At the end of last year I was invited to a cooking class at the new Williams-Sonoma Cooking School in San Francisco. Around Christmas, the setting was magical. The windows in the state-of-the-art kitchen were topped with evergreen eyebrows and peered down onto Union Square’s ice rink and into the halls of Macy’s, which were festively decked for the season. But within a few minutes, it was another twinkling star that drew me in---Vladimiro “Vlad” Niza, our chef-instructor for the evening.
Niza is an accomplished chef, consultant and instructor with a history that has placed him in some of the world’s finest restaurants, including the Michelin Star Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, England. But his love of food, I soon learned, was born long ago in a small village in the Algarve region of Portugal, where he spent his youth catching crab and fishing with his brothers and father before he could read and write, then preparing meals and enjoying them around the family table. Fast forward a couple decades and this young boy's enjoyment of food still shimmers in his eyes, and is the epicenter of his life as Vice President of Culinary Programs in charge of creating and running Williams-Sonoma’s international and domestic cooking schools. The year-round courses teach anything from knife skills (I’m in need of this since I almost lost a fingernail) to vegetarian cooking to dinner parties and butchery. Niza is also a registered nutritionist with an MSc in Food & Cooking and MSc in Applied Human Nutrition, and can help create healthy shopping lists and suggestions for your own home pantry.
“We hope that students come to William-Sonoma cooking schools to get inspired, educated and entertained in all aspects of the amazing art of cooking,” he said.
Fair enough. As my evening progressed, after my fish skin crisped like it was supposed to (shocking), after Niza shared more cooking stories from the kitchens of Portugal and England, and after much laughter and picture posing in aprons, I realized I did indeed feel inspired, but for a different reason than Niza had intended. All night I couldn't help but feel I was in the private home with, and sharing the history of, a man who once played and fished with his family in the crystalline waters of a small village in Portugal, then took this genuine and passionate bent for entertaining and culinary art, and fashioned a life out of it.
I find this fervor and commitment to anything to be the ultimate seasoning, for food and for life, and it was just one of the many valuable lessons I took home.
The Foodie 5
1. What is your favorite food memory from childhood?
Hunting and gathering food from land and sea throughout the seasons with my father and brothers. Afterwards we would always sample, cook , and enjoy the food together.
2. You’re moving to a new kitchen in 5 minutes and can only take one gadget along with you. What do you grab and why?
I would grab a spoon! Forever loved by chefs, I consider a spoon the ultimate “kitchen scalpel.” The spoon is so versatile and here are some of my favorite uses:
3. No one’s looking---What is your secret food fetish?
I have many I’m afraid, but I find it incredibly hard to resist homemade pork scratches---a traditional British Pub classic of crispy, salty pork rinds. So delicious!
4. Congratulations, you have carte blanche to dine in any city or country in the world! Where would you go and why?
It has to be San Sebastian, situated in the great Basque Country in the north of Spain, for the people, food and scenery. Geographically, this part of the world could be regarded as the Garden of Eden, with the Biscay Bay, the Pyrenees, and the rich green pastures of the Asturias. The Basque Country also has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world (28 stars for 19 restaurants); and four of the seven Michelin 3-starred restaurants in Spain are found in the Basque Country.
5. Someone is visiting your hometown for the first time. Where do you send him for dinner and what do you recommend he order?
If you come to my hometown in the beautiful Algarve in the south of Portugal I would recommend you go to any small fisherman restaurants with views to the sea and ask for: “Sardinhas Assadas, Salada a Montanheira & Batatinha nova com pele e Vinho Verde para acompanhar”
Translated to: “Grilled Sardines, Grilled peppers, Tomato, Cucumber and Oregano salad & New Season Potato (boiled with skin) and to drink a nice bottle of traditional Portuguese Green wine.”
If you’d like to be a featured foodie, or know someone who would, please contact Kimberley Lovato at www.kimberleylovato.com