The culinary world is home to some extraordinary specialists. Consider, for example, Japanese masters who spend a lifetime perfecting the art of soba noodles, in the process elevating a single humble dish to something truly transcendent. Specialists who operate in the most rarified air spend years unlocking subtleties that would otherwise be unappreciated, learning through mindful repetition and sustained, creative concentration.
As impressive as that single-minded devotion is, an exceptional culinary generalist is perhaps even more worthy of our admiration; someone whose technical skills are supported by an exhaustive knowledge of food history, and who understands how culture and cuisine are deeply intertwined. A true authority on how food intersects with art, music, fashion, philosophy and society.
In other words, Amy Riolo.
A true renaissance chef
Riolo is an accomplished chef, a best-selling author, a culinary anthropologist, a TV personality, a food historian, a recognized authority on the Mediterranean Diet and — for good measure — an expert on the art of culinary diplomacy.
It’s all the culmination of a long journey that began decades ago in her family’s kitchen.
“I was always in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother,” Riolo said. “And my father, whenever we’d watch National Geographic, would always be curious about what people around the world were eating. That’s a question that stuck with me. I wanted to understand culture through food, and my father planted that seed in my mind.”
After graduating Cornell, Riolo planned to begin her career first in fashion, and then making and writing about gourmet Italian food. The market, however, had other plans.
“Nobody wanted another Italian chef when I started,” she said. “Everyone encouraged me to first get a strong author platform focusing on lesser known cuisines, then come back and revisit Italy.”
Riolo began traveling extensively, immersing herself in various culinary cultures. She spent significant time in Egypt, soaking up the intricacies of one of the world’s oldest cuisines. After years spent traveling, cooking and studying throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Riolo gained an almost unrivaled perspective of the food cultures existing in these regions — and the culinary cross-pollination that was instrumental in creating today’s national cuisines.
This background was essential when Riolo authored her acclaimed first two books: “Arabian Delights: Recipes and Princely Entertaining Ideas from the Arabian Peninsula,” and “Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture.” Today, along with her written work, Riolo performs demonstrations and gives talks at major universities and institutions (including the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center), regularly appears on major television networks, hosts global culinary tours, workshops and cooking classes and advises governments, chefs and organizations in the art of culinary diplomacy — work that once earned her the sobriquet “The Cook to Kings” from a Cairo newspaper.
So what would “The Cook to Kings” prepare if designing a “desert island menu” for herself?
“Bomboloni alla crema (Italian Cream-filled doughnuts) and a slice of Sicilian cassata (a sponge cake with ricotta cream and homemade marzipan fruit liqueur),” Riolo said, revealing quite the sweet tooth. “I’d also have suppli al telefono (fried risotto croquettes), a lot of antipasti, caffe latte, homemade pasta with fresh artichoke cream, a cheese platter, fresh greens, eggplant parmigiana. These are the types of ‘triumphs of gluttony’ that would console even the most bleakest of spirits!”
A great chef never rests
Because she has traveled so widely and learned so much, you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s difficult for Riolo to find new enthusiasms. Yet you’d be wrong.
“There is so much out there,” Riolo said. “Everything today is about food. Doctors are foodies by night. Fashion designers post photos of every meal they make. Social media has had such a great influence on food.”
Riolo added that she’s also pleased by the fact that modern eating has taken a decidedly healthier turn. “Ten years ago ‘healthy’ was a four letter word,” she said. “Now it’s done a 180. That makes me very happy.”
As a Tastemaker, Riolo wants to use her vast knowledge of gourmet food and food culture to help connect people with some of the most compelling taste experiences on earth. “I see myself as a field guide,” she said. “Things are changing so fast, and consumers don’t have the time to keep up. So it’s great to have one place where you can find (the very best things).”
Though Riolo is incredibly busy teaching classes, writing books, consulting on diplomatic dinners, appearing on TV and running her website, blog and podcasts, she still harbors ambitions. And, as you might imagine, they aren’t small ones. “I want to go everywhere,” she said. “And try everything.”
