By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
Somehow, Will Packwood managed to achieve stardom as a classic Italian chef without developing a classic Italian chef’s ego. Food & Wine magazine named him one of the Best New Chefs of 2001, but you’d probably only know that if you saw the shadowbox hanging in his dark hallway. Inside the shadowbox rests the official Food & Wine trophy: a miniature chef’s coat, starched flat.
“They also gave me a knife, and I have it around here somewhere,” he says. “I don’t use it. I’m in love with Wüsthof, and she might get jealous.”
In any case, Ms. Wüsthof’s only true competition comes in what appears to be a plastic bag of Moretti white polenta, but is really a gastronomic shrine. This is the real imported Italian stuff—the basis of the cuisine imprinted on Packwood’s DNA when he was a child. Though he sounds Texan, his mother is Italian and he lived in Italy his first 10 years.
“My mother grew up as one of four children, literally of sharecroppers,” he says. “They went to the garden to eat, killed a pig every year, ate polenta every day. When we moved here in the late ’70s, she didn’t know what to do—there was no polenta in the grocery stores.”
It’s easier to find now, especially for Packwood, who works as a chef and gourmet specialist at Hardie’s Fruit and Vegetable Co. But, as so many travelers to Italy have discovered, imported ingredients don’t always taste the same on American soil.
“People get sort of hysterical about it, but it’s true,” Packwood says. “In Italy, food looks better, tastes better—the vegetables are fresher, the animals are all grassfed, the cheese is fresh or semi-fresh and unpasteurized. Even ketchup made in Milan is different—it just tastes different.”
If you think it’s difficult to acquire this kind of food, try learning to cook it. People in the Veneto region eat simple, unpretentious fare, right? How hard could it be? “I like simple flavor combinations, not too many in one dish,” Packwood says. “But unless you grew up in a culture, I don’t think you can do it the way they do it.”
Even then, you have to put in some serious kitchen time. In between culinary school and his various restaurant jobs, Packwood returned to Italy many times to live—working at restaurants and immersing himself in the culture. Back in Austin, he served as executive chef at Mezzaluna Gateway, Emelia’s and 7. In 2006, he opened Cibo and watched it become a local sensation—receiving uniformly rave reviews.
Purism however, got in his way. Customers sometimes balked at paying $30 for a simple, if perfectly executed, entrée—even when they had no problem shelling out for a tiny portion of molecular gastronomy at someone else’s restaurant. Cibo closed in 2008, and other than a monthly cooking class at his condo complex, Packwood now cooks mostly for himself and his girlfriend, Sarah Odgers, who trained as a chef herself—but leaves the cooking to Packwood. “I can’t do what he does,” she says, and she’s not exaggerating. Working without a menu or even a recipe, Packwood trolls several markets each week.
“There’s an old saying that eighty-five percent of a good dish is shopping,” he says. “If so, why wouldn’t you want to taste those expensive flavors you just bought? I just go to the market and buy real food. Fresh, real food.”
One recent Friday night, he prepared pasta e fasioi, the traditional Venetian pasta-and-bean soup. Then came eggplant with anchovies, mint and heirloom tomatoes; chicken with porcini; and, of course, polenta. Later that evening, Packwood offered his guests homemade biscotti with passito-style dessert wine for dipping. And finally, a real Italian maraschino cherry, which bore no more resemblance to the bright red bartender’s garnish than cornmeal mush does to polenta. Thus, the “simple” Italian meal ended—with a swashbuckling pop. The guests felt like cashing in their 401(k)s and moving to Italy to become kitchen apprentices; but even if they did, they knew they’d never be able to do this at home. Packwood can, so he does—with or without guests—just about every night.
“I walk through that door, set my keys down and start cooking.”
WILL PACKWOOD’S PASTA E FASIOI Venetian Pasta-and-Bean Soup
2 c. borlotti beans (soaked in water 24 to 48 hours)
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling at service)
3 oz. pancetta, diced
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery rib, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
¼ bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves only, minced
1 small sprig rosemary
3 sage leaves
6 c. brodo (mild meat broth, usually chicken and beef,
preferably homemade), plus more if needed
2-in. x 2-in. piece Parmesan rind
Salt and pepper to taste
1 c. dry pasta (small macaroni shape)
Parmesan cheese, grated, for serving
Drain and rinse the soaked beans. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the pancetta and render until golden brown. Add the diced vegetables, garlic and herbs and stir to combine. Allow the vegetables to cook until tender and the onion is translucent. Add the drained beans and stir to combine. Add the brodo and Parmesan rind, stir and allow the soup to come to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the beans until tender—about 90 minutes.
Transfer two-thirds of the cooked beans along with a cup of the cooking liquid to a blender and puree. Transfer the pureed beans back to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Add the pasta and continue cooking until the pasta is fully cooked. Add a small amount of cooking liquid to desired consistency and adjust the seasoning. Ladle the soup into individual bowls and garnish with grated Parmesan, freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.