence, together with a selection of tomatoes differing in textures and flavours: sweetness, sapidity, acidity, softness. Technique, research and raw materials, linked by simplicity.

After two years and a varied experience I decide the time has come to challenge myself abroad and I end up in London. The first calls arrive, including one from Mikael Jonsson, chef at Hedone, one Michelin star and 67th in the World’s 50Best. I know nothing about him, after reading articles about him I’ve only understood he’s obsessed with raw materials. Simple dishes, few elements, but an ineffable quality. I accept his offer.

I decide to start as commis. Of course it is not easy, rhythm in this town is crazy, sometimes inhumane. I don’t want to disappoint those who believed in me and most of all I don’t want to disappoint myself. With effort and devotion, after two months I manage to earn the consideration and trust of chef and colleagues, and I’m promoted: chef de partie. Stealing with your eyes is crucial in this business: when over 500 plates are dished out during each service, nobody has the time or desire to explain to you what is brining or what is the service temperature of scallops.

Across the Channel I learnt the importance of communication, of teamwork, and for the first time I found a group in which gender makes no difference at all, what’s important is that you do all your best, always. I saw a thousand guys pass through the kitchen and as many leaving it: they sneak at 6 in the morning, take their knives and never come back. I don’t blame them: the hours are long, the team is small and perhaps the effort is excessive.

Many times have I wondered if this is really the right job for me. My life is not the life of any 22-year-old: I don’t go to night clubs, I don’t go out on Saturday nights and my hands are hardly those of a young lady. There were moments when I questioned my choice, wondered if I should perhaps return to the life I had be assigned and start to sleep as all normal people do. It would certainly be easier, yet at the end of the day, after 18 hours spent standing, with my legs in pain, with an overfilled mind and a tired body, I can only feel alive and proud of what I have reached, without anyone’s help.

Leaving my country was essential, because I believe no one is as lucky as we are: our wine and food heritage is extremely rich. Taste runs in our veins and the whole world envies us. I keep well in mind where I come from and who I am. I will always bring this with me.

I see guys in my age idolatrising famous chefs and aspiring to prestigious acknowledgements, I don’t know how other people feel about this profession but for me no Michelin star can be as important as when a client is happy and ecstatic about the food he was just served. Guides and shortlists are acknowledgments that would gratify any chef but they are only an incentive to improve. I don’t cook to become known, to become famous, I’m not interested in television programmes presenting a fake model of cooking, in which arrogance is the king, together with individualism, self-celebration. I cook for love of the others, because food makes you dream and lets you make others dream too.

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