By Sue Wahlert
Chef Paolo Fontana emulates the true mantra of the Italians and cooking, “Pleasure equals eating.” The executive chef of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics Café (SCGP), located on the campus of the State University of Stony Brook, he has created an epicurean delight in the midst of an institution that welcomes brilliant minds from across the world. This isn’t your typical university cafeteria, however. Here you will find the freshest ingredients combined with care to create lunches such as seared lamb loin with Indian spiced chickpea stew or roasted Scottish salmon with ratatouille. Sasha Abanov, deputy director of SCGP said, “This is the best café on campus. It is a great place to take our visitors.”
Aside from the wonderful bounty Fontana and his staff offer during the week, he also hosts the Culinary Master Series, a monthly live cooking demonstration open to the public held in the SCGP Café after hours. This evening event allows individuals who appreciate good food and love to cook to visit with Fontana as he tells stories about his passion and demonstrates techniques he’s learned through years of training and working with other chefs.
On Tuesday, April 7, Fontana held Is It Spring Yet?, the fifth in a series of seasonal cooking demonstrations. Held in the Café, guests are seated facing a large butcher-block table from which they view the Chef creating delicious dishes while being served a glass of sauvignon blanc or merlot wine. With the aid of a large flat-screen monitor and camera documenting the Chef’s work, visitors won’t miss anything he is preparing.
For $35 per person you can attend the SCGP Café’s Culinary Series and be rewarded with Fontana’s themed recipes, a food tasting and the opportunity to interact with the talented Chef. For Is It Spring Yet?, Fontana prepared fresh pasta, hollandaise sauce and panna cotta. Each guest receives a booklet with all the recipes for the evening, and the Chef welcomes questions while he is working.
As the lesson began, Fontana spoke about the “romance of making pasta on the tabletop.” Forming a carefully shaped mound of flour and organic eggs, he gently folded in freshly ground spinach to create beautifully colored pasta. He then demonstrated the kneading process and, after the dough rested, he cut a piece and fed it through a pasta machine attachment to create delicately thin sheets of pasta. He cut the sheets into ribbons of pasta ending the lesson. But there was more! The audience was treated to a dish of paglia e fieno — freshly made pasta with prosciutto, onions and peas coated in a cream sauce.
Like many impassioned chefs, Fontana likes to share stories about how he began his love affair with food. He fondly shared his “first culinary memory,” which was at the age of five when his parents took him to Italy. He recalled being in a wheat field from which stalks of wheat were pulled, soaked in water, rolled in flour and dried to create an original way of making pasta. He praises the use of only the freshest ingredients and the use of locally grown products when available. During the growing season, Fontana and his staff maintain an elaborate garden on the outside patio. It is not uncommon for the Café’s dishes to include homegrown tomatoes, green onions, garlic, lavender and more from their garden.
Two other dishes were demonstrated that evening — hollandaise sauce and, for dessert, panna cotta. “The hollandaise sauce is an emulsion sauce,” Fontana explained as he injected some of his scientific cooking knowledge into the lesson. “It is a great way to show your culinary skills,” he smiled. Made of egg yolks, butter and lemon juice, it is a hand-whisked sauce that takes time and concentration. While whisking he joked, “you’ll know if your hollandaise sauce is going wrong if it gets that ‘driveway after it rains’ look!” After a lot of muscle and perseverance by the Chef. the sauce was served to guests over fresh asparagus. Sounds of delight emanated from audience members as they sampled the dish.
The sweetness arrived last in the form of panna cotta, which means “cooked cream.” Using sheets of gelatin, heavy cream and half and half, this is not a dieter’s delight but instead a gift from the heavens. Served with a cherry sauce, this mound of silky smoothness topped off the wonderfully fun and informative evening.
It is evident that Fontana feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to share his gift with others. He credits Abanov as the person who encouraged the idea for these classes. “I am so lucky to be working around such smart people. I feel lucky to teach them something from my world,” said Fontana.
Recently chosen as the 2015 Edible Long Island’s Local Hero, Fontana shares this honor with manager Maria Reuge, dining room manager Julie Pasquier and his kitchen staff.
The last of the Culinary Master’s Series for this season is May 5 at 6 p.m. and is entitled What Else? It’s Cinco de Mayo, a fiesta of Mexican food. For reservations, call 631-632-2281 or purchase tickets online at https://bpt.me/1451646. The Café is located on the second floor of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at SUNY Stony Brook and is open to the public Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 to 10 a.m. for breakfast and 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch. Check out its website at https://scgp.stonybrook.edu/cafe or like it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scgpcafe.