ROME, Italy – It was in the middle of service, during my visit at La Pergola in Rome, that chef Heinz Beck invited me to the kitchen to have a chat. Chef Beck, in his kitchen whites, directs a large team of cooks in a kitchen that sometimes looks like a science lab. With good reason: The German chef is one of the pioneers of both molecular gastronomy and health diet research.
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When I entered the kitchen, chef Beck was the only one who wasn’t wearing a toque. On my left, a long black counter with order slips and a heating table. The rest of the large room has pots and pans, cooks hard at work. On my immediate right, a cook is plating with extreme care the dishes that are to be sent out.
I shake the hand of chef Beck and start asking a few questions. What’s new? What’s next? What occupies most of his time?
His answer is quite simple: “Health”.
Interview With Heinz Beck at La Pergola: Health and Food
Diet is important to people’s health and chef Beck is one of the most important figures at the forefront of research in that domain. “15 years ago, when I started working on health and foods, some people thought I was crazy, but now everybody is talking about it”, he says. It’s true, in a sense: today, talk about food mostly revolves around health. Gluten-free, paleo, hypotoxic, detox, organic, probiotic, immunity boosting foods… The buzzword mafia is all over the health trend!
But all this populist stuff doesn’t bother chef Beck. “I’m now way ahead of everybody, since I’ve been working with doctors and researchers on the subject since the beginning.” This isn’t about siphoning funds from gullible people who think they’ll become immortal from cutting gluten from their diet. No, chef Beck is actually more concerned about things like hypertension and obesity. In fact, a few years ago, he published a book called “Ipertensione & Alimentazione” (Italian only).
The chef pauses his speech to taste a risotto that was about ready to head out, tells the chef (in German) how to adjust it and goes back to his explanation. “I’m working on research on insulin resistance, Alzheimer’s, things of that nature.”
One of the great examples of chef Beck’s contribution to “diet foods” is his calorie-reduced risotto. In an interview with the blog Hotelnewsme, he described how his risotto is made without any butter nor solid cheese.
One of Mr Beck’s creations is a low-fat parmesan risotto, made entirely without butter and solid cheese. “If you know how to make a beautiful risotto, you don’t need butter to make it creamy,” he explains. “The butter is too heavy and you will not digest it for hours.”
Mr Beck combines water and parmesan in a vacuum-packed bag and cooks it on a low heat to infuse the water with the parmesan flavours and amino acids. “The way I cook my parmesan risotto means you have all the flavour with half the calories.”
To chef Beck, it’s quite simple: “The meal doesn’t end when you stop eating, the meal ends the evening after”, he says. “How you feel after the meal is as important as during.”
Hey, diet food is a subject that’s very touchy to a lot of people, including chefs. But ask yourself this: if the food with less calories tastes as good – if not better, if Heinz Beck’s cooking it – as the food with more calories, isn’t the choice a no-brainer?
Interview With Heinz Beck at La Pergola: Molecular Gastronomy
I then ask him to explain what kind of food he makes. Some people have a negative view of what’s called “molecular gastronomy”. What about him?
“100% molecular gastronomy. Let me show you”. I follow chef Beck through a door and into another part of the kitchen. There, I’m surrounded with different scientific tools, dehydrators, extractors, molds, leavening rooms, centrifuges and sous-vide immersion circulators.
“We make our own bread using an all-natural mother dough, different grains, rising times, cooking times, etc.”
Some of the dishes I had earlier during my meal at La Pergola are further explained. The foie gras “parfait” is made by freeze-drying a foie gras torchon; the berries on top are dehydrated. The fennel powder which crowns the “golf course” dish is also made by dehydrating, then passing the result in a food processor.
We then step back out and into the main room of the kitchen. Since celebrity chefs like himself usually prefer writing books and doing TV shows than working in kitchens, I ask him why he still spends time in the kitchen.
“I’m not ‘spending time’ in my kitchen, I’m cooking!” he says, with a large smile on his face. He then stutters a bit looking for a word – he’s been going back and forth between Italian, German and English since I stepped into the kitchen – and, showing a bit of frustration with himself, whistles through his teeth. At that point, every single cook, all of them wearing coffee-filter hats, stop talking and moving, and turn their head at neck-cracking speed towards the chef. As soon as they notice that he’s not about to give orders, they go back to the work at hand. The whole sequence lasts about a half-second, and chef Beck finds the right words: “I have a wonderful team. Cooking is my favourite part of the day.” At 53 years of age, this isn’t an easy thing to do!
Interview With Heinz Beck at La Pergola: Conclusion
The complete review of my meal at La Pergola can be read by clicking here. No, dining at La Pergola is not an ordinary thing.
Chef Beck and La Pergola recently celebrated holding three Michelin stars for 10 years straight. Not a lot of chefs can put that on their résumé…