Long before the Cordon Bleu and Culinary Institute of America were founded, there were mothers and grandmas who taught their female offspring to cook, binding generations together with culinary traditions. In Piemonte, Italy, this “nonna culture” has cultivated many fine chefs. Elide Cordero, Chef/Co-owner of Ristorante il Centro in Priocca, Italy is a culinary offspring of that culture.
Piemonte, the large province located in northwest Italy, is home to a diverse landscape that yields a cornucopia of agricultural bounty, perfect for instilling in her inhabitants a rich culinary legacy. In the mountains, milk and cheese are the primary products. The region’s sub-alpine hills are home to Alto Piemonte’s vineyards. On the flatlands, fed by the Po River, cattle, rice and crops such as beans and other vegetables flourish. Finally, vineyards and hazelnut groves carpet the undulating landscape of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato. That’s just a bird’s eye view of the region’s agrarian landscape.
It’s in that surrounding Elide’s grandmother and mother nurtured her culinary roots. At her family’s restaurant Il Centro in the Roero town of Priocca, Elide Cordero has blossomed into one of Italy’s leading chefs, although in her shy, modest manner she’d deny that stature. Her well-deserved Michelin star gives the Cordero family’s restaurant global notoriety, but Elide, like her cuisine, has remained humble and true to the region.
Unlike many of her peers who earned degrees at expensive private culinary schools, Elide studied at one of the oldest and most prestigious of all – the family kitchen. Her earliest memories were of a yearning to cook. Under her grandmother and mother’s tutelage in their farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia, 32 miles south of Torino, Elide fell in love with nature’s bounty growing just beyond their kitchen door. The two women she loved and admired most showed her how to coax delectable flavors out of the simplest ingredients. Those experiences set her on a path well-deserved fame.
Youthful Farm Life
The evolution of Elide Cordero’s culinary prowess began on her family’s farm. Growing up in the middle of nature instilled in Elide a solid work ethic and keen appreciation of the seasonality of food and the time needed to produce it. Elide finds the ability to buy strawberries from some distant land in the cold of December unnatural.
Food has a seasonality that should be respected. Gone are the days we pined for our favorite fruit or vegetable to be ready for harvest. Strawberries in spring. Melons in summer. Grapes in autumn. Today, Western societies have settled for “on-demand” food, available anytime of the year. As Elide notes, the demand may be met, but the price paid is quality and health.
On Elide’s parents’ farm, chemicals – a given in today’s industrialized farms – were eschewed. It was unheard of to alter a plant or animal’s development. Nature would take her time. She needed no interference from man’s chemicals. Fertilizer came from cows not a chemical plant miles away.
In the face of commonplace economic hardships, farmers like Elide’s father, Francesco Mollo, possessed a complete understanding of nature’s ways. They knew the origins of everything their families ate and respected nature for providing it. Sadly, industrialization of the food industry has tainted – perhaps forever – the land once so lovingly tended.
The knowledge transfer Elide enjoyed came each day after school when she and her brother Giovanni would tend the farm animals and harvest vegetables and herbs for dinner. She then would help her mother Francesca cook. It was a hard, demanding life, but in her words, “It was a life lived from the heart, so it wasn’t tough.”
Wood, not gas, fired the stoves of Elide’s childhood home. In winters, Elide would accompany her father to collect wood. The wood’s use was dependent upon its characteristics. Slow burn was obviously best for the kitchen. Rovere and Quercia – types of oak trees – are prized for their very slow, even burning characteristics. Elide’s daughter Valentina fondly remembers peering through a hole in the top of the stove while her grandmother added more wood to fire a slow-cooking dish.
From this respect for nature that cocooned her budding culinary skills, Elide learned how to coddle a product, developing its best flavors. It’s the essence of her philosophy in her kitchen at Il Centro. The best products cooked in the correct manner – usually slow – yield the best dishes. That philosophy, engrained in Elide long before she became a chef, drives her creative cuisine that pays homage to the rich Piemontese culinary heritage.
Journey to Il Centro
Elide’s journey to Il Centro began in her early 20s. Her workweek consisted of 8-hour days in a garment factory followed by evenings helping on the farm. Fridays didn’t signal an end to work. Weekends presented another work opportunity when she would travel about 16 miles to work as a server and a barista at a bar in Priocca.
