A penchant for cardigans, spy novels and pop culture connections.
There is an air of “the comfortable” in the baker’s classroom. Two students are rotating mixes from the proving oven to the baking one. “They’ve been making panettone since August, it can get quite… repetitive.” Giacomo Bullo, communication department at the ALMA school is showing me around their vast, and impressive structure. “Everything we make gets eaten, nothing goes to waste.”
On this one floor, there are a handful of classrooms that combine the theory and practice in a unique groundbreaking setting. Here on the outskirts of Parma is La Scuola ALMA. Known around the world as one of THE elite gastronomic institutions, the walls can tell the story of a military past and the prospects of creating Italy’s next great generation chef.
“We were lucky to find each other” Andrea Sinigaglia, General Manager told me. “This (la vecchia caserma di Parma) could have been lost but here, we get to create.” With 1000 students, 100 teachers, a managerial team and the teachings of the masters in Italian gastronomy you could say that space was needed, along with an appetite for success.
“97% of our students have a job when they leave this school.” Giacomo continued, “about 70% are in Italy, the rest go around the world.”
This then is one of Italy’s gateways to the globe. Gastronomy as we know and as we tell it at 1820 is what makes Italy tick. From cucina povera to this, the modern visualisation of those recipes and how we can use it to communicate with other cultures and open the door to new places and people.
“We have had success in Korea, we even have courses with Korean students here in the school,” Andrea spoke about ALMAs international prospects with a distinct conviction. “The International meeting of gastronomy showed us that in places like India, where Italian food is not really known, there is a curiosity which is very different to what we have in Europe. From Korea, China, Asia as a whole, there is an emerging need to showcase what our food and culture is all about.”
Under the guise of Gualtiero Marchesi, one of the undisputed legends of Italian gastronomy the ALMA school created a way of doing things. They want their teachers to “provoke” convention and thanks to Marchesi they want their students to be “chefs who think.” It’s not good enough, and you can tell, to sit in a comfort zone. There is a push for excellence but done properly.
No prima donna flamboyance, no shouting or cursing. There is calm and respect from one area to another. Everywhere I went it was a “buonasera” and “salve”, always ended with “grazie mille”. A calm politeness that eschews the intangible values of the school as well.
“We cover everything here. The six categories needed in running a restaurant are covered. From the chef to the front of house, ours is an institution under one roof that is truly unique.” For the school and for the director there is however one missing link, “we need to train managers. We have chefs, we have front of house staff, we have everything covered, but we need managers. We need to build the next restauranteurs and fill this key gap in the market.”
Each course is created by the chef at hand, each student a keen observer and learner. This is Italy’s cooking school, where classrooms meet real-life kitchen setups in one unique setting. Camera’s project lessons onto screens beside the chef, showcasing intricacies to the students who are just feet away, so they can see close up what they then need to recreate.
There are those that could argue that a classroom is not the place to learn, rather more, the kitchen/the dining hall/the cellar is, but here you have both. Here is an open door for whoever enters to learn a craft and get experience with over 700 kitchens across Italy for their placement periods and yet, there is this sense of normality.
The troupe of students move like they do in a professional environment, the setup designed to create every single aspect needed to survive in the real world. There are no safe spaces or elements of universal single issue appeasements, this is Italy’s gastronomic school; real life is here or else what is the point in the whole setup?
“In the next few years, we want to be bringing back the skills that will be lost if we’re not careful,” Andrea explained, “from the butcher to the cheesemaker, we will lose these traditions because people aren’t interested. If we can create chefs, maitré, sommeliers and the world’s finest chocolatiers, we can and must keep these other parts of our gastronomic and cultural heritage alive.”
That cultural heritage is in every room, in every sight, smell and contained with a unique energy about the place. You see the ALMA school and you’re taken aback, you go inside and you understand how important it really is, as Italy’s reference point.
For the panettone makers, theirs is a task they’ve repeated for the last five months, “they go in at 180c then turned down to 150c” they’re on autopilot; practice as they say, makes what they do, perfect. There’s now a school for that.