Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 4, Episode 2 - Corrado Assenza - full transcript

Chef Corrado Assenza talks about preserving the traditional values and creating his pastries in Noto, Italy.

Gelato being served
in the middle of the street? No.

If tourists want that kind of gelato,

it's best for them to have it.

What we make at Caffè Sicilia
is completely different.

I spend a lot of time
finding quality ingredients

to make it with more flavor,
more aroma, more intensity.

It's soft.

It’s creamy.

The customers always want more.

It's not a special thing
to produce quality.

It's what we know how to do.

The good that Caffè Sicilia has done,

not just for Sicily,
but for the whole of Italy,

is incredible.

But he is not very well-known

because he does not care
about the spotlight.

Instead, he promotes artisans.

He promotes ingredients.

He promotes territory.

Do you want chocolate and lemon
or just lemon?

Chocolate and lemon.

Here it is.

What do we say?

Thank you.

The passing of one generation to the next
is a part of Caffè Sicilia's history.

We have clients
who first came in a stroller,

who today are parents or grandparents,

bringing their own kids or grandkids.

Can I have another?

No, honey, or you're gonna burst.

You can sweep away tradition
in a short period of time,

and substitute it with something else.

I can't do that.

I have deep roots here in Sicily,

my land where I live and work.

The clear air,

the blue sky,

the strong yellow of the wild dried herbs.

The light, the sounds, the colors...

a spectacular landscape that produces
the best ingredients in the world.

It inspires me to create from nature,

to understand what is good
and can be transformed into food.

This is how you build a recipe.

I want to protect and share our culture,

to honor our traditions.

In every expression of our work,

bringing to the world a perspective
that belongs to this land.

Here is your tomato-strawberry granita
with brioche.

Granita is a sweet dish,

made of flavored ice, like a sorbet.

Almost all Sicilians eat
granita and brioche for breakfast.

And there are two different
groups of people:

those who eat almond every morning,

and those who eat lemon every morning.

And they don't change.

I prefer the almond.

This is the place where we grow
the best almonds in the world.

We use the entire almond
to make the granita,

and you taste the difference.

The richness of taste,

the notes of sweetness,

it's the touch of something
which refreshes your palate,

but simultaneously refreshes your mind.

As a kid, Sicily was my paradise.

I grew up in the countryside, in Noto.

My aunt managed Caffè Sicilia.

Every day after school,

I'd go meet my aunt in the store.

We'd eat almond granita

and shortbread cookies with apricot jam.

I'd eat too many.

We had a small citrus orchard
that my father planted.

During the summer,
Dad picked fruit in the morning.

Then we would all get in the car
and drive to the ocean.

When we finished swimming
in the salt water,

we would refresh ourselves
with fruit picked that morning.

Sea water and just-picked fruit.

Very fresh, flavorful, good...

very simple.

I learned to appreciate
the simplicity of our land.

Caffè Sicilia was important
to the village, a landmark for many.

It has been passed down in my family
for four generations.

But the laboratory was entrusted to
the only pastry chef not from the family,

Mr. Roberto Giusto.

He lived to work

and was recognized as important
by the whole town.

I'd play in the laboratory
with Maestro Roberto.

For me, it was a playground.

Roberto would give me little chores
like in a house, like in a family:

bringing a kilo of flour,

bringing the almonds,
bringing the honey vase...

He started to teach me about life
in Noto and at Caffè Sicilia.

He said the work of the pastry chef is
to make the classic Italian pastries.

But it isn't enough to know
kitchen techniques.

You have to recognize
raw materials in nature

and respect the land.

The customers must be able
to see the ingredient's quality

when they taste our pastries.

The laboratory was the place
where I felt most like myself.

It was my home.

What do we have to do
for Gennaro Esposito?

We have to make four 1.5 kilo cassata,

150 arancini, 120 cannoli,

120 almond biscuits.
There's almond paste...

20 30-gram ones...

and we have to bring the arancini
to Catania to fry them.

The cannoli is the Sicilian pastry.

They were born in Sicily,
and the world knows them as Sicilian.

The dough preparation,

one by one, all by hand,

all consistently equal.

You must be accurate, fast,
to make it perfect.

I learned from the lessons
of Maestro Roberto,

and I passed it down to my son, Francesco.

As a boy, he used to come to our kitchen,

and, with a rolling pin,
started flattening the cannoli dough,

covering himself with flour.

Now, when he works with me,
he no longer covers himself with flour,

but he still flattens the cannoli.

