The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Monday, April 18, 2011

You, Too, Can Cook Like an Olive Garden Chef

Getting a “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” Education Without Leaving Your Home
Over the past few years, I've written more than a few commentaries about Olive Garden. While none of them have been out and out bashes of the place, none of them have been particularly complimentary either. 

Understand, I have no personal ax to grind with the chain. It's not like they dosed one of my toddlers with sangria or anything. No, my issue is broader: through a series of successful business and marketing maneuvers, Olive Garden has managed to position itself in the American consciousness as the “go to” place to go to when you're looking for Italian food. And that's just wrong. Olive Garden is about as authentically Italian as my Grandma Ida's haggis. And yet this scenario plays out hundreds of times each day: “Honey, I'm hungry for Italian tonight.” “Okay, dear. Let's go to Olive Garden.” And off they go, bypassing thousands of real, authentic Italian eateries that don't have huge corporate advertising budgets.

So it was with a rather mean-spirited sense of delight that I observed the recent media revelation that one of Olive Garden's key advertising gimmicks – the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” – is a fraud. I've always known that, but I am only one little voice crying out in the culinary wilderness. However, when, prompted by the viral online revelations of a person claiming to be a former Olive Garden manager, set out to answer the question, “What Actually Goes On at Olive Garden's 'Culinary Institute' in Tuscany,” I felt totally vindicated by the answer.

There ain't no such place.

(See the article at

Turns out that the folks at Darden Concepts, Inc., the parent group behind Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, and others, simply rent rooms at a Tuscan resort hotel with an attached restaurant during the off season. Olive Garden owns nothing; the place belongs to a local winery. But the company sends select members of Olive Garden management off in shifts to enjoy week-long, all expenses paid visits to Italy. While there, said managers spend a little time in the restaurant and its kitchen where they talk with a chef about Italian food. They visit the winery and a fresh food market and they eat lots of Italian goodies.

I did the same thing on a recent visit to North Carolina. I ate at a couple of great Italian restaurants, talked to the chef at one and to the manager at the other, visited a couple of wineries, and went to a local market. I guess that makes me a graduate of the “Yadkin Valley Culinary Institute.” (Hey, if Darden can make 'em up, so can I.)

But if even attending the “Yadkin Valley Culinary Institute” is beyond your means, here's a cheap and easy way to get the same degree of culinary education that Olive Garden offers. Go to your local grocery store and get a nice bottle of wine. Bring it home, pour yourself a glass, sit down at your computer and log on to Go to the “recipes” tab, and there you can watch videos of Chef Paolo Lafata – the same “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” guy you see in the TV commercials – as he prepares “authentic Italian recipes.”

I'm serious! I've appropriated a number of Chef Paolo's recipes and they're pretty good, provided you get the right ingredients and know enough about cooking to keep from burning yourself or cutting your finger off. If you can find your way around in a kitchen, if you can assemble good, fresh ingredients, and if you can follow the recipes on the website, you, too, can cook like an Olive Garden “chef.” You can even claim to have attended the online version of the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” and to have studied with Chef Paolo!

Make no mistake, Paolo Lafata is the real deal. Educated at the Istituto Vittorio Emanuale, he did a stint at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago and spent seven years in the kitchens at Walt Disney World. He's Darden's Senior Executive Chef and Chef Director and he even made five appearances on “The Tony Danza Show” back in 2004. Now that's Italian! His home kitchen is not exactly in Tuscany, but it's nearby – in Orlando, Florida.

And if for some reason you find that you just can't master the skills of a “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” graduate, there's always this option: “Honey, I'm hungry for Italian tonight.” “Okay, dear. I found a great little authentic Italian place. It's right down the street from Olive Garden.”

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