Oldani-Wolen: olives in Chicago

The first edition of Identità on the banks of Lake Michigan ends with a lesson focused on this fruit


Davide Oldani of D'O in Cornaredo (Milan) and Lee Wolen, chef and partner at Boka in Chicago, the authors of the last of the two lessons scheduled for the first edition of Identità Chicago. The theme: olives (photos Brambilla/Serrani)

After truffle – the theme of the morning workshop with Ugo Alciati and Tony Mantuano – the ingredient chosen to discuss made in Italy on the banks of Lake Michigan is olives. Indeed they are one of the most crucial gastronomic elements in Italian cuisine, however – as rightly pointed out by Paolo Marchi, who introduced the final session of the first edition of Identità Chicago – they are normally considered as a condiment and rarely as a central element of the dish.

Black olives and soused turbot by Davide Oldani

Black olives and soused turbot by Davide Oldani

Instead, for 31 year-old Lee Wolen, chef and partner at Boka on North Halsted street (one of the over ten establishments of Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm’s Boka Group, who also own The Girl and the Goat), olives become the irreplaceable part in the construction of his recipe: roasted cauliflowers with olives, oregano and figs. The chef from Cleveland, previously sous chef at Eleven Madison Park and nominated emerging chef of the year by Time Out Chicago, is particularly at ease with the vegetal world. The (very fresh) raw materials he brought to Eataly Chicago’s Scuola come from the Farmer Market in Lincoln Park, in the north area of the town, where Boka is located. For Wolen they represent a sort of substitute for meat thanks to their texture and their protein content: when in season, a couple of dishes with these, of which at least one is soup, are never missing from the menu of the restaurant.

The cauliflower is simply cooked in a pan until it gets brown on each side and is paired with a mayonnaise (prepared in a mixer with 3 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons of mustard, one coffee cup of dehydrated olives and three coffee cups of vine seed oil), bread crumbs with oregano to give a crispy component, chopped olives, toasted almonds and figs cut into small slices and previously dipped in a vinaigrette with Sherry vinegar. A surprising dish, very light and with very clean flavours.

Lee Wolen’s cauliflower, roasted and served with olives, oregano and figs

Lee Wolen’s cauliflower, roasted and served with olives, oregano and figs

On the Chicago-Milan axis, there’s the changing of the baton to Davide Oldani, Expo 2015 ambassador, who during the opening night presented his Saffron with rice. This time he has more time available and starts his speech by explaining to the guests in the room his Pop cuisine, which has nothing to do with the famous sparkling bar (Pops for Champagne, one of the best wine bars in town) but with a philosophy focused on simplicity, recognisable flavours and use of accessible and seasonal ingredients. The dish chosen by the chef from D’O is “Black olives with soused turbot”, in which the traditional peasant preparation is reinterpreted in a more modern way. The ingredients are the same, it’s the cooking that changes in order to respect aromas and flavours of the fish, without skimping on butter because “I’m from Milan and I love butter”, Oldani jokes with the public.

READY FOR EXPO. Davide Oldani with Eataly's Dino Borri

READY FOR EXPO. Davide Oldani with Eataly's Dino Borri

The turbot is cooked in oil at 57°C for 15 minutes and is paired with a parsley sauce, an olive sauce, vinegar marinated onion petals and an olive crust. The latter is created by cooking black deboned olives and prosciutto (in the oven at 150°C for 10 minutes), mixed with butter and powdered liquorish. All this is then moved to the fridge and cut into slices of the same size as the turbot filet. The Chicagoans, rather than the many explanations, only needed the first bite to understand the meaning of Oldani’s Pop cuisine, a ceaseless search for the perfect balance between contrasts. An effective ad, like the one made by Alciati who had the room enthusiastic, a few hours earlier, promoting the good, authentic and contemporary face of Italian cuisine and inviting to next year’s event, again at 43 Ohio street.

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Federico De Cesare Viola

Born in Rome, wine and food writer for Il Sole 24OreLa Repubblica and L’Uomo Vogue. He's a lecturer at Iulm and Food Media for several American colleges. Twitter @fdecesareviola