5 Courses with Charles Draghi of Erbaluce
by Louisa Kasdon
| July 09, 2012
Crossing the street from Park Square’s bustle into Erbaluce (69 Church Street, Boston, 617.426.6969) is a little like walking through the train station on your way to Hogwarts. Hidden in plain view, the tiny, quite perfect restaurant is a little bit Left Bank, a little bit Italian villa, and a lot of chef-owner Charles Draghi. A classically trained professional’s professional, he’s at his stove every night; he is the savory chef and the pastry chef. (Note his recent star turn on the Food Network’s Sweet Genius.) Fittingly for someone who works a stone’s throw from the Theater District, Draghi also writes plays, speaks with Shakespearean eloquence, and befriends artists and actors. And boy, does he love his music.
Are you a musician? I play the harmonica. We grew up listening to Mario Lanza in a classic Italian household. . . . There was a lot of cha-cha-cha and big-band music in our house. But I am a big jazz fan — Lee Morgan, the trumpet player with the Jazz Messengers, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. When I was a kid, a neighbor had me listen to Coltrane with my eyes closed. I could see things — shapes, colors. It forever changed the way I thought about music.
How does music impact your cooking? I think of my cooking as blue-note cooking. When I cook, I think about Coltrane. The music is running into my food. What would Lee Morgan do with this? How would John Coltrane cook this fish? You know what blue note is, right? Bebop? No? Well, it’s amazingly technical music that came out of the big-band era. The greats of jazz — Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker — hated the word jazz; they thought it was a denigrating term that sounded like promiscuous sex and came out of a whorehouse. They were adamant about calling their music American classical music. Parker would break up each chord into five or seven notes, and then break up the time signature faster and faster into smaller notes — quarter notes, eighth notes, 16th notes, 32nd notes — a flurry of intense staccato notes. Too challenging for the casual listeners, but musicians loved it. Along came blue-note jazz. Simple, old-school, the blues played with a swing eighth note tucked in. A little bit of a minor key, dangling, visceral, primitive, and played with amazing technical brilliance.
So, what’s blue-note cooking? My cooking is about starting with artistry and classical training — French, North African, Italian — the technical ability to do anything complex with food, and knowing how to pare it back, how to shed technique, how to take food to its purest primal essence.
How does that theory translate on the menu? My food is simple: fish and greens, meat and potatoes, beans. But the people who eat at Erbaluce find it complex. Take, for example, a fish like a flounder. Classical French technique is to take the fillet off the bone, spiral it into a rosette, and top it with a perfect beurre blanc sauce. That’s what I was trained to do. But as a blue-note chef, I know that if I take the fish off the bone, I’ll be leaving the core essence of the fish behind, the flavor of the sea. So I cook it whole. When I cook, I think, “Let’s play the blues; let’s play old-school country.” The reaction from our guests is amazing.
Is cooking an art or a craft? I’m in the middle generation of chefs. I was trained by chefs who considered each dish a work of art, each sauce their identifiable signature. The next generation after me is all about the craft of cooking — back to the farmhouse, the old-school charcuterie, nose to tail. You can’t tell which chef made the food, but it tastes really good. I’m somewhere in the middle, in between art and craft.
Louisa Kasdon can be reached at email@example.com.