Sustainable Food: A sustainable Italian chef in Berlin

Giulia Michetti has worked with chefs like Michael Task, Dominique Crenn and Andrea Ribaldone. Today, she is the Head Chef of No/Bananas in Berlin and she talked to us about sustainability and hedonism. She shares here her zero-carbon emission barley risotto recipe, a dish that she prepared taking into consideration environmental, social and economic factors.

Words

Solynka Dumas

Photos

Brittany Wolf

Where does your passion for cooking come from?

I grew up very close to my grandparents. My father’s mother came from Northern Italy, she was the one who showed me how to make those heavy, nice, warm northern dishes. On the other side, I had my southern Italian grandma who had a little fire wood oven in her garden and was an amazing baker. On top of all that, when my mother’s father retired, he bought a farm a few hours away from Matera, where we lived, as a way to bring the family together and I would spend a lot of time there, mostly during hazelnut harvest.

So for you, food is really a family affair?

Absolutely! There is this quote from Michael Polan that says something like: “When it comes to food, we tend to make something that is linked to our culture.” And in food, culture is just a fancy word to say mother, or father for that matter. I lost my father when I was 10 but before that he would always cook for me. He used to travel a lot for work and whenever he was away he would go to restaurants and ask the chefs to share their recipes. He would then write them down, come back home and cook them for me. His favourite dish was scrambled eggs. After he died I had a terrible experience with scrambled eggs and it took me that experience to realise how good his were. Slowly I started reconnecting with him by recreating those recipes. He transmitted me his passion and here I am now. All I’ve learned really came from my family.

Did you go to school for cooking?

No, I actually went to law school which doesn’t really have much to do with cooking, although at some point I think I will connect the two of them by focusing on regulations on farming and sustainable practices. But that’s for later.

Right after law school I worked at this law firm in Italy and from there decided to go to San Francisco. There I met Michael Task’s sous-chef and he told me, “I can tell you have never worked in a kitchen but I see your passion. We can make something out of it.” I worked for Michael Polan and then later for Dominique Crenn. In the meantime I also started a catering project and worked with urban farms all over the city. I never had the time to go to school; I set foot in the kitchen and then never left.

What brought you back to Europe?

After five years in San Francisco, I thought it was time to leave. The political situation in Italy was bad and I just felt like I had to go back. I went home and met Andrea Ribaldone and together we opened Osteria Arborina in Barolo, one of the best regions in the world when it comes to gastronomy. Every chef in Italy dreams to have a restaurant there because of the quality of the products that is available. We were obviously farm to table, had access to great suppliers and some of the best Barolo producers were my neighbours. After nine months of operation we got a Michelin star. After this achievement I felt ready for something new and moved to Berlin.

What are your current projects here in Berlin?

Besides being the head chef at No/Bananas, a natural wine bar and kitchen in Neukölln, the project that is dearest to my heart is Salt Wine, a series of pop-up dinners I host with Marco Callegaro, who has the best selection of Italian natural wines in Germany. The food is centred around Californian cuisine, which is a fancy way to say a little bit of French and a little bit of Italian mixed together while using the best local products available.

I am also working on starting my own restaurant here in Berlin. The city is really going through some sort of culinary renaissance, where people that were trained in New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong, are finally here and they are bringing their skills and knowledge. So now there is space and talent!

Give me three words to describe your cooking.

The first word that comes to my mind is fresh. In cooking we had a dark age where chefs were thinking, “Oh my god, I’m going to take this ugly produce that tastes like nothing and turn it into something.” This type of nouvelle cuisine really destroyed our way of consuming food.

Then I would say simplicity. This means keeping the product the way it is. I don’t really transform things. I just play with textures and with combinations of flavours but I always keep it simple.

Finally I would say authenticity. My cuisine is no fuss, no bullshit. It is important to learn things from different cultures but what you learned growing up is really who you are. I stay true to my roots.

Where do you get your products here in Berlin?

