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A Chef Instructor Teaching and Learning in Italy

Making tortellini with Italian host chef Sandro Capecci!
Making tortellini with Italian host chef Sandro Capecci! Welcome, Chef Instructor James Berman! Tell us about yourself.

James: I am a Pittsburgh, PA émigré who settled in Old New Castle, Delaware for the past sixteen years. I received my formal culinary training through the American Culinary Federation’s Chefs’ apprenticeship program at the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I’m Chef Instructor at Delcastle Technical High School since 2003, and I am the founder and faculty advisor of the Cooks and Bakers competition and service team. As a former Executive Chef for Brandywine River Museum and DuPont Experimental Station, among others, I am also a regular columnist for

I’m an advocate of utilizing fair-trade and locally-sourced products, and my teaching partner, culinary class and I finished at the top of this year’s “The Farmer and the Chef” March of Dimes fundraiser following last year’s third place finish. Since I am an advocate of using seasonal, local goods, we travelled to Italy this past summer to explore the practical kitchen applications of Italian cuisine’s approach to local produce.

TT: Fantastic! Explain your amazing Cooking-Teaching-Traveling adventure.

The view of Ripatransone, Italy from a host's home!
The view of Ripatransone, Italy from a host’s home.

J: This past summer, we travelled to Ripatransone, a little town on the east coast of Italy within eyeshot of the Adriatic coast. We spent two activity-packed weeks exploring our host town as well as the beach community of Grottomare, San Benedetto and Ascoli Piceno. Our focus was the food of the region as well as an in-depth immersion in the culture and bearing witness to “how they do it.”

In no words can the experience be accurately described. Rather, I give you a flood of memories: from seeing three shorelines in one day, to waking up and seeing the coast of Morocco from 30,000 feet, to feeling like an insignificant speck in the DaVinci Airport in Rome, to the three-hour trek through the winding hills to the mountain-top town of Ripatransone, to taking up residency in a century’s-old convent, to purposefully getting lost amongst the brick-lined streets, to sampling hours’ old mozzarella cheese, to preparing dinner at winery overlooking olive tree-lined hills in the Piceno valley… to so many other adventures, too numerous to recount. Pictures offer some insight as to what we experienced, but the memories are even fresher.

TT: Amazing! How did you find this travel opportunity?

J: The “Cooking Without Borders: Team Italia” program began when Jack Polidori, then Delaware State Education Association consultant, hosted an Italian delegation at Delcastle to prepare food for the Vendemmia Festival in October, 2008 on Wilmington’s waterfront.

The successful visit spawned an interest from the students to make the trek to Italy to glean insight into cooking in the United States and to explore the regional cooking of the Marche region.

The logo on the chef suits of James's students.
The logo on the chef coats of James’s students.

In November, 2009, Paolo D’Erasmo, Mayor of Ripatransone and Chef Sandro Capecci, along with delegates from the region, returned to spend time with the Culinary Arts students to create a menu and authentic fare for a reception at the Italian-American Cultural Center in Wilmington.

With a relationship established, including a trade partnership with the City of Wilmington, students were invited to travel to Italy to further explore the food of the country.

TT: Splendid. How did you find the money to fund this travel?

J: Given our culinary venue, we were able to sponsor various events that incorporated service-learning components which put the students at the forefront in their own fundraising.

From catering a wedding, to hosting a wine-tasting (featuring wines from the region to which we were travelling) that included several members of state-level government, to hosting PBS celebrity chef-author Mary Ann Esposito to do a book signing, students were involved with creating opportunities to offset the cost of the trip.

Additionally, many students took to their own means to cover the $2200 cost; a few got together and rented a banquet hall to produce a buffet dinner and auction, and one student even canvassed local businesses for support.

The group exploring the brick-lined streets of Ripatransone in the Les Marche region.
The group exploring the brick-lined streets of Ripatransone in the Les Marche region.

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

J: I think there are three very distinct moments, among the many (!!!) memories that I hold so dearly. The first would have to be immediately after disembarking the airplane and walking down the gangway. Signs were everywhere, but there was nary a word of English.

I turned around and saw a pack of teenagers, my very own students, looking to me for guidance and I was feeling more vulnerable than I ever had thought possible. We were some 4,000 miles from home in a land with a language unknown to any of us. And my fellow teacher and I were in charge. Terrifying!

Figs, watermelon, and mozzarella in San Bendetto.
Figs, watermelon, and mozzarella in San Bendetto.

