Rome Sustainable Food Project
About the RSFP
About the RSFP
The dining table at the Academy isn’t just delicious, it’s an idea that brings us back to our senses and can be a model for educational institutions everywhere. – Alice Waters
The Rome Sustainable Food Project provides the community of the American Academy in Rome with a collaborative dining program that nourishes scholarship and conviviality. Guided by the indomitable spirit of the Roman table, it is our aim to construct a replicable model for sustainable dining in an institution. In 2006, Alice Waters envisioned the Rome Sustainable Food Project as an eco-gastronomic endeavor that would be a logical extension of the Academy’s values. Since its official launch in February 2007, the Rome Sustainable Food Project has transformed the community of the American Academy in Rome with a collaborative dining program that nourishes and supports both work and conviviality.
Creating a Model
Honest, nutritious and delicious food is essential to our daily lives. The RSFP is a working model of educational institutional dining that will continue to grow organically and integrate itself fully into the culture of the AAR. Guided by the indomitable spirit of the Roman table, the Rome Sustainable Food Project aims to construct a replicable model for sustainable dining in an institution. Called to the cortile table of the RSFP, the community of the American Academy in Rome joins a delicious revolution to rethink institutional dining. In the manner of the Humanists, we look to the source of Roman culinary traditions with the fresh perspective of sustainable gastronomy. This renaissance has given rise to a new, authentic cuisine unique to the intellectual context that is the Academy. Our food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of those working in the AAR kitchen, has created an edible narrative in our communal meals. Simple, delicious, and nourishing, our meals consciously nourish this small community of artists and scholars fitting seamlessly into its culture.
The RSFP is a member of Rome’s Slow Food Community, and we are actively committed to seasonal, sustainable, and nutritious food. Our menus draw inspiration from the history of food in Lazio, as well as from the culture of the AAR. Like Slow Food International itself, we take the pursuit of good, clean, and fair food as central to our philosophy. We cook seasonally and sustainably; our menus are inspired by the seasonal and organic produce of our local farmers and the cooking techniques of Rome and Lazio. We are not a restaurant: we prepare our food for the same group of people daily with a keen awareness to nutritional balance, intelligent eating, and conscious consumption.
The AAR Garden
In fall 2008 with guidance from AAR gardeners, the Rome Sustainable Food Project began planting and harvesting the fifteen raised beds in the Mercedes T. and Sid R. Bass Garden at the Academy. Eager to get their hands in the soil, the RSFP devotes a full day a week to garden work. The kitchen has harvested many wonderful salads, greens, herbs and radishes from the orto to serve at the dining table. Young cooks, academy fellows and their families have a real desire to learn about growing food and benefit greatly from hands-on gardening. The RSFP is proud to cook and serve its own ortaggi to the AAR community and further connect academic culture to Roman agriculture.
We trust our farmers and artisan producers: they are the roots of the project. Local, sustainable food makes good sense. The RSFP has cultivated a network of suppliers within the province of Lazio, la campagna romana, and inspired by rus in urbe (country in the city), fosters relationships with urban agriculture within the ancient Roman walls.
The Internship Program
The RSFP internship and visiting cook program is a dynamic and essential component of the project. Young interns and aspiring cooks are immersed in the daily endeavor of preparing food for the AAR community. Interns are folded into the kitchen and larger Academy community upon their arrival in Rome. For three to five months interns live on Academy premises working morning and/or evening shifts in the kitchen and garden five days a week.
The experience is one of unparalleled Italian culinary and language immersion, as interns work side by side with the chefs, as well as the Italian kitchen staff. The intern program beautifully demonstrates the RSFP’s ongoing commitment to the future of sustainable cooking. To apply for an internship or visiting cook position with the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, please submit application materials at least three months prior to your desired start date; these materials include an introductory cover letter, current resume, and two letters of recommendation from employers or teachers.
The Academy Bar
Steeped in history, the bar at the American Academy in Rome is a bustling hub of social activity. In 2009, the bar underwent a complete restoration thanks to a generation donation from Richard L. Grubman, AAR Trustee. Over a morning cappuccino or evening aperitivo, everyone from fellows, residents and visitors to academy staff cluster around the bar and gather at tables to break from work, exchange thoughts, and enjoy the community’s company. Where portraits of former fellows line the walls and the Rome Sustainable Food Project’s baked goods are sold warm each morning, the bar is a point of cultural exchange that is truly essential to Academy culture.
