Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Celebrating nature by mastering two of the oldest culinary techniques, wood-fire and natural fermentation and protecting the local community and the environment.
Photo: courtesy Norberto Piattoni
“Food is a celebration, an expression of love and a way to bring happiness to people.” Norberto Piattoni
Born in Federacion, Argentina, Norberto Piattoni grew up learning about agriculture in his grand-father’s farm. Wood-fire cooking being part of the culinary landscape in Argentina, he has always been interested in this traditional technique. After spending six years studying chemical engineering, he realized that his real passion was food, not science. Then, the wind took him to the ‘1884’ restaurant in Mendoza, where he trained with the renowned talented Chef Francis Mallman. Alongside him, he cooked dinners for the Prime Minister of China and the President of Uruguay. Piattoni’s culinary journey in the US started in Kentucky in 2013, followed by San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, where he opened Mettā and San Pedro Inn Bar and Restaurant in Red Hook, New York.
In the course of his career, he became passionate about outdoor wood-fire cooking techniques and natural fermentation, a natural way of ingredient preservation. An advocate for local sourcing and seasonality, he purchases produce at their peak before implementing this ancestral technique to preserve the ingredients through the leaner months. Piattoni is also dedicated to finding sustainable alternative modes of food production and creative ways to cook all parts of the products, thus reducing waste and reusing ingredients whenever possible.
As nature was calling him back for a while, the coronavirus outbreak was the signal to leave New York to go back to basics. Now located in upstate NY, Chef Norberto Piattoni and his friend Chef Danny Newberg have launched The Modestos, an outdoor fire cooking dining concept in the Catskills where all the proceeds are donated to support food security.
Welcome Norberto to Chefs for Impact!
By Norberto Piattoni as told to Chefs for Impact
What brought you to the Catskills?
I was born in Argentina where I grew up surrounded by farms. My education was all about sustainability. My grandfather had a farm where he was raising animals. I’ve always been in that kind of environment and I was always interested in learning more.
I studied science for 6 years and at one point, I realized I was more interested in food. Why? Because food is a celebration, an expression of love and a way to bring happiness to people.
As I started to focus more on cooking, I had the great opportunity to work for Chef Francis Mallman in South America. I moved to the US and started to learn more about the local food system with the opening of a restaurant in Kentucky. Then I moved to San Francisco to work at Bar Tartine, then Los Angeles and finally New York in 2015. I got to hang out in farmers markets and met the people who grew the food. I saw Mettā, the restaurant I opened in Fort Greene, as an opportunity to put into practice all the ancestral cooking and preservation techniques that I have learned during the course of my career. Most recently I partnered with Pioneer works, a non-profit organization in Red Hook that does a lot of good things for the community.
I wanted to move out of the city for a while and this pandemic made me realize that I needed to move closer to nature. While navigating in these unprecedented times, I came upstate NY in the Catskills where I started, with a friend, this new concept called the Modestos, a pop-up dining concept to support the local community.
Can you tell me more about the concept and its purpose?
The Modestos (translated as the Modests) is an outdoor cooking series of dinners, in collaboration with Catskills regional harvest, featuring seasonal products from the local farms, to support local agriculture. We decided to launch the concept to help the local community including farmers and people in need. 100% of the proceeds are donated to different causes such as helping food insecurity, the small producers and supporting CSA programs.
The Modestos is a modest approach to show people that delicious food doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated and how we can do simple things that are tasty and good for the community. We create a simple menu, acknowledging what we have around us. We need so many things in this society that we have created that people can no longer enjoy simple pleasures. We need to start to work backwards. Hopefully, it will contribute to the education of people and make them aware of the simplicity of happiness.
Where do these sustainable cooking techniques come from?
I chose to cook with fire and to do fermentation because these are two of the oldest techniques of cooking even before electricity existed. These techniques allow you to execute great food without any resources.
Coming from South America, I grew up cooking with fire. I learned how to do it when I was very young and I was always interested in it. I certainly deepened my knowledge of wood-fire while working with Francis Mallman in Argentina. Francis refined the traditional Argentinian cooking techniques and turned them into a real food experience. Working with him surely added additional skills to my background.
I’ve always seen my grand-father preserving all the ingredients. At that time, I didn’t know how to manipulate food naturally and which was the better way to preserve your ingredients. I learned more about the process while working at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, a location very well known for mastering preservation, fermentation and the understanding of the natural life of products whether it’s meat or vegetables.
How would you describe sustainable gastronomy?
I think sustainability means being as conscious as possible about the way we do things. But it’s very difficult to be completely sustainable in the system we live in right now. It’s about going to the farmers market, getting products coming straight from the farm and knowing the people who grow your food. Today, society makes you think that if you go to Whole Foods you will get responsibly sourced products, but where do these products really come from? How many planes, trucks were they traveling in? For how long? They call themselves sustainable, but are they? Let’s be conscious about the decisions we take, and be more engaged.
How do we get messages across to people?
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really care about what’s going on in their plate. They just want to see a pretty dish. The most important part is to try to make them understand what the solutions are to making the world a better place. We need to make these people understand how much love Chefs put into their food and that there is a whole story behind each ingredient. You can’t see the difference between a vegetable that comes from the supermarket and the farmers market, but you can surely taste it.
Learn more: follow @the.modestos on instagram