I’m going to be honest with you: for the first several minutes of my interview at Osteria del Chianti, I thought that the co-owner, Maurizio, was maybe just a teensy bit off his rocker.
“You should talk to Maurizio about this,” he said casually, to which I nodded politely while trying not to make visible question marks with my eyebrows.
“Maurizio’s away on business today,” said Maurizio, who was sitting in front of me, “but he’ll be back soon.”
The kicker was when Maurizo, who is considerably more slender than I would be if I worked full time in an Italian restaurant that produces big blogs of creamy, light mozzarella, added, “Ah ! Maurizio, he’s a very big man. Really a very big man.”
“Um,” I asked, clearly making good use of my I’m A Professional voice, “Maurizio, is there…another Maurizio?”
And it turns out there is (thankfully, because I’m in the business of cookbook writing, not psychiatry). Maurizio #1 founded Osteria del Chianti 17 years ago ; Maurizio #2, my interviewee, was on safari in Kenya when a friend recommended that he eat at Osteria. The Maurizios met, and the rest, it seems, is history.
The head chef at Osteria is a young Kenyan man named Jefwa, whom I was introduced to as he rapidly rolled out big, thin-crust pizzas and slid them expertly into the restaurant’s woodburning oven. He grew up on the Kenyan coast, near the town of Malindi. Many of Osteria’s chefs hail from the coast, which makes sense when you know that that part of Kenya is known as a sort of magnet for Italian vacationers. All white foreigners on the coast are presumed to be Italian; excellent pizzerias, where extraordinarily tan Italians can be seen sipping imported limoncello, are sprinkled regularly along the coastline; and most Kenyans there know far more Italian than college kids get in four years of college language courses.
Jefwa had to drop out of secondary school when he was unable to pay school fees, a tragically common fate for Kenyan adolescents. He started working in one of the coast’s Italian restaurants, a job which came to a sudden stop because of a traffic accident that left him short one thumb. After a long recovery, he came to Nairobi in search of work and was enthusiastically snatched up by Maurizio #1. Now, he muses sadly on the political unrest on the coast: “It’s a very bad time to be there,” he says, referring to the series of inter-tribal attacks that have plagued the region for the past year. “Right now, it is better to be in Nairobi. But somebody I will be going back there.”
I feel that any restaurant in the States that gets any of its ingredients from a farm that is organic and/or located somewhere in the state and/or can successfully use the word hydroponic in a sentence will put that farm’s name all over their menu. It makes sense to do so, because consumers attach monetary and emotional value to locally and ethically sourced food. I am thrilled to see that consumers value eating things grown by farmers who are working in tandem with the earth instead of ruling over it; who think about their work within the context of their communities; and who take soil, animal, and employee welfare into account when making business choices. I hope that I will always be willing and able to pay more for a tomato, sausage, or block of cheese produced by locally and ethically run farms.
All of that philosophy is why I was surprised when Maurizio casually mentioned, with no fanfare at all, that all of Osteria’s produce and milk comes from their own farm. They are soon to start raising their own animals for meat, but in the meantime they get meat from a pesticide-free operation in Nanyuki, on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.
“But you don’t say it on the menu!” I said incredulously.
Maurizio’s response? That they don’t mention it because of course things should be done that way. Of course cows should have access to clean, safe food and water. Of course farmers should have a consistent, fair buyer for their goods. Of course restaurants should accept responsibility for the way that their inputs are produced. And he’s not trying to charge people more for it. Osteria’s just doing things the way it believes it should.
Want to support Osteria? Then you should really come to Nairobi and order 12 of their mozzarellas. If you can’t do that, consider donating to our Kickstarter at http://goo.gl/fuJd2j. Osteria will be proudly featured, along with recipes for the aforementioned mozzarella, beautiful pizza dough, and pesto to smear on it.