Roman chef Heinz Beck is preparing me a private lunch of his signature fagotelli, a clever little play on carbonara that effortlessly takes shape before my eyes like a Bob Ross painting. He pulls a zabaione-like mixture of egg yolks, pecorino cheese and pepper from the nearby refrigerator and places it on the stainless steel counter in the kitchen at the Waldorf Astoria New York, where the chef is visiting on an exchange program. An assistant appears and begins to roll out sheets of fresh pasta dough. I feel like Kate Hudson or the guy who invented Draw Something. As in, really, really rich.
German-born Beck, of three-Michelin star La Pergola in Rome’s Cavalieri Hotel, takes the chilled mixture and forms pillowy pockets with the dough, which are then tossed into a pan and cooked with zucchini, pancetta, butter and white wine. The egg-cheese custard liquefies under heat and, ladies and gentlemen, pasta will never be the same for me.
I pause the interview for the three minutes it takes me to eat the dozen on my plate. I catch myself doing the food dance (that slight bobbing motion one makes when experiencing a culinary triumph). I pull it together, staying professional of course, and resume the interview, where Beck tells me about his nearly two decades cooking in Rome with a very non-Roman-sounding last name.
Is La Pergola the best restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria group?
You cannot ask me this! You would have to ask somebody else, but it is the only three-star Michelin one. I didn’t give myself three stars, it was other people who are very reliable.
You have three Michelin stars, though, and there are very few of those restaurants in Italy.
Yeah, only seven of them.
Are you on the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best too?
Do you feel that you should be included?
I don’t think about “to be” or “not to be.”
How often are you in the kitchen in La Pergola?
You have to phrase that differently – how often am I not in the kitchen at La Pergola. It is very, very [rare] that I am not in the kitchen. In the first 15 years, I never missed a day. In the last two years, I have missed two or three days a year. I have been cooking every service. This is the very first time that I have missed more than one day – normally, the maximum I would miss is one day, two times a year.
So you’ll be back by this weekend?
Yes, I fly back tomorrow morning and head directly to the kitchen.
Do you feel pressure to maintain three stars?
I am not in the kitchen because I have to be. I am in the kitchen because I want to be. For me, working in the kitchen is my soul and my life, and I love it. I’m not there because people expect to see me, I am there because I want to be.
Why do you love it so much?
For me, the day begins when I start to cook because I love to cook.
So you love being in the kitchen, working the line, talking to the guests?
No, no. I just work on the line. I work and I cook – this is what I love most.
You have been at this restaurant since moving to Rome in 1994?
Yes, 18 years.
That’s a tremendous amount of time at one restaurant. Particularly nowadays, when chefs leave as soon as they get a new opportunity. Do you love Rome?
I love Rome. I love my restaurant and the people that work there.
You just cooked for the marathon runners in Chicago. What did you make?
I was only making pasta. We made four pasta dishes: the fresh fagotelli and the three De Cecco pastas – tortellini topped with shrimp and eggplant puree with breadcrumbs that my mother’s in-law showed me how to do. You fry them in a pan with a little bit of olives, add anchovies and let them melt and cook tomato, white wine and capers. The breadcrumbs on top have a fantastic Mediterranean taste. We made a spaghetti with De Cecco number 12.
De Cecco is what you use when you are doing a dry product?
Yes, in Italy as well. I have used only De Cecco for 11 years. Note: To our knowledge, Beck is not on the De Cecco payroll. This is simply his brand of choice.
You use dry pasta in the restaurant?
And it’s OK with the Italians?
Of course. It depends how you do it. When I came to Italy, I thought that perhaps dry pasta in a three-star Michelin restaurant would not work, but to the contrary. You have to have it, because Italians are expecting you to have it.
Was it hard with your name and background to break into Italian kitchens?
It was very quick. I started the experience in 1994 – we got our first star in 1997, second one in 2000 and our third one in 2006. It was quite quick.
Do you still surprise people when you come out of the kitchen into the dining room?
No. My restaurant is 75% Italian customers and they all know me. I have a television program, as well, every Wednesday at noon on Rai.
Is it on cable or public?
Public. It’s the first public channel. There is Rai 1, Rai 2, Rai 3. I am on Rai 1.
What do you talk about?
It’s a competition show about a chef cooking against people who are cooking with the same ingredients as the chef. I am the judge. People send recipes and a group of people choose. They send the ingredients to me a few days ahead and I choose a secret ingredient. I come to the studio with the ingredients and there are two tables – one for the chef and one for the other person, say a housewife. They have 15 minutes to do the dish.
Only in Italy would this work. Housewives in America can’t cook like Italian housewives. This is a fact.
It has the highest ratings everyday.
How would you describe Roman pizza compared to a pizza from Naples?
The one from Naples is the one with a high bottom. The pizza from Rome is the very flat, thin one.
Do you have a preference of the two?
I do not have a preference: my only preference is that it must be well done.
Where do you go in Rome?
I used to go to Da Felice often. I have not gone lately because the chef has changed but it is still good.
What other cuisines are you interested in?
I am into health. I have spent 10 years working on it because I think we are what we eat. I only eat at my restaurant and that is why I look so good! I am cooking very healthily and I have been promoting it for years: healthy cooking can taste fabulous and give a lot of emotions. A lot of people think that the healthy kitchen is not tasty, but that’s not right. You can produce very high quality food healthily. I did research six or seven years ago about oscillation of insulin after dinner, which is very important for diabetics. Three years ago, I wrote a book about blood pressure and alimentation. The last book that I did was recipes and tips for little kids. It is about kids’ obesity.
Is that a big problem in Italy?
It’s rising up now. Part of the project about health is about social responsibility – the projects are non-profit. For example, the blood pressure book was distributed in pharmacies and given free of charge to people who asked for a blood pressure product. It is not paid for by the government: it is outer-financed. I am responsible for the printing. It’s not asking for money from people without money who have problems. I give the knowledge away to try and make them feel better. The new book for the kids will be distributed to Italian pediatrics and they will give the book to parents of children with obesity.
You’ve thought more about your life’s work than your cooking, it seems.
Yeah, I am always in my kitchen cooking. If I find that I prefer to do things like this. I am a lucky person and have gotten a lot from life. It’s nice to give back.
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