Feeding Our Fellows
The central mission of the project is to nourish and support both work and conviviality at the AAR community table. Brad Kessler, a 2008-09 AAR Fellow in Literature, offers some thoughts on the AAR Sustainable Food Project:
On the Rome Sustainable Food Project
One December an envelope arrived in Vermont from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I thought it was junk and almost tossed it away. I’d been nominated to spend a year in Rome at the American Academy, the letter explained. All I had to do was say yes, and I’d be housed in a gated villa on the highest hill in Rome and fed two fine meals a day and receive payment for the effort. It was a dream—but not my dream. I was content exactly where I was. After decades of moving from place to place, I’d found a home at last where I wanted to spend the remainder of my life—a hillside in western Vermont where we lived with a small herd of goats and wrote novels. Rome was the farthest place from my thoughts. "I was about to tell the generous people at the Arts and Letters, no thanks, when my wife, a photographer, talked enough sense into me. We found house sitters to watch the farm, and nine months later, we were on a plane to Fiumicino.
Life at the Academy offered an embarrassment of riches. We lived fifteen minutes by foot from the Pantheon. Aside from the monuments and museums, the churches, markets, ruins and hillside towns, one place I found constant inspiration was right inside the academy’s own kitchen and garden. There I could get my hands dirty. After a day wandering the Esquiline or the Forum or the Galleria Borghese, I could ground myself in the tactile life of the city and its rich soil, full of broken crockery and tufa and ancient tile. In the kitchen I could partake in the Roman countryside through its products, its artichokes and fava beans and pecorino. I could learn—and taste—its terroir.
Intellectual life unwed to earth can lead at times to aridness. What keeps me partially honest back home is shoveling a barn of goat manure every day. The Rome Sustainable Food Project at the academy offered a similar counterpoint to hours of library learning. Tolstoy believed that everyone (the scholar, lawyer, poet, banker) should spend a few hours each day producing his or her own food. “Bread Labor,” he called it, and the kitchen provided such labor—cracking walnuts, shelling beans, weeding garden beds—for those who wanted. One weekend, we drove with the kitchen staff to hunt for mushrooms. It was October, porcini season, and the forests around Bassano Romano lay littered with chestnuts in their burrs; it felt like walking on a plush carpet with spines. We collected bucketfuls of tender mushrooms—mazza di tamburo, galletti, chiodini—and brought them back with equal amounts of chestnuts. The next day the executive chef, Mona Talbott, prepared the mushrooms with tagliatelle. The chestnuts she roasted, peeled, and simmered in a farro soup.
In Rome I was interested in how, classically, agriculture informed high culture. How the songs of shepherds turned into literary pastorals; how later religious iconography retold the pagan rites of bread and wine, death and rebirth, milk and pastoralism. Rome’s most famous poet was the son of a farmer, and Virgil’s first two books—he wrote three—concerned themselves with pastoralism and husbandry. The Georgics is a kind of instruction manual on breeding sheep and planting a vineyard and harvesting honey, all told in beautiful dactylic hexameter. Today in Rome, one never feels far removed from Latium’s agricultural roots. Shepherds still graze their sheep along the airport road in Ostia. Wild arugula and fennel thrive in the city parks. Capers spill and bloom from the Aurelian walls.
The kitchen at the academy knits together the seemingly disparate worlds of scholarship and eating. Culture and agriculture. Art on the page (canvas or mosaics) and art on the table. In Rome these arts have never been far removed. The kitchen teaches this, not with lectures or books or power-point presentations, but with a more immediate means: food placed into the mouth. The knowledge enters the fellows directly—alimentarily—without the brain getting in the way.
Each meal at the academy was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the Roman Campagna. Month to month, we ingested its animals, fruits, and plants. We learned to live there, as we did back home, inside a landscape. Which is another way of saying we felt, for the time being—momentarily—at home.
—Brad Kessler, FAAR'09