We've made our cannoli for generations.

You can recognize the cannolo
stretched out by each of us,

adding our own personality
with our rolling pins,

so that, when the cannolo is finished,

it becomes the unmistakable icon
of Caffè Sicilia.

I had spent years of my childhood
in the laboratory

with my teacher, Roberto Giusto.

And then I grew up.

I'm a child of the '60s

and was influenced
by everything happening around me.

I wanted to discover the world,
to learn more than I could in Sicily.

I liked the farmer's life,

so when I was 17,

I left Noto to study agriculture
in Bologna at the university.

My new adventure allowed me to grow,

to observe the world
from another point of view.

I studied with a great beekeeper,

who gave me my first lessons
on decoding the language of the bees.

We observed the intensity
of the bees' dance.

The more bees move their back,

the closer, the more intense,
the stronger the nectar is.

I was fascinated.

It became my great passion.

During that time, I fell in love
with a nurse, Nives.

Like me, she grew up in a kitchen.

Together, we built a life in Bologna.

Then, one day, this phone call came.

My aunt was sick

and could no longer keep Caffè Sicilia.

My aunt told me, "I cannot do it anymore.

Either you take care of it,
or we'll lose it."

The first thing I immediately thought was,

"If my aunt sells Caffè Sicilia,

I cannot get in the laboratory.

I will not be able to go
to my playroom anymore."

Nives and I discussed, "What do we do?"

In that moment,
there were two loves in my life:

my life in Bologna

and my life in Noto.

My roots.

It was a very difficult moment.

Ultimately, we chose the pastry shop.

We left everything and returned home.

There she is.

Here, here.


Good girl.

Come here.

To make pastries, you don't need industry.

When purchasing raw materials,
I go directly to the farmers of our land.

There is no quality in the ingredient

if there is no quality in the person
that produces it.

So you need to find farmers
who understand quality in their work.

Franzo, our great shepherd
and ricotta producer,

works from 2:30 a.m. to midnight,

hand milking over 500 animals
to make the ricotta perfect.

Franzo is a person of quality,
extremely serious and rigorous.

But the public doesn't know anything
about his work,

and that's a huge regret for me.

I want him to succeed

in giving a future to his family
and his farm.

So I made my friends appreciate
Franzo's products,

cooks, pizza makers, pastry chefs,

and now they buy his cheeses.

He always thanks me
for what I am doing for him,

but it's me who should
constantly thank him.

The gelato I make with the ricotta,

flavored with rum and chopped pistachios,

would be impossible without Franzo's work.

It's my duty,

if he gives me his perfect ricotta,
to make the perfect gelato.

After seven years,
I was back at Caffè Sicilia.

Even though, as a kid,
I spent a lot of time in the lab,

I didn't really understand
the job of a pastry chef.

And now, I was responsible for everything.

I was lost.

I had questions, many questions.

I turned to Maestro Roberto.

But he told me, "I'm not going to
teach you anything.

This is not school.

This is a place where you work.

You have to be independent."

So I spent my time watching Roberto work.

I learned by looking,

watching his hands making the recipes,

until I was able to start doing it.

Little by little, I was able

to find my way of understanding,
without asking.

I felt able to manage the pastry shop.

Do we have to make them all pink?

All pink, like the fuchsia dress...

So I'm making that fuchsia,
with little white flowers.

We'll make the white flowers
with whipped cream spikes,

or maybe we could put sugared almonds...

if they wouldn't melt with the cream,
but they'll melt,

so we're gonna make white cream.

Over time,
it became increasingly difficult

to focus only on the work
inside of the kitchen.

Sicily had become commercialized.

Where there were once vegetable gardens,

those lands were used
to build shopping centers.

Fake cities, where you don't buy fresh.
You buy preserved.

And you call that civilization?

This is ignorance.

I knew there was still quality
everywhere in Sicily.

I needed to make the world understand
the difference

between a commercialized product
and the quality born in this land.

I considered,
"What can we get from our land

that's unique and higher quality
than from elsewhere?"

And I remembered

the apricot.

The apricot is the first jam children eat.

But what they know is
an industrialized product.

We have always made
our marmalade the same way

for 125 years at Caffè Sicilia.

So, I worked on the apricot.

I modernized it, made it current,

reducing the added sugar

to respect the purity of the fresh fruit.

And I began making all
of the other timeless recipes

with the ingredients
I find here in Sicily:

the cassata, the cannoli,
the ricotta gelato.

Now, every time a child
tastes my apricot jam,

I feel joy.

