Art of Civility
Photography by
Marco Paone
ALMA School: Colorno

The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.” For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

In the cold light of 2019, these words seem so quaint as to presume the author, not a barrel-chested bear of a man, but an adorably naïve little munchkin. Now to be fair, Hemingway couldn’t possibly know what a Rees-Mogg was, perhaps assuming it some Victorian toilet brush with bristles worn down from excessively spreading excrement. Hemingway was closer when in that same novel, he wrote, “There are many who do not know they are Fascists, but will find it out when the time comes.” But pausing the larger, more troubling narratives, anyone not living in a bunker (or been on Twitter ever), would have to admit that in the last few years, the world has changed. It is not a fine place. Decency and civility, it seems, are dead.

So, what does that mean for ALMA, an Italian culinary school, who seek to not only forge in the next generation of chefs, a new international identity for Italian cooking, but to transform kitchen culture into a place where respect, discipline and decorum are paramount. Hmmm. This might be the wrong era to have lofty designs on decorum.

There is also another uniquely modern obstacle for an Italian school of gastronomy with such admirable ambition. ‘In France, the Chef is the star. In Italy, the stars are the ingredients,’ so goes the aphorism, and while not strictly true, it may explain why Italian food is ubiquitous in every household, but Italian chefs are not household names. In a less than scientific survey of people in this coffee shop, when asked to name a French Chef, the two most popular answers were Michel Roux Jr. and Auguste Escoffier. When asked to name an Italian Chef, the two most popular answers were Antonio Carluccio and Gino D’Acampo… Gino D’Acampo? There’s no larger point here, just thought it worth mentioning that this is where we’re at as a society… Oh wait, there is a larger point. Since food television made celebrities out of anyone who could hold a sauté pan and not look like a foot, there has been a surge in admissions to culinary schools the world over. People want to be a famous Chef more than they want to be a Chef. But what was once the preserve of the galeotto and misfits extolled in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, is today an aspirational career path for spray-tanned adolescents who want to go to cooking school for the same reasons they want to go on Love Island. But how do you instil the requisite discipline and technique in someone to work towards their ambition, when their ambition is not to work? And if someone’s entire raison d’être is fame and fortune, is Italian cuisine the most expedient path to becoming a star?

Located near Parma, in the heart of the ‘Italian food valley’, you need only walk through the cobbled stone courtyard of ALMA, to realise that something is different. For one thing, the school is based in il Palazzo Ducale di Colorno, a palace built by the Duke of Parma in the early 1700s, and upon entry you’d be forgiven for expecting to see armoured cavalieri mounting their steeds, rather than students in neatly starched chef-whites strolling to class. Not running. Strolling. ALMA has a serenity you seldom see in life, let alone a school. Students, teachers and staff move as if conducted, with a military precision befitting the fact that this was once la vecchia caserma di Parma – the old barracks of Parma. Everybody’s smiling. Nobody’s hungover. At ostensibly, a university… what sorcery is this?

Bruno Ruffini teacher at ALMA

We are invited to attend a tableside service masterclass by Roberto Gardini. That’s what’s so unique about ALMA, it is a culinary school where every facet to running a restaurant is accounted for – from Chef to sommelier to front of house – a style of teaching that unites theory and practice and best prepares its students for the real world. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why ALMA can boast a 97% employment rate of students upon graduation. As a university film and film school graduate (yes, I am that stupid), vocational ‘training’ can often equate to a scholastic smash and grab with a mere shrug in the direction of future employment; like a second-hand car salesman who sells you a jalopy he knows is a half hour from breaking down. But training with a view to work seems at the core of ALMA’s curriculum, a point emphasised en route to the auditorium, where a monitor displays a live feed of Chef jobs available across Europe.

Just as theory and practice are combined, so are classrooms and kitchens. With the ever-punctual students already seated, we scuttle to the back of the auditorium, when suddenly the aspiring Chefs erupt, “Buongiorno.” Not a drone like a junior-school assembly, not aloof like a high-school assembly. Direct. Professional. As if they want to give a good account of themselves and the school… it’s disarming. As a Londoner, I tend to regard strangers making eye contact, a tacit admission that said stranger plans to shortly murder me. Until then, the pervasive politeness was something perceptible only subconsciously. Yet from the moment we arrived, every person who crossed our path, from the President to the maintenance staff, greeted us with a kind word and a smile. Again… Londoner. A kind word and a smile are almost certainly prelude to a kindly worded mugging. Although, generally they don’t invite you to a Palace in Parma just to relieve you of eight euros and a café loyalty card. It must be something else… but as a marvel of well-adjustedness, I let it go and watch the lecture.

