Last November, I arrived back in California with three years in Italy, a Masters in Food Culture and Communication, and a few extra wine and pasta-fueled pounds under my belt. My thought process and passions that had led me to pursue a degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences were still intact, but I was floundering a little bit on the ideal next step. It was hard enough explaining exactly what I was studying while I was at school – now I needed to somehow translate all that into a (paying) job.
Part of the problem I first encountered was the difficulty in even putting together a general concept for an ideal job – something that I wouldn’t necessarily land right away, but that I could work toward eventually. My mind kept going back to our last day of formal class at food school, when Professor Andrea Pieroni lectured us on foraging, Albania, and life after food school. Though the first two items on the agenda were really only bugging a few of us, that last one had been slowly developing into a major cloud over all of our collective heads. After a year spent eating, drinking, talking, writing, creating, cooking, and just generally obsessing over food together, we were all due to head our separate ways to actually try and turn this experience into a career. Or something.
As Pieroni talked, he invoked one of the greatest lessons of all, that of spirits. Yes, it is important to maintain good spirits and keep yourself happy and all that good stuff, but I’m talking about the other kind of spirits. You know, whiskey, gin, rum, and all that good stuff. He encouraged us to take time after classes ended, to think about what we had just done, to distill it into something truly important for each of us.
However, before you can distill, first you must ferment. Fermentation is the conversion by yeasts of sugar into alcohol and CO2. It occurs naturally, and while it can be manipulated, it can’t ever really be rushed. At the end of fermentation, depending on the ingredients involved, you are generally left with something delicious – beer, wine, bread – or something less delicious, but which still falls into one of those categories. All wine is fermented, just some of it is fermented better than the rest.
And so, the first months after food school were the fermentation. Letting the experience sit, bubble, develop. I messed around with the influencing factors, I traveled to England to speak English and Denmark to go bicycling, back to Italy to work on my thesis and consume absurd quantities of cheese, to New York to see friends, Chicago to relive college, and Charleston to corral chefs and fall in love pimiento cheese, back to Italy to graduate, and then, finally, to California. I tried different ambient temperatures, different inputs, hoping that by the time Thanksgiving rolled around the fermentation would be complete. That whatever indigenous yeasts I had picked up along the way (okay, maybe it’s time to stop rolling with this analogy…) would have interacted with the sugars of my experience to produce something great and important, and, most importantly, clear.
But the end of fermentation very rarely produces a clear substance. Interesting, powerful, complex, yes, but clarity comes after. Clarity can come from racking, filtration, various other vinification processes, or, as Professor Pieroni encouraged, from distillation.
What is distillation really? In a general sense it is the process of extracting the essential components from an entity. Specifically, it can be the process of extracting alcohol from a fermented substance into something equally delicious if exponentially more potent. Either way the important bit is the extraction of an essence. It is not the reduction and concentration of something, but the use of heat to identify and separate certain components from the rest. Notably, distillates are clear. But…whiskey isn’t clear and rum isn’t clear and even tequila is sometimes kinda brownish. True, but only when they are aged. All spirits start out clear as water. But time and barrels add color and complexity.
I fear this analogy is slipping away. Well, not slipping away so much as requiring some larger logical leaps (and probably research on my part) to continue down an accurate and relevant path. Let’s recalibrate.
I had a drink with a friend a few nights ago, someone I hadn’t seen in years. I was talking about my food school experience, and she asked about the end goal. Not mine, particularly, but of the degree. What kind of worker does UNISG produce?
And now we can get back on track with this analogy. Because just as in distillation, starting with the same source material (or experience) can lead in a myriad of different directions, each highly unique but equally wonderful. The same grapes could, conceivably, produce, a simple refreshing juice, any number of wines across the sweet to dry, still to sparkling, quaffable to complex spectrum. The same wheat can make beer, bread, or whiskey. It just depends on how you ferment, the influencing factors in the fermentation, and if you decide to distill it afterward.
So there is no answer. We are restaurant managers, and PR reps, and buyers, and consultants, and entrepreneurs, and diplomats, and chefs, and restauranteurs, and somms, and farmers, and teachers, and writers, and students, and all, ultimately, gastronomes.
Because what UNISG produces is a gastronome. And what is a gastronome? A gastronome is a grape or grain with potential. It might become juice, wine, or cognac, sourdough, saison, moonshine, or Scotch.
For so long I thought the distillation was the important part. That finally the right heat would be applied and I would figure out what I wanted to extract from the experience. But really, it’s just another potential step on the path to something great.