To write her cookbook, Pasta by Hand, Portland-based chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern went straight to the source: She traveled to Italy and practiced making Italian dumpling pastas, such as gnocchi, with local chefs and home cooks. Here’s the story of her journey in her words.
As a chef, I went to culinary school where I learned French techniques, but then I gravitated to a lot of Italian resources and those became my foundation. I like to research and to make things from scratch, which is how I started the pasta program at my restaurant Lincoln. But the more I researched, the more I found. That’s why I knew I had to go back to Italy to write my book Pasta by Hand.
I have visited Italy a good number of times since I began going in my early twenties but, now that I’m older, I can experience it in a different way and I’ve been able to connect with people rather than just being a tourist.
For the book, I wanted to really dive in and learn how Italians make their dumplings. So, I worked alongside chefs and Italian grandmothers across Italy. I cooked in restaurants and in homes. I asked a lot of questions. You can’t exchange anything for human experience, and being able to work and talk alongside such amazing cooks was a really intimate experience. Because Italy has such a tradition of oral history, I learned things I never could have found in a book.
For example, one time we went to lunch at this really old restaurant down a cobblestone street. There was an older lady taking care of us, and we found out that she waited the tables and her sister was the chef. There was only one other person working at the restaurant, and he was a family member, too. The food was so delicious, and of course I was curious, so she told us about how they made their gnocchi by putting Parmigiano cheese in the dough. I kept asking her questions and finally she said, “Come back tomorrow morning at ten and we’ll teach you.” So, I came back and they gave us espresso and taught us how to make their gnocchi. They were so open and giving and just excited to share; it was really incredible.
At first, some Italians weren’t really sure about me. Who was this American who wanted to come make dumplings? But as soon as I started getting my hands in the dough, they completely opened up. They became comfortable showing me techniques and regional ways of making pasta that they were really proud of. I took really detailed notes at every lesson and took photos of every step, and then as soon as we got in the car I’d start writing it down in recipe form. We tested everything again once we were back.
I learned a bit about pasta technique on my trip, of course, but I also learned about how Italians think about their food. As a country, Italy is about 100 years younger than the US, so the food is very regional. The idea of one “Italian” cuisine isn’t particularly true. Even the definition of a dumpling varied. In America, we think of it as a doughy mass. In central Italy they make dumplings out of cheese and potato. In the south of Italy, it’s mostly semolina-based dumplings. But one thing that was true across the country is that dumpling pastas were la cucina povera, or “the cuisine of the poor.” They all stemmed from people thinking something like, “Okay, I have two potatoes. How do I feed my family? How do I fill their bellies?” There’s something about that that makes the food I learned there especially satisfying.
I love that you went to Italy and learned from people cooking at home. I have many aunts, uncles and cousins in Italy, and their food is outstanding, so I think your instincts were right to go that route. As I get older, I’m interested in honing my pasta making techniques so I’m very anxious to read all you’ve written and learn from you and all those fellow Italians! Thanks so much.