The Italians have a basic cooking philosophy — buy the best ingredients possible and let them shine. It all sounds so simple, but it's not, particularly in the hands of young chefs who can't resist showing off. This point explains why there are not nearly enough extraordinary restaurants that feature authentic regional Italian cuisines. So I was overjoyed during a recent visit to New Orleans, where I came across 29-year-old chef Joshua Smith at a Mano.
I ordered several menu items, all of them showing the restraint and finesse of a much older chef. Consider, for example, the Coniglio Della Casa — slow-cooked rabbit with oil-cured olives. The leg of rabbit was presented simply and without adornment. No smoke and mirrors, I thought, as the rabbit fell away from the bone with modest prodding from a fork. The flavor was robust, without being gamey. Which brings us to another point about Italian cooking: Because products are being presented so simply, a chef has to know how to properly season them. Smith, a chef/partner, knows how to bring out the flavor in his dishes.
Though he doesn't have an Italian bone in his body, Smith spent considerable time traveling throughout Italy. He's an apostle of the Slow Food and farm-to-table movements. His cooking isn't about getting attention; it's about the pleasures of the table, the joys of eating.
Nevertheless, he has been rewarded for his restraint. Last year, Smith was a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, and he's caught the attention of the national media.
“Until recently, the Italian restaurants in New Orleans were the kind that served red sauce by the truckload. Now, with the opening of the terrific a Mano, the city's Italian food scene is a lot more interesting,” wrote Food & Wine magazine. Restraint and dignity do have their rewards.