Walter Potenza

Italy’s President Napolitano nominating Chef Walter as Ambassador of Italian Cuisine to the world in 1999, Rome’s Campidoglio.

Buongiorno amici:

If I were to write a biography, it would probably be titled “Standing on my feet” about the years standing in kitchens as a professional chef. Arriving in Rhode Island in the early-seventies constituted a sense of cultural food shock for me as a young Italian. In those days, Italian cuisine was at an elementary stage, and I did not recognize most of the dishes served in restaurants and homes.

It took me very little time to understand that it was another style of Italian cooking, created by the immigrants, reshaped with American ingredients adapted to local palates profiles. I noticed immediately that sugar was a predominant ingredient in the food preparation and the size of the plates was overabundant. Serving large portions was the immigrant’s answer to financial freedom in response to the poverty encountered in many areas of the Italian peninsula.

I promised mamma Elda I would stay about a year, but quickly fell in love with the American dream, the tall buildings, and the noisy metros but not so much with its lifestyle. I noticed we ate too much, drank immeasurably without food, and consumed sweets at the end of dinners. In Italy, eating a cake was a celebratory expression of a birthday, confirmation, graduation, and more, but found interesting the consumption of carbohydrates as a final step to a healthy dinner. Early on began a line cook job in Block Island in a fast-paced restaurant, broiling lobsters, frying scallops, fish and chips, and squadrons of squid. I can still smell the scent of cheap frying oil on my clothes. My hands filled with burnt blisters were a daily reminder of the uphill self-induced labor camp.

It seemed like everyone else around me lacked social adaptation, almost like if you cannot fit in anywhere else just get in a kitchen.

It was not what I enjoyed but continued in the process, convinced that I would get out and follow another career. I had attended an engineering school back in Italy, and cooking was certainly not one of my interests. To be honest, I was no good at school either; somehow, I was not receptive to academic rules. I always wrongly thought I was smarter than the professors. That assumption gave me plenty of hours standing in corridors ejected from class, staring at windows uninterested in the reflection.

Few semesters at a local college in Rhode Island maybe would open other possibilities for me, but for strange reasons could never make the transition. I have always been interested in history and geography, but incorporating them in my daily work was a struggle, considering that I could never really enjoy the technical aspect of the culinary profession and the fast pace routine it required.

Cooking to me was an expression of cultures, just like art, literature, and music, but for some reason, I could not find the artistic value in my world.

After several jobs as a chef in leading restaurants, I decided to take a chance and opened my first restaurant in East Greenwich. Without conscience borrowed as much as I could from a bank. In retrospect, now seems suicidal. It was 1985, and the level of good food was marginal. Rhode Island had many pockets of immigrants, with many restaurants serving non-authentic cooking to a culture that was somewhat receptive but cautious.

I wanted more, I wanted to be the first Italian chef in the state who crossed those boundaries and offered the true cooking of my land while sharing the regional diversities to my patrons. I remember picking up my bread, vegetables, meats, and 3 times a week traveling to Narragansett to purchase seafood. I was obsessed with accuracy and deeply concerned about my message through food. I had, however one good quality, an incredible self-discipline of concentrating on the business first and foremost. I could not get distracted by anything it seemed.

Businesses were great, and with that came the initial media recognition. Still, for the residents of the town, I was somewhat of an outcast, serving elaborate cuisine with new terminology and pricey execution. Words such as demiglaze, chiffonade, reductions, veloutes, and many more, were just weird adjectives listed on the menu. Greasy meatballs drowned in acidic tomato sauce, mint jelly with lamb chops, apple pie a-la-mode, and grapenut pudding were the ruling foods. All paired with the sidewalk folded at 9 PM. What was I thinking?

I was determined to win them over, eventually betting on the educational aspect of cooking. I remember the first time I offered a béchamel, a classic milk-based cream sauce thickened with flour and butter, white pepper, nutmeg, and cheese blended with a simple egg pasta fettuccine. It was not embraced very well and later found something similar in a supermarket, but heavily processed with chemical stabilizers and color dye. Many nights, I felt dejected and often thought of the famous “why bother.” Continued in my mission and out of frustration, I began offering cooking classes on specific cooking subjects.

Finally, I was able to share my passion for history and geography and incorporating them into my food. Americans wanted to learn, wanted to know more about the food varieties in the world and their cultures. Soon I had found my love and passion and realized that I should expand on the idea.

I began offering Italian Jewish cooking, in honor of my paternal grandmother, and spent an incredible amount of time researching the cuisine of the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, and Italian Renaissance.

I wanted to offer baked wholesome country dishes but could not find the rustic cooking pots here, and so I began searching for American clay in Georgia and Ohio, and eventually manufactured my terracotta cooking pots, called appropriately “Terraware”, which many professional chefs continue to use across the land. To this day, our Terraware remain the only pots made entirely in the USA, using domestic clay.

In the past 20 years, I directed my energy to the development of a cuisine that is both healthy and approachable to everyone, researching foods for diabetes and gluten intolerant. Today, our agency Mediterranean Diet 21, helps corporate entities restyle their food programs for a healthier and productive workforce through food first.

America spends less time at a dinner table and the removal of the “mother” as the center of the family-food mind, we have created a society that relies on packaged and manufactured food with false ingredients and starches laden products.

A return to wholesome, fresh, and minimally worked foods has inspired me to continue helping others eat better. Through my career, I have enjoyed mentoring many young chefs who shared my philosophy and, in their world, continue proposing innovative concepts while maintaining the roots of classical gastronomy. Rhode Island is a much better food-state today, showcasing some of the top chefs in the nation, making our state a proud food destination. Long gone are the days of fried foods, cheap fats, and pedestrian presentations. Still, we can be better.

Today the sustainable movement is mandatory for a chef while utilizing local ingredients and educating the public. People in food have a moral obligation to share knowledge for the well-being of all.

That is what chefs must do! At the end of the day, we are simply artisans who convert ingredients into food with science, technical procedures, and simplicity.

In conclusion let’s just say that it has been a flavorful journey, one that has taken me to the pinnacle of the culinary world, from Beijing to Dubai and all the nations in between. From cooking for Elvis to Holy Father Francis and every imaginable personalities in between. From local television to national and international competitions and appearances. It allowed me to be recognized and praised by a myriad of publications and entities. You probably wonder why I am writing this right? The reason is an obvious one. In this great land of ours, even a skinny 18-year-old soccer aficionado from a beach town in Italy without speaking a single word of English could make it happen. In this great country of ours, all you need is a chance and the identical opportunities are available for everyone else. And to do this; all of us have to stand on our feet long hours and add those three valuable ingredients on every plate; passion, pride and discipline .

It goes behind fatigue.. trust me. Chef Walter

Thanks for reading. Eat safe and wear a mask! Ciao Chef W

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