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The Culture Behind the Food:

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DOUGHED OVER: Roberta Campani creates edible bows for a wedding cake at La Gemma. Photo by Alex Pompliano

Chef, writer and Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain once said, “Good eating is all about risk; food, for me, has always been an adventure.” Like Mr. Bourdain, I am dedicated to seeking out the best food each city has to offer.

With particular adoration held for rustic foreign dishes, for me, dining out is not just about the excitement of experiencing new tastes. It’s using the food as a way to learn about life elsewhere—traditions that stem from it and the people who cherish it.

Though it’s not hard to find a culturally diverse restaurant in Wilmington, it is rare to find one that has authenticity to back up its cuisine—better yet, one where its chefs and restaurateurs actually hail from the land where their food originated.

This week, I have selected three chefs to spotlight, all of whom immigrated to Wilmington to share a new life filled with old flavors of home. Their delectable and authentic cuisine not only keeps their culinary bloodline pumping, it brings our foodie scene a spirited amalgam of culture.

A creative energy flows through La Gemma (on S. 17th Street) as natural and effortless as breathing. The dedication and hard work that goes into creating the finest Italian pastries from scratch is anything but effortless. Behind the glass display case lay tediously assembled and decorated treats with all the colors of a Van Gogh painting, which appear to require the precision of heart surgeon. There is sfogliatelle, chocolate crossaints, éclairs, tarts, cookies, and several more—but mere words do little disservice to them. Their tastes and visual appeal is more of an experience. They also serve sumptuous baked breads, such as crusty ciabatta, assorted focaccia and crispy thin sheets of carta da musica.

The chef behind it all is Roberta Campani, from the Tuscan town of Fucecchio. Campani makes each intricate recipe from scratch, using only the finest ingredients. After working in the restaurant business in Cape Cod and Key West, Campani moved to Wilmington in 2006. However, her foundation for creation was born of a desire to paint murals and draw architectural sketches. Yet, her real passion for food never lagged far behind.

“I went to art school in Italy, but my backpack was full of cooking magazines,” she said. “Cooking gave me the chance to apply what I learned in school into food and pastry.”

While most contemporary bakeries attempt to push the envelope in modern desserts, Campani strives to preserve Italian culture by focusing on the traditional styles of Italian baking. Campani likes to study the oldest desserts of each region in Italy for inspiration, so that her customers can taste its multitude of flavors. Her efforts make La Gemma an experience of traditional Italian bakeries.

Through the various tarts and bite-sized cream puffs, cakes and cookies, her favorite sweet is a variation on an old Italian favorite: the tiramisu cake.

“I take a chocolate sponge cake and soak it in coffee, cut it in half and then I put in an espresso-flavored custard,” she describes. “I surround it with a chocolate shell and fill it up with mascarpone and mousse.”

Diners will do well to forget about any previous misconceptions of Latin American cuisine that are contrived from ground beef-stuffings and massa-made casings. Sure, both appear in the style of Latin food, but when it comes to the stamp of authenticity, San Juan Café on Wrightsville Avenue has chef Danny Keegan leading the helm. Keegan’s dishes span from Puerto Rico to Colombia, Venezuela to Dominican Republic, into Cuba and beyond.

“Our emphasis is definitely on Puerto Rico,” he says of his home land, “but I try to keep things as fresh and authentic as possible, and local vegetables and seafood. There are a lot of [Americanized] Mexican restaurants in town,” he concludes, verifying “they all taste the same to me.”

Keegan cites his mother as the inspiration for his passion for cooking, as she was the one who encouraged him to go to culinary school. After studying at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, SC, he moved to Wilmington in 2003.

Everything on San Juan’s menu is handpicked to reflect Keegan’s love for traditional Latin American food. Though the menu is expansive and filled with mouth-watering dishes, Keegan recommends the cooked-to-order stuffed Mufungo. It’s a staple in Puerto Rico and not easily found in Wilmington.

“I don’t think anyone’s seen anything like it [here],” Keegan says. “It’s fried green plantains that have been mashed in a bowl with pesto, garlic, olive oil and other seasonings. It becomes stiff, and we form a bowl out of it and stuff it with shrimp, steak or vegetables.”

Bringing the focus from the cuisine of Europe to East Asia, Genki Japanese Restaurant, located off of New Centre Drive is infamous for its reputation. They’re known for being “the only Japanese-owned sushi bar in Wilmington.” What really sets Genki apart from other sushi bars in the area is its attention to detail.

First off, everything is homemade by Chef Masayuki Sugiura and his wife, Reiko—from the small bowl of hijiki nimono seaweed and sweet edamame given before the meal, to the variety of caramels customers received afterward. Everything from the ice to the rice is made with Pi Water, a type of water prominent in Japan that is infused with oxygen and antioxidants and enhances living energy.

“I don’t care who makes sushi—or what nationality—but if somebody tried to make sushi or Japanese food, chefs should respect the culture,” Sugiura says. “In Japan, there are many [ethnic] restaurants, but the chefs first study each country’s culture. It’s not only about making money.”

World-wide trends of combining culturally diverse flavors excite many foodies. However, Suguira respects the tried and true. “Chefs today are into fusion cooking and it’s OK,” he says. “But if people don’t know the basics, that’s not fusion—it’s confusion.”

Originally from Yokohama, Japan, the chef spent his younger years traveling around Europe, Africa, India and South America in an effort to study their cultures and how they cooked. Before moving to Wilmington in 1989, he worked in restaurants in Sweden, London, San Francisco and New York City.

Genki thrives not only in serving tradition Japanese fare, but imparting aspects of Japanese culture onto its customers. Sugiura will often use parts of the fish other restaurants would shy away from, such as a crispy salmon skin roll or his famous Burikama—the fried jawbone of a yellow-fin tuna.

“A long time ago, American people would eat mostly everything, but now people eat only filet animals and give the rest to the dogs,” Sugiura says. “When we eat, we kill the animal or the plant, it is disrespectful to not eat or use all of it that we can—that’s the Japanese belief. When we eat, we pray, then we say, ‘I eat your life.’ We never waste.”

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