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Seven Local Chefs Join Sweet’s Alina Eisenhauer for Her Crowdfunded Cookbook Project

Alina Eisenhauer from Sweet on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA

Alina Eisenhauer has enlisted seven Worcester and local area chefs to provide exclusive stories and recipes for her Cooking from Memory cookbook, which she is funding herself through Kickstarter. (Crowdfunded means the book’s creation is entirely dependent on the support of the crowd – meaning us – through March 24: For a pledge of $30, you get a full-color hardcover book delivered by the end of the year.)

Peter Eco (Fay Club), Jared Foreman (deadhorse hill), Candy Murphy (Figs and Pigs), Jay Powell (Twisted Fork), Christopher Rovezzi (Rovezzi’s Ristorante), Mark DeNittis, and Tim Russo (Lock 50) have all agreed to share memories of favorite dishes growing up and provide or create recipes with Alina for the book.

“I felt this was a great way to connect our memories of food to what is happening around Worcester,” says Eisenhauer. “There are so many wonderful chefs and restaurants who are connected to and connecting this city today. I wanted to celebrate that and work with a few of them to make this cookbook even more fun and capture more of our city’s food spirit.”

Chris Rovezzis Cooking
Chris Rovezzi, in the kitchen, will share memories for Eisenhauer Cookbook

In fact, Eisenhauer notes, the memory and recipe that inspired the whole book came from a conversation she had with Rovezzi long before she moved to Worcester and opened Sweet.

“He told me chocolate cream pie was his favorite dessert as a kid, because it was the first thing his dad taught him how to cook. But he hadn’t eaten it since then because he was afraid it wouldn’t taste the same. I knew right then I had to make Chris a pie, and that’s the memory that stayed with me and inspired the book.”

What will the other chefs choose? That’s up to them, says Eisenhauer. The most important thing is that the dish connects to a memory of food that is important to them – something they ate growing up or something someone they loved made. The actual recipe in the book might be that recipe from their families, an elevated version of the dish they cook for customers today, or something inspired by the memory that Eisenhauer creates with them. She and her team will also work with the chefs to capture the memories and recipe in words and pictures.

Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA
Chef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MAChef Tim Russo from Lock 50 on Water Street in Worcester, MA (Alex Belisle for Mass Foodies)

“But no matter what,” adds Eisenhauer. “The recipe will be exclusive to Cooking from Memory – something you won’t find anywhere else when the book is published.”

That is IF the book is published. As reported previously by Mass Foodies, Eisenhauer is taking a non-traditional route to produce a cookbook that will rival the content and quality of any book she could have produced with a traditional publisher.

But that work – mostly the printing of 5,000 books – is expensive. Kickstarter allows her to try and raise the money herself by asking her thousands of customers, connections, and friends (many of whom have asked her when she would write a cookbook and how they would “totally buy it”) to simply purchase one in advance to make it happen.

Cooking From Memory, Chef Alina Eisenhauer's new book going on Kickstarter.
Cooking From Memory, Chef Alina Eisenhauer’s new book going on Kickstarter.

“I don’t think many people realize that if there is no funding there will be no book – there will be nothing to buy later!” adds Eisenhauer. “Kickstarter is all or nothing. If we don’t get the funding we ask for, we don’t get ANY of the money we raise to do this. There is no risk to anyone who pledges either. If we fund, they get a book at below the cover price including shipping or one of the other rewards they pledge to buy. If we don’t, they are charged nothing. I promise it will be worth your advance support.”

The Cooking from Memory project ends on Kickstarter on March 24. The book also gives back: for every book sold Eisenhauer will donate at least $1 to her favorite charity: Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.

