Sono stato in TV! Ho vinto!!!

Trip Start Jan 12, 2010
Trip End May 07, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's my 5th week of school at UC Center Rome and somehow I ended up on a nationally televised Italian cooking show competition and winning! So how did all of this happen in the first place?  As I look back on this experience, I still really don’t know how it all happened.  I literally heard about the opportunity, and a few days later, I was on set cooking on an Italian TV show.  This would have been outrageous for me even if I was back home in the States, let alone in a completely foreign country.

If you were to meet me for the first time, one of the first things you will learn about me is that I am very passionate about food and above all, I love to cook.  Cooking is not a chore, not a way to save money or simply a means of providing the body with sustenance for survival.  For me, cooking is a magnificent art form that allows people to connect to each other on a more intimate level, possesses the power to strengthen bonds between friends and family, and most importantly, it is one of the most important cultural elements of a society (I am learning about Italy though its food). 

Food and cooking is not just about taste, as it is also necessary to ignite all of the human senses in this experience called eating.  Food has the ability to stimulate all of our five senses, and of course, inspire people in all sorts of ways.  Imagine yourself at home, reading a book around dusk.  You hear from the kitchen a delightful sizzle as the duck breast sears on the skillet.  Next, the wonderful aromas are breathed in; stimulating a cascade of complex, molecular reactions in your brain, which in turn makes you feel hungry.  Time seems to slow down as you wait patiently for the dinner of pan-seared duck breast with a Clementine-cherry reduction, garlic-roasted potatoes and haricot verts.  Eventually, dinner is served and your eyes light up as the plate of delectable food beckons you with the colors and presentation.  And lastly, as you begin to eat, the varying textures, tastes and senses all unite to create an indescribably pleasing experience.  This is the power of food.

This past Wednesday, I was speaking the professor and director of the UC Center Rome program during her office hours.  She knew that I loved to cook, and presented to me a question that made my heart skip a beat, "Do you want to be on a cooking show?"  Back in the States, I was of course an avid fan of the Food Network, which has all sorts of cooking competition shows.  Although the thought of being on Food Network has crossed my mind in the past, it was only wishful thinking.  So before I could think rationally about this decision, I said, “Yes!”  My professor immediately began making phone calls to the necessary people, and by the end of the day I was speaking with the producers of the show on the phone.  That phone call was definitely a great experience, as it was my first time making a business call in Italian.  The conversation classes I have been attending have improved my Italian significantly, and therefore I was able to communicate with the producers pretty well. 

The key ingredient in this cooking competition was broccoli romanesco, a beautifully intricate vegetable in the Brassica family that is more related to the cauliflower.  I was told that my recipe had to be TV presentable and appealing enough to be able to aired on TV.  Even though I was an avid fan of the Food Network, this thought had never really crossed my mind before.  The cooking process and of course the final product has to be visually and aesthetically pleasing to the audience; this was nationally televised TV after all.  It was a concern for me, and I hoped that my recipe would make the cut.  The next day (Thursday), I created a recipe after my Italian class.  I wanted to create my own version of a broccoli dish that was popular back in the USA, so creamy broccoli soup immediately came to mind.  However, I was never a big fan of the soup back in the States, because it was too dense and heavy on the palate.

For my recipe, I decided to first roast the broccoli in order to bring out the nuttiness and give it a richer flavor.  In addition, I added lemon juice in order to soften the density of the cream.  I was concerned with the visual elements of the soup, as the cream and cooking process removes all of the beautiful green color from the broccoli.  In order to bring the green back in the picture, I decided to create a salsa verde with spinach and honey.  Blanched spinach (cooked very quickly in hot water and then placed in ice water) has a brilliant green color, which I wanted to use to garish my soup.  I added some honey because I thought that the sweetness would combine perfectly with the cream and lemon.  In order to bring it all together for presentation, I placed the soup at the bottom of the bowl and next placed the spinach sauce in the center.  With a skewer, I created decorative swirl designs.  On the side, I served crostini made with extra-virgin olive oil, Parmigiano cheese, parsley, salt and pepper.

I emailed this recipe to the producers, and they called me back shortly after to tell me that they loved the recipe!  I was very pleased to hear that.  The next day (Friday), I met with them in a kitchen and I did a trial run of the recipe.  This was actually the first time I made broccoli soup, and I never cooked Romanesco broccoli before in my life (I told the producers otherwise).  Back at school in Berkeley, I enjoyed inviting friends over for dinner parties.  I would always end up cooking something completely new to me, and I started to notice a trend.  Whenever I would cook for others, I enjoyed the thrill and excitement of serving something new both to me and my guests.  As I look back on the recipe I created, I guess I wanted to create something innovative in order to give appeal to an otherwise plain-looking soup.  Even though I lacked previous experience with this soup and vegetable, I did have a good understanding of the characteristics of the vegetable, so I was confident that it would work for my recipe.  One of the most important things I learned that day was how to cook on TV.  For example, when I transferred the roasted broccoli from the baking pan, I had make sure the pan was turned away from me, so that the audience and camera could see what I was doing.  The trial run went well, and I had one day to relax before showtime.

