Biba Caggiano, television personality, cookbook author and owner of Sacramento-based Biba Restaurant, was in Toronto recently to promote her newest cookbook, Biba's Italy: Favourite Recipes from the Spendid Cities. Having been a fan since she was one of the first television chefs, I jumped at the opportunity to take her class with recipes from her book at the Bonnie Stern School of Cooking in Toronto.
Caggiano, relaxed and seasoned, spent the evening cooking and sharing stories of her past. I was totally charmed by her warm, engaging personality. Though she owns a restaurant where she plans the menu, she calls herself a home cook, not a chef, and makes no apologies for it. "Everything that comes out of the restaurant kitchen first comes out of mine," she says. When I asked if she had ever come up against prejudice because she wasn't a trained chef, she told of an earlier experience when a chef didn't respect her. She fired him on the spot and promoted two other cooks. The two are still loyal and working for her 20 years later.
While waiting for the class to begin, we noshed on bruschetta with roasted caramelized cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were warm, sweet and juicy, the toast crisp and garlicky.
While Caggiano spoke of her earlier days as a physician's wife and her home- based cooking classes, she created gossamer potato gnocchi with classic bolognese ragu, and stuffed roasted veal. The gnocchi were light yet firm enough not to fall apart, and she spent a lot of time explaining the feel and how to test them in boiling water before boiling all of them, lest they turn to mush in the water. As I watched, I itched to touch the dough, needing to feel its consistency for myself. So I leapt at the chance when she asked for volunteers to cut and shape gnocchi. It was, of course, not as easy as her practiced hands made it look, but with Biba guiding me, I felt reasurred. (In fact, I had fantasies of going off to apprentice with her in Sacaramento!) The ragu, from her native Bologna, was silky with the addition of milk, and rich with the unexpected chicken livers. It made a perfect and traditional pairing with the potato gnocci.
Caggiano's warmth, easy way and sense of humour belie the core strength necessary for her to have persevered and succeeded as she has. In fact, she shared a very personal story when asked about her latest cookbook. Originally, the book was to cover the cuisine from 10 Italian cities; however, four or five months into the project (in 2001) she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she doubted whether the book would even happen. After regaining her strength and health, she downgraded her plan to cover just five cities and forged ahead to compile this beautiful cookbook and travel guide to Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Venice.
It isn't that often that we are touched by someone we don't even know. I left the class feeling excited, inspired and uplifted -- and, most of all, positive about the ability for food to bring us all together. Cook for someone you love today! Buon Appetito!
Image courtesy www.biba-restaurant.com
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