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Chris Rovezzi Is Constantly on The Edge of Fear To Create Satisfying Tastes

Chef Chris Rovezzi in his kitchen at Rovezzi's

The legendary Marcella Hazan changed the way Americans thought about and cooked Italian food. In 1997, I had the pleasure of meeting her at an event featuring food from her cookbook Marcella Cucina. As she signed my copy, she asked, “How did everything taste?” Her use of the word  “taste” stuck with me that night and again when I read this in the book’s introduction: “Wherever the dishes come from, my only concern is how they taste.” Recently, the line came back to me when Christopher Rovezzi, chef and owner of Rovezzi’s Ristorante in Sturbridge, said something similar to describe what matters most to him.

Turns out, Rovezzi is a fan of Hazan, and he does the legend proud.

Chris Rovezzis CookingHazan had no patience for food with “imagined flavors,” dishes that lacked “identity,” or culinary fusion. She focused on taste and how best to genuinely achieve it. So does Rovezzi: “I read that book’s introduction and thought, ‘Right!’ Nothing else matters if it doesn’t taste great. Service and setting add circumstantial interest to eating but signify nothing when taste is lacking and isn’t authentic. I use local ingredients but I don’t care about farm-to-table food because that’s about marketing not taste. You’ll never see a foam on any of my plates, no molecular gastronomy. I don’t pretend to be a chef at The Four Seasons. My food is my own. Other chefs can do that. I’m what I’m supposed to be.”

Rovezzi calls his food “lusty,” describing its intense warm feeling. And indeed to call it comfort food doesn’t do it justice. The food is recognizable, not because you are eating spaghetti and meatballs but because he says, “No matter what the dish is you taste something familiar. I haven’t changed my food and style since we opened in 2002. I have tried to innovate but only to prevent myself and my customers from getting bored. But if someone doesn’t have that visceral reaction, I’m getting it wrong.”

That is certainly true of the porcini mushroom panzerotti with oxtail ragout, which won him the first Worcester’s Best Chef competition in 2007. Maybe you haven’t seen the shape of the ravioli-like panzerotti or eaten oxtail before but the idea of a mushroom ravioli in a rich meat sauce invites even the least intrepid eaters in. Rovezzi does change the menu seasonally to take advantage of what is available and try new things, explore new dishes, and experiment on whim, just don’t expect him to be heart healthy because that’s not authentic to him. “I don’t hide from it,” Rovezzi says. “My grandmother’s grandmother wasn’t using 2% milk. Marcella Hazan used butter. My menu isn’t healthy. My food is a little fattening. It is what people want to eat. If you come here on a diet, decide it’s going to be a cheat day.” That said, he will respond when the customers ask for things as a rule not a trend. Rovezzi took it as a challenge for years to find flour that would allow him to make really good and gluten-free handmade pastas and focaccia bread (all available with 24-hour advanced notice).

Chris Rovezzi preparing the OxtailThe important thing to Rovezzi is that his pasta is appealing to customers and tastes delicious no matter what. That is true of the instantly familiar dishes like veal saltimbocca, pasta bolognese, and chicken parm, and those that are not, like lasagna filled with winter squashes and maple sausage. The meat next to those caramelized root vegetables and cavatelli? Rabbit. In other words, this is not Rovezzi’s II, a sequel to his father’s beloved Worcester restaurant that closed in 1992.

“My dad never changed his menu. My dad opened with a menu in 1978 and closed with the same menu. We had twelve veal dishes. We were the biggest veal seller in the state of Massachusetts. So when I knew I wanted to open a new Rovezzi’s, I did not want to do it in Worcester. I didn’t want everyone to think it was going to be the same restaurant.” Yet the entire reason he opened up a restaurant was because he is his father’s child. Rovezzi was second in command at The International – a job he loved and “you retire doing.” Unless you are a Rovezzi: “I wasn’t the top guy. I have my father in me, I have to be the last decision-maker. That’s me.”