More peaceful, though, was sitting in the market of San Benedetto under a tented plaza; Large ice-filled tanks surrounded us. Within these tanks, the most indescribably enormous watermelons bobbed and rolled.

The group bellied up to the tables, and large wedges of this crimson-fleshed melon were strewn across the tables bounded by the purchases of the day: fresh-made buffalo milk mozzarella, explosively crusty bread, and fist-sized figs. It was at this moment I actually, I must confess, welled up at the sheer grandeur of the moment.

I was in this peaceful place with the simplest of foods, and our minds (and bellies) were hungry for exactly what we were living. At that very moment, time stood still. I forced myself to stretch every second of that time and record each sensation: the food, the camaraderie, and the living.

Sipping wine at the source at La Caniette Vineyard.
Sipping wine at the source at Le Caniette Vineyard.

Lastly, standing on the edge of the Le Caniette vineyard overlooking the green hills of the Piceno valley: determined, interested students hard at work in the winery’s kitchen working with our host-chef.

I sipped a glass of a delicate white wine and bathed in the glow of the sun setting across the Adriatic as well as my own glow of being humbled by the experience from the previous two weeks. It may sound strange, but I came to grips that places like this were limited and growing even more so. I wrapped my brain around the fact that one day I would like my own children to see through the same eyes, the magnificence of living simply.

I knew that if I ever returned here, this very same place may be different. I may never make it back here. I realized that so many people have never been in such a place, and some take it for granted.

I realized that we are all mortal, and that these trees that surround us are delicate and are mortal, as well. Maybe it was the wine, or the hours and hours of walking under the blistering July sun. But I like to think that I opened my eyes, really opened my eyes, for one of the few times in my life.

TT: Magnificent. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher and as a person?

J: Maybe I can, and maybe I can’t, quantify how Italy shook me as a teacher. But, it certainly changed forever who I am as person. I relish some of the simpler aspects of everyday living. My thoughts tend to run to the positive rather than the slippery slope of negative thinking.

Maybe it wasn’t even the destination, but rather the trip (and surviving in a foreign land!) that made me feel like I had accomplished something. We raised money, planned the trip, got everybody their passports (which was a feat in itself!), landed in Rome and made our way around the Italian countryside for two weeks. I try more and preach for others to do the same: take risks, enjoy little moments, and live!

The walled city of Ripatransone, Italy seen from the amphitheater. The top right was the cooking exchange's residency!
The walled city of Ripatransone, seen from below.

TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?

J: The obvious advice would be to plan, plan, plan. And then get really excited about it! We were honestly bursting with anticipation at making the trip.

Virtually explore the region; get excited about standing in the same spot as a picture you have seen on the internet. In anticipation of the trip, we approached potential sponsors to assist with our mission. And, you know, almost everybody helped us out; we had travel journals, chef coats, and even spending money all provided for us by people that believed in our mission.

A student journaling between cooking lessons.
A student journaling between cooking lessons.

Another good bit that helped us immeasurably was partnering with hosts in our town. We had exchanged emails, pictures and even logistical information. When we got to the town, it was like reuniting with old friends. It was good to have a familiar face to whom we could turn for guidance.

Lastly, share what you have done, are doing, and plan to do! We kept friends and family back home in Delaware engaged in what we were doing with nightly Skype broadcasts as well as student-generated blogging that included pictures of the day’s activities. The blog remains online at this link here for current students to peruse and re-live our adventures.

Surprisingly, the students used their journals! A few days before we left, I asked them to record what they hoped to see or do or whatever. They got in the habit of writing on a nightly basis as we sipped espresso on the patio of Café Spinozza. Students being engaged in recording their thoughts through writing had become a habit!

Also, take a “test” trip. Two years’ prior, we did a leadership piece with 67 students and chaperones in Disney World. We met with the chef from the Canada pavilion at EPCOT to discuss food and get the inside scoop on food, Disney style. While travelling with that many people sounds a bit masochistic, it was a good dry run for going international. My rationale for testing the waters, if you will, was that if something were to go awry, I would rather have it happen in Florida than in a foreign country.

And, by the way, we are going back! We travel back to Ripatransone, Italy in July, 2012.

TT: Fantastic, Chef James! Thanks so much for sharing your story. Readers, chime in!

"Team Italia" before starting dinner prep at Le Caniette. James is "the bald guy in back!"
“Team Italia” before starting dinner prep at Le Caniette. James is “the bald guy in back!”


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