Franco Lania is so busy he makes my head spin. This New York chef is almost always on the way to somewhere, and pinning him down long enough for an interview is a challenge. He believes “food is the passport that brings people together, especially those from different cultures”.
Troubled teen turned chef
This New Jersey boy didn’t set out to be a chef. As a troubled teen he says he didn’t know what to do with his life after he left high school. His dad took him “kicking and screaming to Kings Supermarket in Short Hills, New Jersey for a job”. It didn’t take long for Franco to admit he was enjoying his training and he discovered flavors and tastes that he never in his wildest dreams knew existed. Franco then went to Le Cordon Bleu in London where he graduated with the Grand Diplôme, and then attended the Master Course at the Italian Culinary Arts Institute in Costigliole d’Asti, Italy. Eventually he returned to New York City where on the fine, autumn morning of September 11, 2001 Franco arrived early to start a new job at the World Trade Center. He escaped the terrible terrorist attack that demolished the Twin Towers, but his job disappeared and life took a downward spiral. Franco could not even begin to think how he could turn it around, which left him subsisting on Pringles and orange soda.
But turn it around he did, starting in Miami and cooking his way across the US and Europe, and as a chef on ocean cruises. While his feet are (mostly) on the ground back in New York now, he spends over a third of the year travelling – he loves Scandinavia – and cooking and sharing his experiences with an audience which includes many thousands on Facebook and Twitter. Unlike other celebrities, he chats and fully engages with his social media fans.
Franco’s Q&A with Taste for Travel
Can you tell me more about your interest in Scandinavian food?
My interest in Scandinavian cuisine began during my marriage to a woman from Finland. As a chef, I slowly became drawn into the food after travelling there for many years. The Baltic Sea, the long winters, the vast wooded areas, simplicity of flavors define Scandinavian cuisine, all of which I found fascinating.
What is the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
A blood sausage in Finland. I tried my best to be a good sport for the experience of it all, but just couldn’t get it down.
What is the magic that travellers are attracted to in Scandinavia?
Travelling is about movement, stretching out of your comfort zone, seeing more clearly, and hearing more precisely. And, of course, travelling introduces one to new foods and flavors. It is a buzz that heightens all senses: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes and one’s mind absorbs the experience like a sponge. That’s always a good thing! I truly believe the travellers, including myself, are out for the adventure and invigorating feel of the magic of it all! Scandinavia is a part of Europe that is not as popular as the Mediterranean countries. Scandinavia has a tremendous amount of natural beauty that the people there cherish. Simplicity and purity is what underline the architecture, furniture designs and even the food. For those of us who live in a more complicated world, it is very hard to see or even understand simplicity. This understanding is where the magic lies.
What are the best flavors that you particularly enjoy working with?
It is almost impossible to pinpoint a “best flavors list”. Fresh, seasonal foods combined with undertones of citrus and certain spices are basic to my style of cooking. If I had to choose, my favorites are the flavors of autumn. I love the fall and derive a great deal of inspiration from that season. My personal list would include flavors like: forest mushrooms, pumpkins, squashes, pears, white truffles, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, ginger, fresh thyme, oregano, basil, berries, citrus fruits, heirloom tomatoes, parsnips, and honey basically, flavors that create a montage of autumn in a pure and tasteful way.
How much of the year do you spend travelling?
On average I would say 4 months, with some surprise unplanned journeys that usually pop up during the course of a year.
In some ways, I see travelling chefs as hunter gatherers searching for new ways of cooking and new combinations of produce to bring home and share the cultural experiences, and educate palates. Is your audience open to all the influences you offer?
I like your hunter gatherer analogy! I believe that travelling chefs are the epitome of the modern day hunter gatherer. Travel is essential to their very personalized array of flavors and flavor combinations that eventually make up the chef’s artistry. The quest for flavors is the driving force that keeps the hunter gatherers going. A chef in this category derives an insurmountable amount of excitement, pleasure, and knowledge from the constant quest to learn more. This quest usually takes them far from their comfort zone and drives them deep into an almost spiritual journey that is paralleled with the journey for flavorful knowledge. I have been blessed with a very receptive audience. After 20 years, my audience is worldwide. I share all I possibly can on my social media sites, lectures, cooking classes, local TV shows, cruise lines. The fantastic part about my audience is their interaction and feedback. What’s a journey if there’s nobody to share it with? The learning and sharing is a two-way street.
How much do you think that food influences a traveller’s choice of destination?
If speaking from a chef’s perspective, food would greatly influence the choice of destination. For people who are not food oriented, I’m sure it’s something more like climate, sun, fun, and places of interest that would influence their choice of destination.
Do you think men’s preference for the foods of certain cultures differs from women’s?
I absolutely do not feel men’s preference for the foods of a certain culture differs from a women’s. In this case there is no sex differentiation. It’s all about palate and culinary points of interest.
In an age where obesity is a big problem in the Western world, which cuisines have more healthy options for us?
Stick to a Mediterranean diet and you’ll never go wrong!
What do you like to cook for family and friends?
I like to cook comfort foods that evoke pleasant memories, such as lasagna, stews, roasts, pies, etc. Things that can allow me to join the fun too, without compromising on the deliciousness!