Erb Photo_Rovezzis_Worcester Scene_010516-0015Christopher first located Rovezzi’s in a former pub that was part of the Sturbridge Country Inn but quickly encountered two problems. The first was you could not see the restaurant from the street, and he wasn’t allowed to have a sign. Rovezzi solved that problem using his gift for communication, building relationships, and confidence in his food: He invited 40-50 business owners from around Sturbridge for a free dinner with booze dinner at which he told them how happy he was to join the community and to please spread the word. A week later, he was turning people away. A year later, he took over the much larger space that houses Rovezzi’s today. The second problem was Rovezzi’s didn’t have the red sauce Italian-American food or a fettuccini alfredo, and when people didn’t see that on the menu, they left. Rovezzi solved that problem by making sure he satisfied those who stayed:

The finish product: Oxtail Ravioli“All I did was give the town food that they hadn’t had before. I used to engage the customers who wanted that food or said, ‘I can get chicken parm at Applebee’s for $11.95 and it comes with a breadstick and a salad.’ Today I just smile and say, ‘That’s a great deal and probably where you should go.’ I used to try and explain the difference between the frozen chicken at Applebee’s and the hand cut and pounded chicken here. That’s a foreign language to people who are looking for a meal for a price. It’s pointless. I focus on pleasing the people who know my restaurant delivers value for the price I charge. I genuinely care about that. I’m going to do anything for them and they are going to sell my restaurant. Luckily, I have a lot of people who get that.”

Those customers and his loyalty to them have pulled Rovezzi through difficulties self-created and not. Before the recession hit in 2008, he had opened two more Rovezzi’s in Worcester and Rutland and they were doing fine but he wasn’t. He was servicing all three and finding it hard to delegate. In that way the recession was a relief: It forced him to close the other two locations and refocus on making sure the customer has a great experience no matter how much they have to spend. “That is why I am still in the game,” Rovezzi says. “I am still here every day. I still cook. I still think this has to work tonight and every night. That would be the name of my book: The Edge. I am constantly on the edge of fear and of shit I can’t control. I live in fear every day that my restaurant won’t stay successful and that fear causes me to pay attention to everything. Make it as good as can be every night for the customers. That’s my happy. I need to provide them with that experience. It just has to be that people are happier than when they came in because there’s a lot of shit that’s going on out there that you want to forget about. I’m not changing the world or performing brain surgery, but I can affect the lives, in a small way, of 600 to 800 people a week.”

Which is why as he moves into the middle of his second decade in business, Rovezzi’s biggest fear is a couple with $100 deciding where to go out to eat and one of them says, “How about Rovezzi’s?” and the other says, “Oh, we’ve been going to Rovezzi’s for years.” Christopher constantly worries about the next sentence. Is it “Yeah and it’s awesome!” or “Yeah, you’re right let’s go somewhere else…”

Erb Photo_Rovezzis_Worcester Scene_010516-0034Rovezzi realizes there are lots of new places to choose from in Worcester and increasingly Sturbridge. Not all of them stand up and continue to deliver great taste but more and more do. He plans on continuing to play his game his way. Rovezzi’s is the legacy now. He has no interest in competing against the “young punks” (a term he uses mostly with affection), which is why he has not entered the Best Chef competition since winning it again in 2012. “So many of the new chefs are great, they really are. And it pisses me off they are so good. Even the ones doing foams – they want to explore, have fun, and try things but they are focused on the taste. I have cooks who come in with resumes that are tasting menus, but I’d rather know someone can cook a chicken perfectly 100 times in a row. I want someone to put the time in to understand the taste before swishing sauce on the plate with a paintbrush.”

So how does he compete? Through his customers. Rovezzi’s sole marketing expense is social media to reach those customers and engage them honestly and transparently.

“I just put myself in the position where I am there for the people dining at Rovezzi’s. I get an intense and physical reaction inside of me watching two people eat my food. When one smiles and says to the other one, ‘Taste this!’ That’s giving other people pleasure. I know that sounds vaguely sexual but that’s the best way to describe that pleasure.”

That’s the power of taste.

Editor’s Note: Christopher Rovezzi was the second chef to participate in the Chef’s Best dinner series. You can read about the experience here and please consider joining us for the next installment of the series.