OTTUMWA — When Chef Nicola Michieletto says he spent a little time in seminary, it’s easy to believe. His work in the kitchen and as an instructor is a vocation, a true calling.
A career as a priest never happened — Michieletto is quick to emphasize he wasn’t in seminary long at all. The Italian equivalent of a U.S. high school is oriented around careers, and he found himself looking at nursing and cooking as paths open to him. He chose cooking, then spent years working with medical professionals finding ways to blend good food and good health.
Eventually, Michieletto joined Cast Alimenti, the Italian School of Culinary Arts, where he shares his experiences and philosophy with students. Located in Brescia, in northern Italy, the school aims to teach cooking as a profession. It compares the effort and dedication required to become a master chef to the requirements for attorneys or doctors. Excellence, in short, requires hard work.
On Tuesday, Michieletto spent the morning with students at Indian Hills. Food, he said through an interpreter, needs to be fulfilling. Not just in the sense that you eat to survive, but as nourishment for the whole person.
“First and foremost, it’s your well-being,” he said. “What you put on the plate is going to travel through your person.”
Why visit Indian Hills, though? The visit is part of a tour of American culinary schools, said Lisa Miotello Cochran, the school’s sales and marketing director for North America. Sharing ideas and experience is a core concept for instructors and students.
While many Americans see Italian food as a single approach to cooking, it varies tremendously by region. The ingredients and how they are used differ, even at the most basic levels. Soil, air, temperature. Different regions produce different results.
“Olives. Every region of Italy has different olives. The olives taste differently,” Cochran said. “We are aware of diversity as a treasure for our country.”
The differences are magnified when you cross international boundaries. Everyone has something to teach, something to learn, Cochran said. It’s a view Michieletto shared. The United States pioneers different approaches to restaurants, while the best equipment often comes from Germany. Trends frequently begin in France.
“But there’s no compromising the ingredient,” Michieletto said, and that’s where Italy excels.
Tuesday’s demonstration was comparatively simple: gnocchi and ragù. It’s traditional, something every Italian is familiar with. But even simple meals benefit from better technique and understanding of the ingredients. Cochran said they are a good opportunity to show the difference between simply following a recipe and cooking with passion.
The demonstration led to a meal shared by the visitors and students. That, said Cochran, is very Italian. Meals are a touchstone for families, with multiple generations gathering regularly to renew their bonds. The food and the stories told over it go together, helping reaffirm the sense of shared history.
“Meals for us is not just feeding our bodies,” she said.
And cooking is more than just making something edible. It’s about serving the person, body and soul. “When I’m in the kitchen, I can appreciate these realities,” Michieletto said. “I need to make people aware of these things and where ingredients come from.”
Even if that means spending a cold Iowa morning teaching a simple recipe, if that’s where his vocation takes him.