So on Saturday, I went on a school-run excursion to the city-on-a-rock, Orvieto, located in the beautiful region of Umbria.  Orvieto was built on a large rock that elevated it from the rest of the surrounding area, which made it a good location for a city centuries ago. The rock was made from ancient pressed volcanic ashes, which was pliable and possessed many favorable characteristics.  The ancient Etruscans lived in an elaborate system of underground caves, where they made olive oil, raised livestock and pigeons for meat, and lived during the harsh winter and summer months.  We got to see a small part of the underground with a guided tour, which was extremely fascinating.  In addition, we had a guided tour of the breath-taking Duomo (cathedral), which was built in the 14th century and towers above the entire city.  It boggles my mind how people could conceive of such intricate and magnificent structures in medieval times.  We also had a great full-course pranzo (lunch) which made me so full that I didn’t need to eat the rest of the day.  I probably shouldn’t have had seconds of everything either!  There were a few occasions when I thought about the cooking show that was happening the next day; I felt like I was going to die thinking about it!  Otherwise, I had a wonderful time.

On Sunday morning, it was showtime.  I was picked up at 8AM and driven to Ostia, a beach front port city about 20km away from Rome.  The cooking show was filmed right on the boardwalk, where there were tons of people.  It rained the entire week, but luckily it cleared up on Sunday.  It was a very beautiful day – the combination of clear blue skies, the beating sun and waves made me feel like I was back home in San Diego for the day.  It was a spectacular day.  As soon as I got there, I was filled in on how the show was going to happen.  My professor and several of my friends from the UC Center Rome program made it out to support me.  They got to sit right behind me and were chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” throughout the entire show, which was very cool.

The name of the show is “Cuochi Senza Frontiere,” literally “Cooks Without Borders” and the concept of the show is always to have a foreigner cook against a local Italian.  The show travels all throughout Italy to film these shows and this time, they were in Rome.  Naturally, the theme of this show was an American vs. Italian.  Therefore, my opponent was an older local Italian gentleman, a Roman who cooked a popular dish in the region called zuppa di arzilla e broccoli (fish soup with broccoli).  On the other hand, I cooked zuppa americana con broccoli e i crostini (American broccoli soup with croutons).  It was quite a crazy experience cooking on TV in a foreign country, speaking Italian, interacting with the host of the show and dealing with the chaos that comes with filming a show.  One thing that really helped was that I had a very nice and pretty assistant helping me cook as well!

I was so flustered throughout the show that I didn’t even taste my soup before I served it.  As the dish was being presented to the judge, I remembered that I forgot to taste the soup!  However, it was too late by then.  I immediately took a quick taste of the soup and hoped for the best.  Although I wasn’t thrilled, I had no choice.  Around that time, I also learned that there was a prize if I won.  I wasn’t even aware that there was a prize in the first place! 

The judge was a grandmother that was chosen from traditional dancers of Lazio, the region that Rome is located in.  The dancers were there as part of the festivities of the show and it was a lot of fun to have them around.  After the judge tasted the two dishes, we went on commercial break.  During that time, I saw the staff put a huge gift basket under my opponents cooking table.  My opponent was standing off to the side, speaking with a group of people on the beach.  This made it seem like I had lost, but it didn’t matter to me because I had a great time regardless.

After they came back from the commercial break, the host was interviewing the judge.  They were standing quite a distance from me, faced away from me, and our microphones were not connected.  Therefore, I could not hear anything that was being discussed and wasn’t really paying attention as a result.  The next thing I knew, the host announced my name and everyone turned toward me.  I was in utter shock as realized that I had won the competition.  I did not think it was possible, especially since I forgot to taste the soup!  I was ecstatic!  It was a great feeling as I gave all my friends high-fives.  Afterward, the Italians that were sitting on my side of the stands came up to me and congratulated me.  The judge even came up to me afterward as well, which was really kind of her.  My producers were so happy to see me win; they were awesome and helped me feel comfortable during the whole process.  The following Tuesday, the show came to my school and filmed me studying and interacting with my friends, which they will use to create a mini biography of me.  My friends got a kick out of it because they got to be on TV for a little bit!

In the end, I won a weekend vacation to anywhere in Italy, which I will use in March during my second spring break to go to Sicily.  I have been looking forward to Sicily for quite a long time, and I know it will definitely be an amazing experience.  This prize was especially surprising because I didn’t even know about it until towards the end of the show.  I asked my producers about it afterwards, and they were like, “Oops, we forgot to tell you!”  Overall, this was an amazing, crazy and unforgettable experience that I will remember for the rest of my life!
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Ida on

I cannot believe you didn't TASTE the soup..... Anthony, Anthony... you should have spent more time in the kitchen with me!

acam on

Haha, please forgive me Ida! I wouldn't mind a few lessons or two in the kitchen with you!

John B on

Dude that sounds soo cool. I didn't know you liked to cook that much. Congrats on the victory and glad you are having fun in Italy.

Billy on

Acam, you're so awesome. Come back and cook for us again! I'll totally pay :P

Sophia on

too cool! :D makes me wish i was right there watching you cinch the win! congratulazioni! :D

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