Chef Alexander Feldman feels a heavy responsibility to measure up to the expectations of his mentors, to honor the culinary traditions of the food he loves. That responsibility is encapsulated for him in an exchange with a Bolognese butcher that took place just as Feldman was preparing to return to the United States in 2006, after a happy apprenticeship at one of Italy's top restaurants.
"Bologna's food scene is a tightly knit community," Feldman says. "If you work in a restaurant, you get to know people who own or work in the local markets." Cooking at Al Cambio under the acclaimed Massimo Poggi, Feldman developed friendships with a number of local merchants. As his time with Poggi was coming to an end, one of Alex's new friends—one who supplied the restaurant with meats—gave him a report card of sorts.
"He told me, 'Alex, you are different than a lot of young chefs who come to study in Bologna because you have not just worked at cooking but have lived among us and learned our way of life. Remember, we have taken you in and shared our traditions. ... Now don't take them home to America and mess them up!'
"Anyone can learn a recipe," Feldman continues. "I'm not just a chef. I'm a cultural representative of Italy."
Feldman looks out the window of his restaurant and down Great Barrington's Railroad Street, a charming one-way dotted with restaurants, markets and shops. The street climbs gently northwest from Main Street, then sweeps 90 degrees to the northeast; Fiori sits at the apex, the most commanding position on the street.
Fiori is more than Great Barrington's hip new restaurant. It represents a homecoming for Alex and his brother Matthew, also a successful restaurateur and Alex's partner in Fiori. The two brothers share a passion for creating "an authentic Italian dining experience," the sort of casual fine dining that both have been working at for more than a decade.
The Feldman boys grew up in Newton, just outside Boston, but spent long summers in the Great Barrington area when their father, Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Ronald Feldman (now conductor of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, in residence at Williams College) followed the BSO to its summer home at Tanglewood.
The two brothers took two different approaches to their respective culinary educations. While Matthew, who is Fiori's manager and sommelier, earned a degree in culinary arts and business management from Rhode Island's Johnson and Wales University, Alex, who is Fiori's executive chef, is a "high school and college dropout."
Where Matthew excelled in school, Alex was already excelling in the kitchen as a teenager, first at the backstage concessions at Tanglewood, in "the prized job": baking muffins and scones for world-class musicians and their entourages. At just 15, he went to work at La Bruschetta in West Stockbridge, where Chef Steve Taub introduced him to traditional Italian cooking. From there, he passed up high school and college for the best restaurant gigs he could land, going to work for the famed Boston chef Chris Schlesinger at the East Coast Grill and later for Jimmy Burke at the highly regarded Tuscan Grill in Waltham.
Feldman headed to Italy in 2001 to work for Fabio Picchi, one of Italy's most celebrated chefs, at Cibreo in Florence. In 2003 he moved to New York City, where he worked under Chef Mario Batali at Babbo. After a few years, he returned to the Boston area to work with Josh Ziskin in opening La Morra, a restaurant known for its Piemontese cuisine. In 2006, he returned to Italy to work in Bologna with Poggi, a master of "new" Italian cuisine.
Before opening Fiori, the Feldmans had worked together, first at Tuscan Grill and most recently at Alba in Boulder, Colo. From those positive experiences, during which they learned that they made a strong team—"He's the wine expert who knows a great deal about food and I'm the food expert who knows a great deal about wine," Alex says—emerged the plans for Fiori.
"Matthew and I have always worked together," says Alex. "Rather than it being two styles, two approaches to the food, it's always been one. We come from the same philosophical perspective, the same core philosophy."
Alex knows how fortunate he is to have come into the profession when he did, with the restaurant business booming both financially and artistically. For American chefs, adherence to certain conventions, many of them tied to French cooking, began to give way in the 1990s, ushering in an era of culinary innovation.
In the wake of nouvelle cuisine, a new American cuisine emerged, "drawing," Felman says, "from the local bounty." More and more, American chefs adopted a perspective that informed the fare of many European chefs: let the dishes develop from the available (read: fresh and local) ingredients. Boston, in particular, saw a food revolution as a new crop of chefs came of age.
"The Boston culinary scene was a small group of chefs who all knew and liked each other, went out drinking together, inspired each other," Feldman says. The group included Lydia Shire and Jasper White as well as Feldman's mentors, Chris Schlesinger and Jimmy Burke. What was taking place in Boston was happening around the country and the Feldman brothers were part of it.
Still, it was his experience in Italy, where he worked for two distinctly different but equally masterful chefs, that really challenged Alex's thinking about fine cooking.
Fabio Picchi is a classicist, presenting classical Florentine cuisine at Cibreo in Florence. To dine there is to eat "the way [Florentines] did 200 to one thousand years ago;" that means "zero pasta," says Feldman. Though pasta has become a staple in Italy in the last hundred and fifty years, Picchi's cuisine reaches further back. Feldman points to a particular dish that Picchi keeps alive at Cibreo: "Calamari In Zimino. It means 'calamari cooked with cumin.' You don't usually think of cumin as an ingredient in Italian cuisine, but in the days before Christopher Columbus, before the arrival of peppers and other New World foods like tomato, eggplant and corn, chefs used cumin."
By the time he got to Bologna, Feldman says he was committed to doing things Picchi's way. "I was pretty traditional," he says.
Massimo Poggi offered him another way to approach the food he loved. "Poggi uses modern culinary techniques and innovation to create the 'new' Italian cuisine. He would say to me, 'Alex, who is stopping you from doing this [with a particular dish]? Just don't forget where it comes from.'"
The menu at Fiori reflects the range and depth of Feldman's studies in Italy. Featuring wood-grilled meats and fish, hand-rolled pastas, house-made breads, cheeses, cookies and gelato, it expresses the Feldmans' sense of casual fine dining.
"It's all about making simple food taste great," says Alex. He points to the risotto, which he makes to order, one dish at a time. Most chefs—"99.9 percent," he estimates—cook risotto partially ahead of time and reheat it before serving. Feldman believes the extra effort makes a huge difference in taste and consistency.
As he speaks of his food, Alex exhibits a passion for its history. When he explains, for example, what makes a Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese (made here with nettle pasta and local beef and pork) different from what most Americans know as lasagna, he focuses on the geography of Italy and the history of Bologna more than on a comparison of techniques and ingredients. Traditionally, the dish drew "from the local bounty," he says—a local bounty that was at the heart of the region's culinary tradition.
Tradition can be a shackle for an artist, or a source of inspiration. For Alex and Matthew Feldman, respect for and adherence to the traditions from which the cuisine was born permits, perhaps even encourages, innovation.
"Our menu reflects both the impulse to preserve tradition and the impulse to innovate," says Alex. "The philosophy is, be true to Italy. If a chef in Italy wouldn't do it, I won't do it."