San Francisco chef and Williams-Sonoma Chefs’ Collective member Thomas McNaughton is known for the incredible food he dreams up at his restaurants flour + water, Central Kitchen, salumeria, and Cafe du Nord. As a young chef, McNaughton traveled to Italy to work in a pasta-making workshop, kneading, rolling and filling fresh pasta for hours every day. Here’s how his time in Italy transformed his cooking for good.
I really believe that the common denominator of all people is food. We all eat. As a young cook I didn’t really realize how important a country’s culture is and how that culture is tangled up in their food. But, when I was in my early twenties I traveled to Italy and worked in a laboratorio [a traditional workshop where fresh pasta is made] in Bologna.
At the time I was a young cook and I thought I wanted to run a fine dining, high-end kind of restaurant. I thought I wanted to be a tortured soul chef in a 12-seat restaurant where every single plate went though my hands. But going to Italy, seeing restaurants, sitting at tables, and experiencing the food firsthand made me fall in love with Italian cooking and their admiration for simple techniques.
The laboratorio was filled with women who had been making pasta for 30 or 40 years of their lives. They didn’t even have to think about it anymore, it was second nature. They would pretty much gossip the whole time. The fact that they didn’t even realize the motions they were going through just spoke volumes about how skilled they were. I was the only American and I was about two feet taller than every single person in that room. I really stood out.
When you make pasta, there are a couple of really important stages. One of them is mixing the dough, then you knead the dough, and then one of the most important stages in pasta making is allowing the dough to rest. At the laboratorio they would roll out the dough into this massive rectangle that was about four feet by three feet. They did it all do it so elegantly; it only took them 10 or 15 minutes to roll the whole thing out. It was really beautiful to watch.
When I first go to the laboratorio they would only allow me to form tortellini over and over again. Then, one day, they finally allowed me to roll out the dough. It was my first roll-out and my hands were shaking,; I was so nervous. I grabbed a ball of dough from the shelf and all the ladies sort of giggled; I figured they could see how nervous I was.
I started to try to roll out this dough and it is just not working. Every time I would roll it out it would snap right back. I’m rolling it, it’s snapping back, I roll it out again and it snaps back. After a while I’m dripping in sweat. I’ve worked it so hard at this ball of dough. Finally, one of the ladies went outside and pulled a person off the street to translate for me. He told me that I had grabbed a ball of dough they had just mixed, not one that had been resting.
I’m dripping in sweat at this point because I’ve worked so hard at this ball of dough. Finally, one of the ladies got a person off the street to translate for me and he told me that I had grabbed a ball of dough that had just been mixed; it hadn’t rested yet. So, the spiderweb of gluten was so incredibly tight, there was no way I’d ever be able to roll it out, but they had let me try anyway.
That really made an impact on me. It was a huge lesson because it made me realize how important every single step is, and what a difference it can make. Resting allows the gluten molecules to relax and allows the flour to fully hydrate. It was a pretty important lesson – I’ll never make that mistake again.
Working in Italy transformed my cooking because it taught me the importance of getting to the source of something. That kind of authenticity became incredibly important to me all of a sudden. It wasn’t like, “Oh hey, I’m a hotshot chef and I want to create this pasta dish and I want to add this flavor and this flavor and present it like this and it’s going to be epic.” Instead, it’s about getting to the base of that technique, finding out where your flour came from, thinking about the best way to hand-roll that dough. Learning the basics of something and not just skipping ahead became really important to me.
For example, we make red wine vinegar at my restaurant flour + water. It is a really good vinegar, but is it the best red wine vinegar ever made? Absolutely not. We do it we because when we make it ourselves we get to the basis of what vinegar is all about and we understand it a little bit more. Then, when we use that vinegar in a dish we’re more educated and it shows in the way we use it. So find what jazzes you up, whether it’s pasta making or vinegar making and get to the source of it and understand the technique first. And if you want to go from there and make a crazy yuzu vinegar or something, go ahead! Expand on it. But it’s going to be better once you really understand it and you have a foundation to build on.