In Berlin I work with a lot of urban farmers, such as Chido. They use what is considered food waste and turn it into premium quality mushrooms. They are reliable and consistent and the quality is amazing. It’s interesting because I was working in a lot of urban farms in San Francisco, where everything is open and on roofs. In Berlin, because the city was built on bunkers, everything is underground. It’s actually great for the products because in bunker are way easier to keep a stable temperature. The level of humidity is also high enough and that helps!

Another one is Grünerei in Neukölln. When his girlfriend got sick, the owner, who has a degree in Physics, thought, “what if we grew our own food.” They now distribute to some of the best restaurants in the city. It’s amazing! It’s an underground hydroponic vertical farming; they only consume 2% of the water a traditional farm would use, and analyse the different nutrients in the plants and adjust it adding organic nutrients into the water. So the food is tastier but also more nutritious, and they don’t use any fertilisers or chemicals. They grow pea shoots, wasabi and every herb you can imagine. All the ingredients are super fresh because there are no insects in the bunkers and bacteria can’t really develop there either, that’s why they have a longer shelf life. It’s perfect; you totally limit your food waste because you can go through your whole bunch before it goes bad.

Sustainability is an important topic for you?

Absolutely! Especially considering the position chefs are in today. They are everywhere! In today’s culinary landscape people expect a story but to know the story you need to know where the produce comes from, how that food is made or grown. So you need to be connected to the farmer, which, I guarantee you, won’t be a big mass corporation. In this regard Michael Polan and Dan Barber have been huge influences for me.

How would you describe your relationship to sustainability?

I would say my sustainability is based on a hedonistic choice. I am driven by flavour. I will always pick the best celery root possible, or the best carrot possible. And for the best carrot, with the right amount of sugar and nutrients it will have to come from a sustainable, organic farm and it will have to have been cultivated in season. When you are making an ethical food choice, there is also always a pleasurable aspect attached to it. Sustainability is synonymous with really good ingredients and really good ingredients taste really good. Whether you are an environmentalist or not, if you buy products that taste good, you are doing something good for the environment. Sometimes people come to me asking me what they can do to help. I simply say, “pick the stuff that tastes good.”

Well that’s giving a lot of credit to people’s taste!

Well of course the first step is to teach people to educate their palate. That’s the role of the chef too. When you go to a restaurant, you go to enjoy yourself but the chef also has an educational responsibility there. By attaching a story to the food you’re eating, you are essentially saying “I am supporting this farmer or producer.”

We at The Beam are really excited you put together a zero-carbon emission recipe for us. What does that actually mean?

When we think about zero-carbon footprint in food it’s important to think locally, but other factors also come into consideration that are actually more important to me. By just reducing it to local food, you oversimplify the issue.You can buy local apples in March, but they are normally harvested in October-November, so it takes a lot of energy to refrigerate them and preserve them. So seasonality is a very important factor to take into consideration. We really need to know the whole process of production; not just where it comes from but who made it, and when is the best time to consume it. In our recipe, we use barley as the main ingredient, which is available everywhere around here. It represents 80% of our dish.

What are other ways people can be more sustainable with their food?

If one really wants to be more sustainable, they really have to treat meat as a luxury. I don’t think you have to become vegan or vegetarian, although it depends where you are living. If you live in California where there are severe droughts, you should definitely avoid meat. When I was a child my father took me to a slaughterhouse to see how the pigs were killed, it was very hard to see and it changed my relationship to meat. Every time I do eat meat I am fully conscious that it was a living being before it ended up on my plate.

What would you say to people who argue that quality ingredients come at a price that most cannot afford?

People argue that buying the best ingredients is more expensive. It’s true, especially because small local producers produce less and therefore must sell at a higher price. The life of a farmer is also unpredictable; it’s not dictated by an agenda. For example I have a friend who is a wine producer in Italy and she just lost her production for the next two years. When you are not a huge company and lose all your harvest you will struggle, so you will need to to make up for the losses in some way.