Recipes from Chef Riolo
Risotto allo Zafferano (Milanese Saffron Risotto)
Adapted from The Italian Diabetes Cookbook by Amy Riolo.
Italy is now the largest producer of rice in Europe. Rice is grown predominately in the regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Veneto. While arborio is the most widely known variety of Italian rice in the U.S., carnaroli and vialone nano are also very popular rice varieties in Italy. The short, stubby grains of Italian rice varieties are ideal for slowly absorbing liquid and maintaining a firm-to-the-bite texture. I prefer the carnaroli gran riserva variety and use it whenever possible.
In order to master making risotto, one must learn how to make it all’onda or “by the wave,” meaning that it will have a creamy, firm, yet fluid consistency that resembles the strong waves of the ocean. Risotto was once enjoyed only in the northern regions of Italy where rice grew. But thanks to the unification of Italy in the 19th century, the increased modes of transportation, as well as the expat community that introduced it to the rest of the world, risotto is now considered a mainstream “Italian” food.
6 to 8 cups chicken stock, heated
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 1/2 cups Azienda Agricola Luigi e Carlo Guidobono Cavalchini Carnaroli gran Riserva
¼ teaspoon saffron
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan. When butter foams, add onion, and cook on low until soft. Stir in carnaroli rice and cook until coated with butter. Add a ladle full of stock and increase the heat to high. Cook until the stock has evaporated.Continue adding stock, cooking, and stirring over medium heat until most of stock is used, and rice has an “al-dente” consistency. Resist the urge to add more than a ladle full of stock at a time. It will be worth the wait.
Roman Risotto Croquettes/Suppli al telefono
Risotto is best served hot, just after making. In Rome and Sicily, leftover risotto is used to make croquettes. Keep in mind as you’re making this recipe that risotto should be cooked until it is al dente, or has a slightly firm texture. It should not appear to have a soupy sauce, or be dry – yet its texture and taste should be slightly creamy and mellow. This is one of my favorite recipes in the world!
Serves: 8 as an appetizer
Ingredients: To make risotto (See recipe above).
¼ cup tomato sauce – La Malva Rosa Sugo al Pecorino Romano DOP
1 (8 ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, cubed
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup plain dried breadcrumbs mixed with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and some pepper
Good quality extra virgin olive oil for frying (Insert Ligurian olive oil here)
Allow risotto to cool completely and set up a breading station with the eggs and breadcrumb mixture. Form risotto croquettes into equal sized balls – they can range from the size of a small to large ice cream scoop (they all need to be the same size for frying). Stuff a cube of mozzarella into the center of each ball. Store in the refrigerator until using. Heat 2- inches of oil in a large shallow frying pan to 325 degrees. Carefully lower one ball into oil and monitor the browning process. If it becomes golden right away, proceed – if not increase heat before continuing. If it becomes too dark too quickly, lower the heat and proceed. Serve hot.
Mussels in Tomato Saffron Broth: Serves: Four
If you’ve never made mussels before, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. This combination of seafood, tomatoes, and spices makes the dish sing!
This recipe is from The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Amy Riolo.
2 tablespoons Saffron-Infused Olive Oil (Olio Aromatizzato allo Zafferano).
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar to release aroma.
2 garlic clove, minced.
1 teaspoon fresh thyme.
1 teaspoon fresh oregano.
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes.
1 teaspoon tomato paste.
2 cups seafood stock.
1 teaspoon Re Sale d’Infersa Fior di Sale all’Arancia, or to taste.
Freshly ground pepper.
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped, for garnish.
1/2 pound fresh mussels, scrubbed and beards removed*
Preparation: Heat the olive oil in another large stockpot over medium heat. Add the fennel, garlic, thyme, and oregano, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, sea salt, and pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered for 20 minutes. Stir, add in mussels, cover, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes until mussels are open completely. Discard any unopened mussels. Taste soup and adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Pour into individual cups or bowls. Sprinkle the tops with fresh parsley.