Pasquale Torrente has seen quite a bit of the world, and his bottle of amber liquid has been his faithful companion. But in the end he returned to the place where he was born: Cetara. And what a place it is. What tourists see is the charming fishing village on the breathtaking Amalfi Coast, a few kilometres from Salerno; typical houses around a domed church against the slopes of the chalk cliffs, a medieval tower, a fishing port. Those who dig a little deeper get to know the real Cetara. We were lucky enough to do so when we paid a visit to Pasquale Torrente, chef at Al Convento, entrepreneur and football fan. What is he working on at the moment, what keeps him on his toes, and would Cruyff have been a good chef?
Cetara, Campania, Costiera Amalfitana. The heart of this village has been beating to the rhythm of tuna and anchovy fishing for centuries. Tonnes of the tuna caught here in this region are shipped to Japan for sushi and sashimi. The anchovies are fried, stored in salt and used to create colatura di alici, the golden ‘elixir of the sea’ which has been ripened in wooden barrels since Roman times. The village’s 17th century monastery with medieval frescoes in the taprooms is home to one of Italy's best trattorias: Al Convento. We meet Pasquale Torrente, chef, globetrotter, well-known television chef, tireless entrepreneur and football fan.
The villagers welcomed us with open arms when we arrived in the village in the morning. Years ago, our culinary advisor Tom van Meulebrouck spent a couple of weeks on the Amalfi Coast, fell in love with the local cuisine, met up with Pasquale and spent a week in Al Convento's kitchen. “Since then I’ve been part of the family – even part of the village." Tom heads straight to the kitchen with chef Angelo.
“Angelo is a local lad and he taught me all about the typical Neapolitan and Amalfi style of cooking in his Neapolitan dialect. Simply perfect with ingredients of an unprecedented quality. The kitchen is based on a rich tradition. Since we’re good friends, I was able to convince him to prepare a typical pasta alla cetarese (with anchovies, parsley, olive oil, Amalfi lemons and pine nuts) in a different way and use Debic Culinaire Original instead.”
“Using cream in a southern Italian pasta is a no go, but just a little drop of this cream gives this dish a better balance of flavours and transforms the pesto into a homogeneous emulsion without it becoming a pasta in cream sauce."
The next day, we finally have more time to have a good chat with Pasquale. We talk to him about how things are going, the restaurant and the big project he’s currently working on, the similarities between cooking and football, and what he wants to pass on to the younger generations.
Check out a snippet of our chat
“Colatura, that's Cetara, that's who we are."
Entrepreneurship is in the Torrentes’ blood. Pasquale’s parents opened the family trattoria in 1969. It didn’t take long for the spaghetti with colatura di alici, the pride of Cetara, to become a famous dish in the area. Almost half a century later, it’s still the most popular dish on the menu.
“Colatura is a unique product. Unique because of the way it is produced, how it smells and tastes, and because it's a real passe-partout. If you have to unexpectedly cook for 10 people, add a few extra drops of colatura to your pasta and you’ll be sure to make everyone happy. It’s a real taste explosion, the essence of the sea in your mouth. Colatura, that's Cetara, that's who we are."
In this regard, he feels a great affinity with his good friend at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura, who claims in his book ‘Never trust a skinny Italian chef’: “My muscles are made of parmigiano reggiano and balsamic vinegar flows through my veins." Torrente claims that his muscles are made of salty anchovies and colatura di alici from Cetara flows through his veins.
How are things going at Al Convento?
Pasquale Torrente: “Quite well, we’re on track. If we manage to improve upon what my parents did, we're doing things right. We were also named this year's ‘Trattoria of the Year’ by the L'Espresso restaurant guide. It was great to get that recognition.
We’re working on building up a strong team, which is very important and getting trickier, because the role of the boss has changed over the years. There’s so much to do, especially because we start up ambitious projects that receive strong support. But it will all be fine. It will be difficult, but I love that, and I'm not afraid of hard work."
And ambitious it most certainly is; the FICO Eataly World in Bologna is an impressive project. A 80,000m2 theme park is being built specially for nutrition ‘from field to fork’, a kind of permanent exhibition. Pasquale is opening a fritteria covering 200 square metres. ‘Work, work, work’; that’s his mantra.
When will this new business be opening?
“On 4 October, 2017, St. Catherine of Bologna’s feast day. Preparations are already well under way. It’s like a ‘training camp for the championship’."
Pasquale, how would you describe your kitchen?
“It’s a Mediterranean kitchen in which the ingredients play an important role. We respect the products, the seasons and the environment. It’s a kitchen full of fresh ingredients, a southern kitchen. We're lucky we live in Italy where biodiversity is still huge and where we can work with an exceptional supply of ingredients."
What keeps you on your toes and what motivates you to keep making progress?
“A lot! But first and foremost, my love for the work and the responsibility that comes with it. I am now responsible for several families, those with whom I cooperate daily, the families who produce for us, the families who work for producers of, say, the frying oil. That’s a responsibility you don’t take lightly. I never really think about it, but if I stop for a second that thought really hits me. Even cooking a pack of pasta is a responsibility, because if you don’t do it well, people won’t buy it. So I’d say it’s the responsibility and the love for the work. I’m always busy, I don’t even know what the word ‘holiday’ means. I don’t have one fixed role; at the moment I’m more of a coach than a striker. I love to take the lead."
Who is your favourite football player?
“Johan Cruyff has always been my favourite, because as a player he determined the match, he knew when to set up the centre forwards or when he had to play the ball back down the pitch to Hulshoff and Krol. He was great. And he was a gentleman – you could see that on the pitch. When he came into action, it was a spectacle. I grew up with that kind of football. I really loved it. For me, he’s the ideal football player because he could do anything."
Would Cruyff have been a good chef?
"I think so, but I think he mostly just loved eating and drinking. He was in a team that loved their beer!”
We brought him an Ajax shirt with Cruyff’s name and number 14 on the back, and he puts it on straight away. It fits him like a glove.