Jeff Michaud Went To Sicily For Inspiration. He Found Candy Sweet Sea Urchin.
Philadelphia chef on his Italian work-holiday
Chefs love to travel — for inspiration, to experience the cuisines of other cultures or just to get away from the heat of their own kitchens. When they return, we hit them with some questions — where'd they stay, what'd they do and WHAT DID THEY EAT?! Jeff Michaud is the Executive Chef and co-owner of Osteria Restaurant in Philadelphia — part of the happy Vetri family of restaurants. He just returned from Sicily, where he stayed in the shadows of Mount Etna and cooked with the finest tomatoes, swordfish and sea urchin.
Where did you just get back from?
I just got back from visiting my mother-in law in Bergamo and I also spent a week in Sicily on the eastern coast. My wife and I took a group there for seven days. We went to Taormina, Catania, Ragusa, Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Giardini Naxus, Trappitello and the Eolian Islands. Basically we toured the whole east coast of Sicily.
Business or pleasure?
It was a little of both. We had a little vacation in Bergamo and then Sicily was for business. Every year my wife and I take people to Italy and we usually go to the north, but this year we went to Sicily. We rented a villa in Trappitello, which is very close to all the other cities I mentioned above. We were about an eight-minute ride to some beautiful beaches with crystal clear blue color. We held two hands-on cooking classes at the villa, where we bought fresh fish from the fish market and prepared two Sicilian menus. There was a great cheese shop that made fresh mozzarella and ricotta everyday. You had to get there by 12 or it was all sold out and when you bought it, it was still warm. The rest of the trip was enjoyed by day trips and dining all around the east coast in small family-owned restaurants and some Michelin-starred ones as well.
What was the highlight?
The highlight for me was probably the yacht we chartered to go to the Eolian Islands. It was a beautiful 42-foot boat with drinks and food. We had the boat all day and went to three of the islands: Lipari, Vulcano and Panerea. The boat stopped at Panerea, where we anchored and jumped off for a swim. Then we went to Lipari for lunch, which was incredible.
The lowlight of the trip for me was Etna. We had set up a visit to a great winery called Graci. When we got to the town we couldn't find it so we started asking everyone. The town was not that big and I couldn't believe that no one knew where it was. They either didn't want to tell us or didn't want to be bothered. We never found it. We had to start drinking at the corner bar!
What airline(s) did you fly and how was it?
We flew British Airways – I love that airline. We had plenty of legroom and the airline attendants were all very accommodating.
Where'd you stay and what's your mini-review of the place?
We rented a 10-person villa in Trappitello cale Donna Franca. It was wonderful. The villa came with a staff to clean up daily. You could see Mt. Etna from the backyard. We were surrounded by grapefruit trees.
What was your best meal on the trip?
I'd have to say the best meal we had was at Locanda del Don Serafino. It has one Michelin star. It used to be an old slaughterhouse that was built into the side of a small hill. The place was beautiful; the type of place you can really only find in Europe.
Did you bring anything back?
I was re-inspired in Sicily with the quality of their fish and vegetables. I've been to a lot of markets but none that can compare to the quality of products I saw in Sicily. Tomatoes that blew up in your face with tomato power! Tuna and swordfish so pristine you wanted to rip off a piece and eat it there. Sea urchin so sweet it was like eating candy. I hope the Sicilians appreciate their product as much as I did. I wish we could have the abundance and quality of product that they grow and fish for but we just don't. I'll have to settle for what we get here in the States (which is still pretty fucking awesome).
Also see: Nils Noren's Scandinavian Semi-Holiday