Chef Benedetto “Benny” D’Epiro is the expert for Italian cuisine on 196 flavors.
Benedetto D’Epiro, better known as “Benny the Chef!”, is an Italian chef, culinary teacher, book author and award winner. A former Rugby player, Benny is known as an unconventional chef. He loves to dress in black chef coat, spend time with his customers, and especially to cook in the Roman style. Graduated in 1996 at the top of his class from IPSSAR, Culinary Institute of Rome. He is also “Honorary Chef-Professor of Cuisine and Culture of Italy” and “Le Club des Amis du Cordon Bleu.”
In 2008, Benny wrote his first book La Cucina Secondo Me! Ricette, Storie e Filosofia di Benny the Chef (Herald Editore). The book won the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award (Best First Cookbook in Italy and 2nd Best in The World. In 2010 he published his second cookbook The Art of Cooking According to Me (foreword written by Chef Wan), and represented Italy in the World Cookbook Fair in Paris, France.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My name is Benedetto, but everybody calls me Benny. I am an Italian chef, culinary teacher and cookbook author. I was born and grew up in Rome. Within the walls of the Eternal City, I took my first steps and learned to cook. I have always possessed a vivid imagination, a distinct personality, and a pretty good way of communicating. These qualities have served me well in life and in cooking. I fell in love with cooking as a child, when I would help my grandmother while she was cooking. Attempting to prepare pastries, tarts, and cakes, I enjoyed kneading dough and dirtying myself with flour. Unfortunately, the results of my endeavors were not always good; but with patience, zeal and perseverance I overcame the many obstacles I encountered. But to tell the truth, I still continue to dirt myself with flour as I did when I was a child.
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to Italian cuisine.
In 1991, I entered the culinary arts program at IPSSAR, Culinary Institute of Rome. I received my Diploma and graduated in 1996 at the top of my class. Thanks to school, I received my first experience in a formal restaurant environment and high end cuisine. To practice and hone my skills, I worked every summer at different fine dining restaurants. Between cleaning floors and washing dishes, I cooked and learned some valuable skills. Immediately after my graduation, Ristorante Barberini in Rome offered me the position as their chef. At age 19, I was probably the youngest head chef in Italy. In December of that year, my parents and I decided to purchase Ristorante Barberini. Through hard work and many long hours, our restaurant became one of the top rated, family run restaurants in Europe.
While working at Ristorante Barberini, I forged my own style of cooking through successes and failures. I went against the fashions and trends of modern cuisine by using traditional Roman cuisine. What I mean is keeping it simple and good as it has always been. Throughout the years, I learned that in the history is enclosed the art of cooking. I began to research Ancient Roman cuisine. I realized this art of cooking was forgotten but not outdated. I wanted to bring back the memory of Ancient Rome, but more than the memory, I wanted to bring back the taste. Today, I proudly consider myself one of the very few masters of the Ars Convivalis (the art of the Ancient Roman cuisine).
What makes Italian cuisine unique? What differentiates it from other European cuisines?
Approaching authentic Italian cuisine is not easy to do. Italy has developed her cuisine over the centuries in a country that was not united until the 19th century. To describe the Italian gastronomy in her entirety, one must confront a culinary art different from all others.
The combination of all the regional ways of cooking have evolved through myths and legends, with roots that lie deep in a land that has long rural traditions. Every region is different from the others and each one has its very own identity and history. The differences from the geographical locations determine the primary foods along with their cuisine and specialties, which boasts a variety of dishes and recipes, always different but always incredibly good. In a place so distant and different from the usual stereotypes, the dishes are not always as they seem, the recipes often arise from historical events, other times by errors rather bizarre, but always inspired by personal experiences.
The Italian way of cooking is born from a magical fusion of fresh ingredients and clever people, of creative cooking methods and beautiful locations. Italian cuisine is distinguished by a strong character, forged through geographical differences and local customs. Furthermore, enjoying excellent foods, made with cleverness and passion, in a setting of beautiful scenery, is what distinguishes the real Italian way of cooking and makes it very unique.
What is your favorite Italian recipe or the most unusual dish of the country?
Well, the food I like the most from my land is probably The “Fifth Quarter”. The Fifth Quarter (known as Quinto Quarto) is a traditional butcher’s cut of Rome. It literally means the fifth quarter of the beast (cow, ox, beef, veal, chicken or lamb). It is made of offal, such as tail, head, tongue, feet, tripe, kidneys, heart, brain and so on.
These “different” ingredients are used to make delicious dishes, rich in taste and flavors and very unique in their kind. All those tasty parts of the animal that nowadays sound yucky to many of you, but that helped many generations of Romans and Italians to survive and write the culinary history of the world.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
Any traditional cuisine. From the Flemish to the Scottish, from the Hungarian to the Japanese. Food made from scratch with lots of love and passion. The kind of food that fills your heart and your stomach at same time. It is incredible how different countries have so much in common thanks to their cuisines. I like to improve my skill and knowledge through the culinary traditions and custom of other cuisines.
Which place would you recommend to visit in Italy?
My hometown, Rome, for sure. Simply the most beautiful city in the world with such a different and tasty cuisine and flavors. And of course, Naples, Florence, Sardinia and Sicily; any region, any city is going to be a unique adventure to discover amazing dishes and culinary experiences.
What Italian chef is a reference for you?
My beloved grandmother. She was the most incredible cook in the world. To me, no food tastes like the food she used to make for me.
In Rome, we usually say that a good grandmother is the one who knows how to cook the fifth quarter. Honestly, my grandma was amazing! She loved to use the fifth quarter to make succulent dishes. Just a few ingredients, fresh herbs from the garden, a little salt, a good extra virgin olive oil, and especially lots of love, heart and passion as she has taught me.
Unfortunately, today’s chefs do not like to prepare these traditional recipes because they think that they are outdated. I believe that none of these kinds of meals will ever be outdated because they are immortal like the love of the grandmothers who used to make them.
What are the main difficulties in Italian cuisine?
Good question. First, you must know that it’s impossible to make Italian food without real Italian products. It’s easy to mess up dishes with cream, cover them with unnecessary gravies or heavy sauces, but this is not the true Italian style! Just because something sounds Italian, it doesn’t make it an authentic Italian meal. If you look around, you will see lots of “Italian” sounding foods and brands, but when you get to Italy, no one will know what you are talking about. I would like to say that beyond the clichés, it is true that Italy is the Bel Paese, the Beautiful Country, but Italian cuisine is not just spaghetti, pizza, and mandolino!
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a complete Italian menu: starter, main course, dessert?
I am not sure how to put this, but in Italy a full meal usually consists at least in a 7-10 course dishes accompanied by wine, coffee and a spirit to digest.
What we usually eat at home with friends or during celebrations most likely starts with an extremely large appetizer plate with any possible kind of cold cuts (prosciutto, salami, lardo, soppressata, mortadella, salamini, salsiccie, culatello) and cheeses, along with olives, pickled vegetables, traditional fritters and an endless amount of fresh baked bread. Then pasta; any kind of pasta in any sauce (Amatriciana, Puttanesca, Carbonara, Gricia, Funghi Porcini and so on). The main course is called second course and usually consists in a meat or seafood dish; Roast lamb, baked chicken, roast pork, veal scaloppini, saltimbocca and much more, always served with a side of potatoes, some vegetables and a salad. For the dessert, we always have some fresh fruit and something sweet. The tiramisu and zabaione con biscotti are the most typical. Finally we can rest and digest thanks to a good espresso and a glass of grappa or limoncello. Buon appetito e alla faccia!