Reporter's Notebook: Special dinner is traditional Italian treat

October 17, 2013|By Bryce Alderton
  • From left, Azmin Ghahreman, executive chef and owner of Sapphire Laguna; Fabrizio Schenardi, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis; Devin Wells, chef de cuisine of Sapphire. The three chefs helped prepare an Italian harvest dinner inspired by dishes from Schenardi's hometown of Turin, Italy.
From left, Azmin Ghahreman, executive chef and owner… (Courtesy Sapphire…)

What I would give to spend an afternoon in the kitchen with chef Fabrizio Schenardi.

To learn how to make gnocchi so soft and light it makes you forget you're eating something made with potatoes.

Or watch Schenardi, 45, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, stir a pot of risotto to non-sticky delight.

Schenardi, a native of Turin, in northern Italy, joined his friend Azmin Ghahreman, executive chef and owner of Sapphire Laguna, at the South Coast Highway restaurant Wednesday to prepare an Italian harvest dinner for media members as a preview for the one-night public meal Thursday night.

The two men last cooked together 10 years ago, when they worked at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point — Ghahreman was executive chef and Schenardi was the executive sous chef.

Wednesday's dinner was a reunion as much as an introduction for journalists to traditional Italian dishes, 15 of them spread among five courses.


Pacing was essential, though it's difficult to restrain oneself when a plate of tagliatelle with shrimp and sea urchin in a roasted tomato sauce stares up at you.

Schenardi, who started cooking when he was 15 and has also worked for the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, explained each dish before it hit the table, reciting ingredients and technique with pinpoint precision.

To begin the meal, servers brought plates of duck mortadella sliced paper thin with a pillow of burrata, a souped-up version of cold cuts and cheese.

I was not a fan of carpacchio until tasting Schenardi's version, which included grass-fed beef, shaved artichoke hearts, grana padano and watercress with a peppery kick.

How does beef become so tender that I don't remember chewing it? The key must be slicing the meat as thin as tissue paper.

Ghahreman explained Schenardi's technique as layering flavors to create a dish where each element receives its proper treatment.

Nothing is forced.

The pasta course consisted of four dishes, including gnocchi with a creamy gorgonzola and walnut sauce and a meaty wild mushroom and truffle risotto without the meat.

The key to light, fluffy gnocchi is boiling skin-on potatoes, peeling them and passing them through a food mill, Schenardi said.

Baking the potatoes tends to dry them out too much, he said.

Fish and meat courses followed, with a wild boar shank served in a sauce fused with apple, pancetta and grappa and grilled polenta squares to sop up the sauce.

The sauce was thicker than au jus but thinner than a gravy, like broth in a stew. The tender boar meet fell off the bone with the gentle push of a fork.

By this time, nearly three hours into the meal, my stomach couldn't hold much more, though for dessert I make exceptions.

And the dolci was worth the wait.

A coffee-and-grappa flavored cake called bonet al caffe had a dollop of whipped cream, while sauteed apple slices topped a shortbread-like crust in the torta di miele with honey, rosemary and a caramel sauce.

I have yet to visit Italy, but Wednesday's dinner provided a preview of what to expect. Thursday's dinner was sold-out, with Ghahreman expecting 200 guests.

The only dilemma is which recipe to ask Schenardi to share.

Conversation was convivial, dinner was memorable and the chefs were as energetic at the end of the meal as they were at the start.

Satisfied tummies and smiles from diners have that effect.

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