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Time to fly

With three different menus based upon three different time frames his goal is to make quality food, which goes way beyond the usual level of airport fare. Food and Travel went to Fiumicino armed with passport and notepad to find out if the project is set to fly.

One can say a lot about airport food and the food generally served on airplanes – but probably not that the quality is sky high. At airports, you are mostly exposed to grills, all kinds of kebabs and fast food in any shade, and in general you should consider yourself lucky if you manage to find a sandwich, which you can label with the word “quality”.

But that’s how it is, we know that. For airports are not, and have never been, gourmet destinations, but merely a kind of trampoline, which throws us in the direction of new experiences and adventures, including our gastronomic dreams.

The chapter about airline food is often more depressing. I must admit that I don’t know what is served on Business and First Class, but the heated everything-on-one-tray-food, which is typically served on long-haul flights, usually – when it is at its best – just manages to avoid failing grades.

I was therefore quite curious when I received an invitation to try out 3 Michelin star Heinz Beck’s new restaurant, Attimi (Moments) at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, Terminal 3 (for international flights). Yes, I was actually so curious that only one week later I found myself on my way to Fiumicino Airport complete with passport, note pad and fairly high expectations.

A gastronomic octopus
Those who are familiar with Rome’s culinary scene – especially the more sophisticated part of it – will know that when you are invited to a tasting by Beck, it is by no means utopia to have high expectations. For many years, this talented German chef, who radiates charisma has belonged to the absolute top echelon of Italian fine dining. Over time, he has developed into a gastronomic octopus with a wide range of gastro-activities. His gastronomic flower in the buttonhole is still the Pergola restaurant at Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which has held three Michelin stars for many years and is generally regarded as one of the Italy’s Top Five best restaurants.

Apart from la Pergola, Beck also has a wide range of other culinary activities, not only in Italy where he has restaurants in Pescara and Castello di Fighine (Tuscany), but also abroad, e.g. Gusto in Algarve, Social by Heinz Beck and Taste of Italy, both in Dubai, Sensi by Heinz Beck in Tokyo, and soon he will also open in Monte Carlo. In other words, we’re talking about a top chef who could easily add the title of businessman to his list of achievements just like some of his colleagues, such as Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, to mention just two.

For several years Beck has been the primus motor in the annual Roman event, Taste of Rome, where he – together with a number of other top Roman chefs – prepares gourmet treats at low prices during three days in mid-September.

It’s quite clear that Beck’s long-standing flirtation with Italy has evolved into a love story. His previously strong German accent has softened considerably over the years, when he speaks Italian. The German precision has transformed into bright smiles and quick remarks, and when he talks to the press, he is relaxed, laid back and at home.

But how is it actually possible to combine high-quality servings with airport stress, I asked Beck.

“Only through the right organization”, he said promptly. “Our project here at Attimi rotates around the concept of ‘time’. We have made menus of 30, 45 and 60 minutes’ duration. On all tables there is an hourglass, so that our guests can easily keep track of time and departures. The 30-minute menu is of course shorter and faster than the other two. But all three menus are bound to a time concept. However, if our guests prefer something else, they can of course also choose from our larger à la carte menu.”

That day in Fiumicino, I was presented with a five-course menu with different parts coming from the three time-menus. I started with a seafood salad with Borlotti beans, green celery and Sorrento lemons and continued with cous cous decorated with pepperoni and crayfish followed by one of Beck’s signature dishes – ravioli stuffed with burrata cheese, light pesto and toasted pine nuts, which is so delicious that the dish has to be eaten with a spoon. I must say that all these dishes have undoubtedly the two classic Beck characteristics: an intense taste and lightness.

With apron and sweat on the brow
Beck clearly feels comfortable in the spotlight. He was all smiles and seemed to be in a good mood, so I allowed myself to ask a slightly light-hearted question, enquiring if he, with his many widespread gastronomic activities, was indeed able to find time to cook for busy airport visitors? “Oh yes, for sure. Here, at Attimi, I’ve not limited myself simply to hand out recipes to my younger chefs. I’ll show up once or twice a week, and maybe even three times, and you’ll see me with an apron behind the pots and with sweat on my forehead”, he said laughing.

We reached the fourth dish, consisting of finely chopped lamb with caramelized edges, pieces of fennel and small pearls of goat cheese, after which the taste party ended with a delicious cheese cake.

Throughout the whole meal there were so many flavours, and even after five courses that were not sparse, I rose from the table with a surprising sense of ease.

“That’s what it’s all about … ease, lightness and digestion, because the traveller simply cannot get on the plane with a sense of heaviness. I travel a lot myself, and like all other air passengers I really appreciate having a sense of ease”, he said.

I asked Beck if he had had no second thoughts before accepting a project where time sets the limits for the enjoyment of a meal.

“No, not at all. I had previously contacted AdR. [The company that manages Rome’s airports, ed.] to hear about the possibility of entering one of Rome’s airports. But at the time there was no space. So, when they contacted me later, I had already made some plans. I primarily considered the time aspect as a challenge. But bear in mind, that time also plays an important role in regular restaurants. The guests cannot sit and wait too long between the dishes”.

Pergola’s little brother?
As already mentioned, in Rome Beck is renowned for la Pergola. And after he had finished cooking that day, he had to rush back to La Pergola and Rome, since to prepare dinner for Donald Trump, and members of the Italian government.

But is Attimi in Fiumicino a kind of mini-version of La Pergola, a kind of Pergola’s little brother?

“I would say that Attimi is less fine dining, and that’s only natural, because we are in an airport. It is a more casual format but still with great focus on quality … and quality only. We do not get anything ready-made from the outside, nothing frozen just to be thrown into the oven. Everything is made from scratch”, said Beck.

And you fully believe him when you take a look at the kitchen, where a small army of a dozen or so black-and-white attired young chefs rush back and forth in a kitchen that measures something like seven by seven metres.

The kitchen is swarming with chefs, the airport is swarming with travellers and from Attimi’s tables you have a free view over the airport’s runways where planes are getting ready to take-off. It’s all a matter of … moments.

On the cover of the Attimi’s menu you will find a reference to moments as a psychological-literary concept – a quote by the famous Italian author Cesare Pavese: “It is not the days we remember, it is the fleeting moments”.

And the gastronomic moments that Beck creates at Attmi are worth remembering. Light and bubbly and tasteful.

Just a shame that my trip, after our lunch, only went back to Rome instead of to Caracas or Rio or Cairo or …

WORDS AND IMAGES BY JESPER STORGAARD JENSEN

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