Making my apricot jam
helped me to understand

the foundation of Caffè Sicilia.

I discovered my purpose.

Those Saturn peaches are great.

Can you give me a kilo?

Wait, an apricot. There's another one.

Thanks. Have a nice day. Goodbye.

By the early 2000s,

after years of working
with the same recipes and ingredients,

I wanted to do more.

I was looking to build new flavor,

to push the boundaries
of sweetness in dessert.

And there I saw my granita.

I asked myself,
"What can we serve with it?"

I started thinking about
the feeling of the sea,

the feeling you get
when you open an oyster.

It dawned on me.

Put them together,

the oyster and the almond.

Marry the two that would
otherwise never marry.

It was strong, robust.

I thought it was the perfect balance.

The combination of salt water

and that sweetness,
like biting into fresh fruit.

When all that exploded in my mouth,
I thought, "I have already tasted this."

And memories came back.

It inspired me.

I realized I could use
the taste of my childhood

to create a new sweetness,

something that didn't exist
in pastry making.

So I created more and more,
more and more, more and more.

I started to bring down barriers
between sweet and salty.

This was considered heresy
in Sicilian cuisine.

Our customers didn't like it at all.

They wanted the classics of Caffè Sicilia.

His thoughts are boundless,

but, as is often the case,
no one is a prophet in their own country.

We had lost the trust of the customers.

Four generations of tradition, in trouble.

I'd always had Roberto near
when I didn't know what to do.

But in that moment, he got sick.

He was no longer able to walk

and was not able to come
into Caffè Sicilia.

I couldn't ask for advice
on what he would have done.

And then he passed away.

It was a huge loss.

I was alone.

He left me with a huge responsibility.

I asked myself,
"If Maestro Roberto was here now,

what would he do?"

I thought about what he taught me,

how to make the basic recipes
with quality ingredients.

But the most important ingredient
was at risk.

So, while the Romana almond has become
the most famous almond of our land...

There's very few of them.

Romana, here it is.

I needed to figure out what was happening.

So, I went to the farmers.

They told me that the big problem
was the traders,

who decided the almond was
not worth investing money in.

As a result,
the farmers abandoned the land.

It was a massacre.

Without the almond,
I couldn't make almond granita.

The taste of Caffè Sicilia
was disappearing.

I had to do something.

So I put together a plan
to save the almond.

We would cut out the traders,

so the farmers could sell the almond
directly to us.

We started to spread it among the farmers.

I had to convince them
to fight for the almond

because it's a cultural heritage.

Because if it disappears,
it will never come back.

It was a long and slow process,

but eventually
they wanted to work with us.

We brought it to the taste expo in Milan.

From that moment on,

the world knew of the existence
of our almond.

Then, I went back to the laboratory
to work on a new recipe

to highlight the almond.

The Terra Nostra is made of
two layers of sorbet:

a layer of white almond
and a layer of green pistachio.

It's called the Terra Nostra
because it represents "our land."

Corrado saves Noto's almond,

but also saves traditional
Sicilian pastry making.

If today we talk about the almond,
it's thanks to Corrado.

I rediscovered my purpose,

to preserve my land, my Sicily.

Sicily is changing over time.

Many of the small businesses,
shops, are gone.

But after four generations,
Caffè Sicilia has remained.

It has become a lively stream,

water flowing among rocks, fresh,

that consistently renews itself,

but always flows in the same riverbed.

But now, many years have passed.

I don't want to,
but I need to focus on the future,

where there's a new generation
of pastry chefs,

led by my son, Francesco.

As a child, he worked with me.

Then he left to work in
the kitchen of Le Calandre,

with my friend Massimiliano Alajmo.

But when Massimiliano offered him

a two-year contract,

Francesco said, "Massimiliano,
thank you so much. I'd love to,

but I have to go and help out my dad."

Massimiliano said, "Okay."

It's absolutely natural
that he returned to Noto,

because who better than his father
to teach him

the true essence of what he does.

I believe he can also bring new life
to his father's work.

Like me, he needed to go away
from Noto to choose Noto,

to go away from Caffè Sicilia
to choose Caffè Sicilia.

What concerns me more than before

is leaving him in the best position
to go on his path with his ideas.


We're ready.

I've chosen my path, and I've followed it.

Now, I have no ambition.

A life of simplicity, of quality,

and my family makes me happy
and satisfied.

I sleep well at night
because I give the best of what I can do

to those who come and taste what we make.

So I'm happy, and I can sleep peacefully.