This year marked the fifteen-year anniversary of the Rome Sustainable Food Project (RSFP), a milestone that was celebrated at a Friends of the Academy garden party on June 12. Fellows, Residents, Friends, and other guests gathered in the Bass Garden and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres made by the RSFP kitchen, including bruschetta with ricotta and roasted tomatoes, as well as bellinis made with fresh apricots from the Academy’s fruit trees. Everything looked, and tasted, splendid.
It was not always so. Fellows and visitors prior to 2007 will remember meals that were decidedly more institutional than Roman. As Mellon Humanities Professor Marla Stone (1997 Fellow) recalled, “Fellows bonded over the blandness and repetition of the food—how many times a week could we eat mystery meat and boiled, unidentifiable vegetables? We joked that the beauty of the Academy and Rome was tempered by the truly terrible food.” An ascetic philosophy that good food might distract Fellows from their academic work held sway.
The era of self-abnegation ended thanks to a conversation at a dinner party in New York between then-President Adele Chatfield-Taylor and celebrated chef Alice Waters, who opened the California restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971 and pioneered the slow food movement. Chatfield-Taylor invited Waters to Rome to overhaul the Academy’s kitchen. Waters agreed, “but only if I can find the right person to cook,” she recollected.
That person was Mona Talbot, who had previously worked at Chez Panisse. Talbot, along with sous chef Chris Boswell, built direct relationships with local farmers, fisherpeople, breadmakers, ranchers, and cheesemakers to source the most local, sustainable, and seasonal food. One of the first suppliers, and the most beloved, was the regenerative farmer Giovanni Bernabei, who became a kind of patron saint for RSFP: his portrait still hangs above the kitchen stove. An internship program was also launched.
The change was instant. “When we opened the first day, we probably had a third of the Fellows there,” said Waters. “The second day—everybody.” Fellows not only enjoyed the food, but learned cooking techniques in the kitchen and volunteered to work in the vegetable garden. Contrary to previous belief, the improvement in food helped with the Fellows’ work. And they began to take more meals at the Academy.
RSFP has collaborated with Fellows on projects, too. The event Waste Not, organized by Alexandra Kleeman (2021 Fellow) with the RSFP kitchen, comprised an experimental five-course meal based on the themes of waste and ephemerality. The kitchen prepared a menu entirely using usually discarded ingredients and leftovers, which were accompanied by fragments of an unpublished prose poem by Kleeman stenciled directly on plates with edible powders. In July, the kitchen collaborated with 2022 Fellows Elena Past, William Villalongo, and Mary Jane Dempsey on a special menu incorporating the food of global migrants, a dinner that was tied thematically to a Fellows’ Project Fund screening and discussion about migration in Italy.
This anniversary year, AAR received two major gifts that will support the RSFP internship program for the next four years: the first from the Syde Hurdus Foundation, and the second from Tracey Hummer, given in memory of her late husband, the architect Frederic Schwartz (FAIA, FAAR’85). Thanks to this generous support, RSFP will continue to serve as a unique teaching kitchen for years to come. And, above all, Fellows will continue to benefit from high-quality food, shared together, that nourishes their creativity.
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