In early 1980s’ Piemonte, restaurant excursions were primarily weekend events. That’s when bars such as the Cordero family’s Il Centro would be transformed into restaurants serving patrons celebrating birthdays, weddings, christenings and first communions. Elide had little interest in serving. Cooking for restaurant patrons was closer to her heart.
The alchemy of cuisine energized Elide and filled her dreams. An encounter with a “coup de feu” when she met Enrico Cordero helped make those dreams come true.
Love at first sight is often viewed as a cliché. Not for Elide and Enrico. Within 6 months of love’s lightening strike, they celebrated their nuptials. Once again, Elide’s culinary education was in the hands of two women, her mother-in-law Rita and Enrico’s grandmother Lidia, each with a love of cooking. A year later, they welcomed their first child Valentina into their lives.
Mornings found Elide in Il Centro, behind the bar, making coffee. Afternoons she moved to the small kitchen for her cooking education. With no formal culinary background, Elide stressed over the dishes she prepared.
Her first task was learning to make pasta. Piemonte is famous for its traditional pasta – agnolotti di plin, small ravioli; and egg-rich tajarin, a tiny version of tagliatelle only 1/12” wide. Making each is time-consuming and challenging, but Elide mastered the techniques. Then came desserts. Although happy to be cooking, she yearned to expand the bar-restaurant’s menu.
A few years after Valentina, her brother Giampiero was born. The little family was complete. Six years after her wedding, Elide realized she needed to venture to other restaurants to absorb knowledge from seasoned chefs to achieve her full potential.
Elide’s first culinary experience beyond Il Centro was a 3-day stage with Georges Cuny, a French chef in Piacenza she discovered through a long-time customer. The short stage yielded a wealth of knowledge that helped her better organize and operate Il Centro’s kitchen. But since she believed “the hand of woman is very different than that of a man,” Elide wanted to continue her education under the guidance of a woman chef. She found that opportunity in the medieval hilltop town of Montemerano, halfway between Florence and Rome.
Chef Valeria Piccini’s restaurant Da Caino is located in an agricultural zone much like that surrounding Elide’s beloved childhood home. Here Elide reveled in learning new techniques under the guidance of the Michelin two-star chef. Having enhanced her culinary repertoire, Elide now had the confidence she needed to take Il Centro to the next level. Chef Piccini urged her to take the plunge. And plunge she did.
Creating an Epicurean Center of Excellence
Enrico Cordero’s chef-father Pierin bought Il Centro in April 1956. For 100 years before and in years since he purchased Il Centro, it had always been a bar first, restaurant second. The restaurant concept didn’t fit Elide’s vision. The pool table and pinball machine certainly weren’t suitable furnishings for a white linen restaurant. The tiny kitchen was woefully inadequate. Changes were needed.
In the late 1980s, the transformation from bar to world class restaurant began. Although the entrance is still a bar where patrons can enjoy a coffee or something a bit stronger, the pool table and pinball machine are gone. In their place is a small, discrete private dining room with soft lighting under the original vaulted brick ceiling, giving guests a feeling of renaissance dining. The elegant, but non-pretentious main dining room is bright and airy with pale yellow walls and stately white molding.
The kitchen more than doubled in size, becoming a stage for Elide and her team’s epicurean performance six days a week.
Elide’s dessert station was once her entire kitchen.
Below, in the belly of the building is a treasury of wines Bacchus would envy.
As it always has been, Il Centro remains a family affair.
Valentina, now a journalist in New York City, spent her childhood with her brother Giampiero working with and learning from their parents. Even now, when she visits from New York, Valentina joins her family in the restaurant.
Giampiero, a graduate in enology of the prestigious Alba enological school, now works in the front of the house with his father Enrico.
Together, they manage the impressive wine cellar and insure Elide’s beautiful cuisine receives the presentation it rightly deserves.
The road from the farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia to the heady atmosphere of Il Centro, where people from around the world flock to enjoy her cuisine, has been a long, but happy one for Elide. Her smile and her delight at creating simple but sumptuous dishes out of Mother Nature’s bounty are key ingredients in Elide Cordero’s cuisine. Her successful journey from farmhouse to world class restaurant kitchen where she cultivates culinary excellence is now complete.