It takes a degree of confidence to opt for French cuffs when you’re not currently presenting the Oscars, but then the animated Gardini is something of a showman. Not that I understand what he’s saying, but it’s reminiscent of Pacino’s team-talk in Any Given Sunday, if Pacino really wanted his players to make a banging Crêpes Suzette. Behind, Chef Bruno Ruffini prepares a Roasted Duck (for Gardini to demonstrate carving), so that the students can observe the entire process of ingredients to dish, with cameras projecting every detail of their every move on a screen above. It’s very pragmatic, and if this were a cadaver, an aerial view would seem almost med-school-like… until Gardini unveils the solid silver press for that most rarefied of dishes, Pressed Duck. Ordinarily, the sight of a duck carcass being gently crushed and its bone marrow, blood and juices gushing out of the press’ spout would send me into the fourth stage of arousal, but there’s an itch I can’t scratch… why is everyone so polite here? It’s lovely, obviously. But in 2019, it’s… jarring; like seeing a woman walk her cat. These are not civil times, and as we slip out for a tour of the school, it’s all I can think about. I may have overstated my well-adjusted… ness.

Valentina Rossi, ALMA’s Head of Communications walks us through the institution. It exists as a culinary circulatory system, each department inter-connected from Pastry to canteen. They are taught to respect the process, and every part of the process is practiced. Everything that’s made gets eaten, and nothing goes to waste – this is their mandate. An institution that is both waste and environmentally conscious… am I being Punk’d? Is Punk’d still on? Maybe to call ALMA a culinary school is too reductionist; it really is a school of hospitality. They even have a dining class, where students cook for their peers in a staged restaurant setting, while a camera projects the kitchen on a screen in the dining room, for the Chefs’ techniques and practices (as well their dishes) to be scrutinised. With restaurants becoming increasingly open-plan, this not only teaches students how to perform under pressure of observation, it also teaches them how to critique and accept criticism. This also teaches them how to be a good guest (which should really be mandatory for all human people).

Pressing Rossi on how it is that we have stumbled upon politeness Narnia, it seems that none of this is accidental. ALMA have a vision for the future of Italian gastronomy, and to get there, they want to change the culture of the kitchen. Rude, Ramsey-esque tirades are consigned to the past – respect, courtesy and professionalism are the future. That’s right. Manners. They couldn’t ingratiate themselves to me more if they taught a class on conviviality… except, they actually do that.

The notion of berating subordinates and throwing risotto at the wall has no place in an ALMA kitchen. And after every lesson, they clean down just like they would after every service in the real world. Naturally, this breeds work ethic, but it also breeds humility. It’s hard to be an egomaniacal bastardo when you’re cleaning out the grease racks, and anyone whose principal ambition is to make a ten-second omelette on Saturday Morning Kitchen, get weeded out rapidamente.

Roberto Gardini during the cutting masterclass
Cutting phase
Andrea Sinigaglia, General Manager at ALMA school

So much of ALMA seems paradoxical. They’re stooped in promoting classic Italian cuisine but seek to toss aside much of Italy’s culinary stereotypes. For starters, Italian cooking and kitchens are hardly known for their inclusivity or multi-culturalism. But ALMA have a genuine desire to appeal to an international audience both in the kitchen and on the table.  Not to exclude but to include, and to seek the brightest and best regardless of origin – a philosophy that seems almost comically nostalgic. ALMA don’t want Chefs who hide behind that archaic ‘old ways are best’ mentality. They want Chefs who appreciate the classics but want to challenge convention – Chefs who think beyond cooking, to their impact upon the wider world.

The amazing good mood and enthusiasm that reigns at ALMA school

I am a big believer in the transformative cultural power of food. Food is political. It connects everything. From farming practices to who’s cooking, and from who’s eating to who can’t afford to. But until now, I’d never thought that transformative power extended through hospitality and beyond.

ALMA teach technique, and of course, they want their students to fill Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide, but they’re instilling an ideology that it’s not just about getting to the top, how you get there, matters. Civility is a lead by example, pay-it-forward idea. You offer a nice gesture, in the hope that someone extends that same courtesy to the next person and so on, so that the simple act of holding the door open can go viral, spreading from door-knob to door-knob. Given that a substantial portion of ALMA’s curriculum is work placement-based, this courtesy and discipline have not gone unnoticed among Chefs taking ALMA students. And one day these ALMA acolytes will in turn run kitchens of their own, leading by example, teaching others the ALMA way. A self-perpetuating philosophy that sprawls like a family-tree. Decency and civility, it seems, can be infectious.

ALMA’s foreign students

Perhaps what they have is a template not just for better Chefs and better kitchens, but the seeds for a better society. The world may not be a fine place, but it may be worth the fighting for. And perhaps it starts in places like this. Not with the table, but with the people who put food on it. Perhaps the people charged with feeding our bellies, could help feed our souls and bring back a little civility. Now, pass that pressed duck, you f***ing f***s…