But actually, I think we should pay extra for quality. Just keep it simple, buy fewer ingredients but buy better. Pick two, three ingredients that go well together, follow a recipe, follow your heart, follow what your grandma taught you. That’s it; so simple.

"When we think about zero-carbon footprint in food it’s important to think locally, but other factors also come into consideration that are actually more important to me. By just reducing it to local food, you oversimplify the issue."

 


RECIPES:

BARLOTTO

– 160 grams Barley
– 1.1 litres mushrooms stock
– 20 grams dry Porcini mushrooms
– Fresh thyme
– 150 grams diced king oyster mushrooms from Chido’s Berlin
– 1 medium finely diced yellow onion (about 40 grams)

1. Mushroom stock: soak dry mushrooms in 1.1 L of water, for about 15 minutes. Add fresh thyme, and transfer to a saucepan over high heat. Bring to boil, adjust to medium heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Drain the liquid and set aside. Chop porcini mushrooms with a knife.

2. Coat a skillet with olive oil and add fresh mushrooms, salt lightly and cook until they colour slightly, about four to six minutes. You should just begin smelling their nutty aroma. Remove from pan, cover and set aside.

3. Add diced onion with a pinch of salt and let them sweat over medium heat. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onion is tender and translucent. Add the barley and stir until the grains are warm and coated with fat. Add about one third of the stock, the mushrooms and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring regularly, until the stock has been absorbed. Continue adding stock gradually, checking for tenderness of the grain as each addition of stock is absorbed. It should take between 30 to 40 minutes for the barley to become tender.

4. Take off the heat and let rest for a few minutes.

5. Plate the barlotto on a flat plate, scatter raw mushrooms over the top, then finish with a few spoons of herbs gremolata.

TURNING BARLOTTO INTO A BARLEY SOUP

Leftover barlotto is a good base for a day-after soup.

INGREDIENTS

– Mixed greens: kale, cabbage, spinach, turnip greens
– 100 grams cooked white beans
– 150 grams stock
– 100 grams leftover barlotto
– 50 grams of croutons from stale bread
– extra virgin olive oil

RECIPE

1. Coat a pan with olive oil and cook mixed greens for three to five minutes. Add stock to cover by 3cm. Cover and gently simmer until the mixed greens are tender (about 10 minutes).

2. Stir in cooked beans and barlotto, then add more stock. Continue cooking uncovered for 10 more minutes. Add more stock if needed to make a soft porridge.

3. Plate on a bowl and add croutons. Garnish with freshly cracked pepper and olive oil.


KING OYSTER CARPACCIO

– 2 fresh, firm king oyster mushrooms
– 1 fresh lemon
– salt
– pepper

1. To clean king oyster mushrooms, use a sharp paring knife to scrape off any dirt. Then place in a small bag and refrigerate until needed.

2. Just before serving the barlotto, slice mushrooms as thinly as a possible with a mandolin. Then place flat onto a plate, drizzle lemon juice and olive oil, season with salt and pepper.


JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE CHIPS

– 100 grams Jerusalem artichoke
– Grapeseed oil
– Salt

1. Slice Jerusalem artichoke thinly with a mandolin and keep in cold water.

2. Fry with grapeseed oil, until dark brown. Place onto kitchen paper, and season with salt while they are still hot.mGREMOLATA

– 1 bunch of fresh parsley — all the herbs come from Grunerei Farm Berlin
– 3 tablespoons other chopped herbs such as fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme, nasturtium, watercress, basil, chives, thyme
– 1 tablespoon of chopped capers
– Diced shallots
– 1 tablespoon lemon zest
– 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
– Salt
– Freshly cracked pepper
– Chilli flakes

1. Chop parsley with a knife and combine with other dry ingredients, salt, pepper and chilli flakes to taste.

2. Add olive oil and stir until salt is dissolved into the mixture.

Optional ingredients to add texture and flavour to the gremolata:

– 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
– ¼ ripe avocado
– 1 tablespoon of chopped nuts such as walnuts or pine nuts

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This article was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.

This article is also available to view on our Medium page.