To the Italians, gesturing comes naturally. Some Italians joke that gesturing may even begin before birth.
The chefs of Italian cuisine, however, do not take that as a joke. They indeed do believe that gesturing begins before birth.
They also think this gesturing is related to their food.
Italian food is so tasty that you will not be able to express its taste with mere words. You have to use gestures. There is a saying in Sardinia that the child in the mother's womb also learns to use gestures because of the food the mother eats, as I was told by a chef of Italian cuisine.
He made two gestures while saying so - the familiar one of bringing his fingers together and raising them up to his mouth and kissing them and an unfamiliar one of corkscrewing his index finger into the cheek.
"What does that mean?" I inquired about the second one.
"It means 'Delizioso'. It's a gesture parents use to encourage children to eat. I have three kids and this is a gesture that I often use when they don't want to eat. You know, sometimes they don't want to eat," the chef explained.
It is hard to believe that his children do not want to eat. He is the Chef de partie of Italian cuisine at Toronto Sheraton.
But he is not an Italian, he is a Bangladeshi.
Farhadur Rahman is one of the best friends of my elder brother. Both of them went to the US in the mid-90s and have been living there ever since. He was a student of Applied Physics at Dhaka University (DU) but physics was never his passion. I call him Joy bhaiya.
In awe of a versatile cuisine
Even as a student during his undergraduate years in Dhaka, he used to work in the kitchen of Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka, not just because of money but more for his love for food.
This was in the early and mid-90s. Working in the kitchen was very much frowned upon among Dhaka's middle class, especially for an undergraduate student of DU.
"Yes, it's true. I was even resisted by my greater family members but my parents always supported me," he candidly confessed.
He added, "It was a great experience though, inside the kitchen of Sonargaon. There were not many eateries in Dhaka during that time. Sonargaon was way above the rest as it was the only five star hotel in the city beside Dhaka Sheraton. It was from there I learned that I belonged in the kitchen."
The chef said that he always wanted to work with Italian cuisine. His passion for Italian cuisine has something to do with the movie "The Godfather".
"There was one scene in part one of the trilogy. After Vito Corlioni was brought back from the hospital in fear of sabotage from the rival group, the security in his villa was enhanced. Amidst that, the guards were cooking pasta. It was like a festival. They were talking about garlic, sauce and so on. It struck me. I was fascinated with the Italian people's passion for food and later with Italian food," he elaborated.
To Joy bhaiya, the best part of Italian cuisine is its variations. Every single region of Italy has its own recipe and the subtle differences in the ingredients and cooking style make for an ocean of difference in taste.
He learned about Italian cuisine in New York from some very good and passionate chefs when he used to work there. Joy bhaiya also worked in Atlantic City during the summer to learn more about Italian cuisine.
"I pride myself on having a profound understanding of what Italian food is and what makes it authentic. I know the difference between carciofi alla giudia - twice-fried artichokes - in the style of the Roman ghetto, and carciofi alla romana - braised artichokes with garlic and mint - in the style of Rome," he said, adding, "I know that acqua cotta - one of the classics of Tuscan cooking - comes in at least three radically different versions depending on what part of Tuscany you are in. I know that even if an Italian would never sprinkle grated Parmigiano over his shellfish pasta, he would happily eat crostini with melted mozzarella and anchovies."
These are the bits of knowledge Joy bhaiya gained from working with different chefs of Italian cuisine.
Tradition and innovation in Italian cookery
Joy bhaiya invited me to his house at Victoria Park in Toronto for a "home cooked" Italian dinner.
"I will make you Chicken Parmesan and pasta. It's not a pure Italian dish; it's an Italian-American one. I have seen many authentic Italian Chef cringe when Americans do strange things to their classic Italian food. Dishes like Chicken Parmesan or Spaghetti and meatballs are never appreciated by authentic Italian chefs," he told me.
The thing is, he said, much as Italian food was changed by its introduction into North America and recently, because of immigration and a global market, Italian immigrants who came to America 100 years ago were influenced by the new ingredients and the lack of availability of ingredients that were common back home.
"Besides, there are innovations, even from chefs like me. Italian food uses a lot of wine. As a Muslim, I can't use wine and in a city like Toronto. You'll have lots of Muslim customers who are ready to spend money for good Italian food without the alcohol content. I have to make food for them without compromising the taste."
One thing, however, stays the same for most Italian dishes - you have to cook it with fresh ingredients and serve it right away, Joy bhaiya said.
So, when I went to his house for dinner, he greeted me with flour in his hand. "I am making pasta from scratch. Pasta, to be good, must be freshly made by hand," he said.
He also made some garlic bread and Bruschetta for me. He told me to have those as appetizers.
I started dinner with the oven-fresh garlic bread. It came with a freshly made tomato-basil dip. I have tasted garlic bread at many places but nothing came close to what Joy bhaiya served that evening. The fluffy yet crispy bread with the right amount of garlic flavor created a bonanza in my mouth. It was only enhanced by the rich and slightly spicy tomato dip.
"I love fresh basil," Joy bhaiya said, showing me a tub of fresh basil plant. "Its flavor makes you feel like you are in a garden."
The Bruschetta was as good as the garlic bread. The taste of feta cheese along with minced beef and sun dried tomato slices balanced the toasted bread perfectly. He told me that Bruschetta is a popular dish in Sicily and Sardinia, the two islands which have strong influences of Greek cuisine.
After he finished making the pasta, Joy bhaiya started preparing chicken. Among all the chicken cuts, breast is the easiest one to cook. It also takes the least amount of time.
He seasoned the chicken breast piece on both sides with salt and pepper, dredged each breast in flour and tapped off the excess, dipped in egg and let excess drip off then dredged both sides in bread crumbs.
Then he poured olive oil on the pan and said, "Olive oil...Itlaians would love to write poetry about it. If you want me to name three essential ingredients of Italian cuisine, I would say olive oil, tomato and basil."
He cooked the chicken breasts in olive oil for about two minutes per side until it turned golden brown. He then transferred the chicken pieces to a baking sheet and topped each breast with some tomato sauce, a few slices of mozzarella, sprinkled with salt and pepper and a tablespoon of parmesan.
The chicken breast was baked in the oven until it was cooked through and the cheese melted. This took about five to seven minutes.
While serving, he put the chicken breast over a freshly served plate of pasta. He garnished it with basil and parsley leaves as well some fresh salad.
"Enjoy," he said.
And I did, immensely! It was a happy exploration - chicken cutlets, breaded and fried, smothered with tomato sauce, covered with mozzarella and parmesan cheese and baked until the cheese became bubbly and melted into the chicken's every nook and cranny. It is one of those dishes that can please anyone.
"Do you like it," he asked me? In response, I could only nod.
"Let me make you a cup of coffee then," he said.
He brought out one of his prized possessions, a vintage coffee maker. He also brought out a wooden box. Inside of it were espresso shots - at least of 20 types.
"You have to have good coffee after an Italian dinner," he said.
I chose one; it was called "Fortisio Lungo". I did not know what it was but I was pretty sure that it was going to be another joy ride for my taste buds. It indeed was.