Taste Travels Q&A with Alex DeSimone

Taste Travels Q&A with Alex DeSimone


Welcome to Taste Travels, our series on exploring and finding culinary voice. We’ll be celebrating the foundational techniques and flavors our favorite chefs and creators grew up with, including how they’re blending them into their everyday lives and making meaningful new traditions. Each story we highlight aims to showcase the fluidity and evolution of food across cultures and continents.

Alex DeSimmone grew up in a huge Italian family with homemade pasta, cured meats that hung in their grandparents’ laundry room, and beans simmering away on the stove. So when they offered to share their family’s cherished recipe for cozy Italian-style beans and greens, we knew it would be perfect for featuring around the holidays, reminding us to savor moments of good food with loved ones (whether it’s with your large boisterous family or something entirely different!). Read on for our Q&A.


What are some of your earliest memories in the kitchen and how have they informed your perspective on food and gathering?

I grew up in a huge Italian family, so food has always been a crucial part of gathering. I was in the kitchen with my grandma before I could even see over the counter. For most of my childhood, my whole family gathered at my grandparent’s house every Thursday for dinner. This included my parents and siblings, my aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents, so a minimum of 11 people each week – assuming no other relatives stopped by to eat or for dessert and espresso after dinner. Her kitchen was also the hub for every holiday, especially Christmas dinner. In classic Italian American culture, we always had a big, seafood-centric meal on the night of Christmas Eve and then a classic Italian Christmas dinner the next day in the afternoon, after presents. Cooking these dinners with my grandma is where I fell in love with cooking, and when I think of how food is love and what it means to show love through cooking, I think of gathering together for holidays and for Thursday night dinners.

What’s your most nostalgic dish?

I grew up with homemade pasta, cured meats that hung in my grandparents' laundry room and other Italian classics. My favorite dish since I’ve been old enough to chew is pasta fasule, an Italian stew made with short pasta, white beans, and sometimes greens, all swirling around in a thick and savory tomato broth. I’ve eaten this dish probably 1,000 times in my life; I used to beg my grandma to make it every week. As an adult, it’s on my regular dinner rotation; my freezer is stocked with extra portions, and I often make it when my friends come over in the fall and winter months.

How has your voice as a chef and artist evolved over time?

When I first started cooking professionally, I was really concerned with technique. I don’t have a culinary school education, so I was worried I couldn’t measure up with my coworkers who did. Those first few years, I poured over YouTube videos and old culinary school textbooks I bought from thrift stores to learn as much as I could on my own so I wouldn’t be embarrassed if my boss asked me to filet a fish or tournee potatoes (the latter is something that no chef has asked a line cook to do since the 80s but I learned it anyway!) I was determined to prove to everyone that I could keep up in the kitchen despite not attending culinary school. Over the years, I became less concerned with knowing everything; I had the privilege to work in some really great kitchens where I learned that we were all still learning. I was never going to be done learning about food and cooking, so instead of desperately trying to learn everything on my own to prove I knew enough to belong, I could actually just have fun in the kitchen and learn with my peers as I went. Once I caught on to this, work got a lot more fun, and my food got a lot better.

How would you define your cooking philosophy today?

After leaving the kitchen full-time, my cooking philosophy has gotten much more relaxed. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t dream of buying pre-cut veggies or using store-bought stock. Now, I’m just concerned with making it taste good and making it work for me. Throwing a dinner party is less fun when you spend the whole night in the kitchen whipping cream by hand instead of hanging out with your friends.

What culinary traditions have you either held on to, or evolved for your friends and family today?

A huge part of Italian cooking is the idea of “quanto basta” or “until it’s enough.” If you ask my grandmother how much of an ingredient to add to a dish, this is what she’ll say. Growing up, I’d ask her how much parmesan to add to ravioli filling, and she’d simply reply, “Until it’s enough.” After years of cooking with my family and then a decade of cooking in restaurants, I’ve learned to cook by feel. Sure, when prepping 24 quarts of black garlic aioli at a restaurant, I’m definitely going to follow the recipe. But when cooking at home or developing recipes of my own, I let myself feel out the food and rely on my palette and tastes. I cook like this at home, and whenever friends ask for recipes, it drives them crazy. They’ll ask me for quantities, and most of the time, I’ll just shrug and say, “until it’s enough.”

What role do beans play in your life?

I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years so beans have been a main character in my life for at least that long. I grew up eating a lot of beans since they’re a big part of southern Italian cooking. Then, as I got older and cut meat out of my diet, they were the protein source I was most familiar with. I didn’t have tofu until high school and was in college before I had tempeh. Beans were always around and easy to mold into something delicious. I love their versatility; they’re perfect for a weeknight dinner but also for breakfast and entertaining– what can't they do? At this point in my life, I probably eat some form of legume every day, if not multiple times per day.

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