Alan Tardi of Manhattan's Follonico plunders the garden to create a Tuscan menu with blossoming appeal.
Twice last summer Alan Tardi, the chef and owner of the Tuscan-style restaurant Follonico in Manhattan, carted a great load of flowers to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. At first glance this labor might appear to be a Technicolor version of carrying coals to Newcastle, but Tardi's flowers--pansies, nasturtiums, zucchini blossoms, lavender and more--were not simply fragrant and colorful; they were also edible and, he is quick to add, in plentiful supply at local greenmarkets.
This abundance of flowers was the impetus behind "In Full Bloom," the six-course tasting menu designed around edible flowers that he presented at the Garden last June; the occasion was a benefit for the hunger-relief organization Share Our Strength. On a second visit a month later, Tardi and his partner, Karen Bussen, the general manager of Follonico, re-created the menu and the alfresco festivities for F&W.
In his menu, Tardi uses every part of the flower: a sunflower seed crust for the lamb, a lily bulb julienne with the avocado, zucchini blossoms, lotus root--even cauliflower, the flower that isn't. The result is a diversity of tastes. The roasted sunflower seeds give a nutty flavor to the meat; the lily bulbs add a sweet crispiness to the avocado; the astringency of the elderflower concentrate balances the richness of the crème anglaise.
The flowers are pretty too. A plate spread with thinly sliced seared salmon becomes a canvas for colorful nasturtiums. But the pansy and nasturtium petals in Tardi's Petal-Printed Pasta aren't sprinkled at random--they're carefully pressed between paper-thin sheets of pasta dough to create a floral fabric. "It's almost like pressing flowers between the pages of a book," he says. "But the great thing is that as you're eating it you can taste their subtle flavors."
Tardi is a soft-spoken teddy bear in wire-frame glasses, and he has such an easy, modest style of talking that when he's asked about his background he almost makes his rise through the ranks sound like a matter of luck. "I liked to bone chickens," he says of his early days. "And I worked pretty well with knives." Nevertheless, during his odyssey from part-time dishwasher to chef and owner, he wound up working at several key Manhattan restaurants, including Lafayette under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Chanterelle.
One July, when Chanterelle was closed for its annual recess, Tardi traveled to Italy and happened upon La Chiusa, an elegant restaurant in the medieval Tuscan village of Montefollonico. His description of the food sounds very much like what he now serves at Follonico: "Sophisticated, light, like a refined tasting menu, but with a difference--it had accent, and the whole multicourse experience worked like a symphony."
The following year he went back to La Chiusa to work. Generally, he notes, ambitious young cooks on break try to arrange un stage at a French kitchen. But Gallic culinary hierarchy grated on him. "It's like a dysfunctional family. The chef abuses the sous chef, the sous chef abuses the line chefs, the line chefs abuse the assistants, and everybody abuses the dishwasher." As a former dishwasher himself, he found working beside old Italian women much more comfortable: they asked him to run and get things and slipped him food on the sly; he showed them fancy American ways of dicing tomatoes.
From time to time, he ran to get something from the herb garden on the gentle slope behind the restaurant. Beyond the garden lay the olive grove and beyond that the vineyards and the golden fields of Tuscany. Tardi can get carried away describing the town--the two bars and the boccie court, the medieval walls and the wooden gate where the local graffiti poet wrote the works that Tardi would read when he settled on a nearby bench to watch the sunrise.
Later he did spend time in a French kitchen, an experience that only confirmed his move in a different direction. Tardi contrasts the Escoffier school, in which, he says, the ingredients almost don't matter, with the Tuscan manner. In his view, classic French chefs try to master nature, while the emphasis in Italian cuisine is on the ingredients rather than the process--straight food, but with refinement.
"These recipes incorporate the flowers that are so abundant in the summer," he says. "But if you're in a hurry, you can throw flowers into a salad or just drop them onto the plate to brighten it up. Why not? Food in summer should seem light, quick, spontaneous."