This month, we sat down with Laura T. Wilson, chef and restaurant owner. Laura told us all about her professional training, how her European experiences influence her food, and shares a recipe for her Perfect Red Sauce. Read on for more about Laura and all that La Dolce Vita has to offer!
1. We know from your bio that you’re a trained chef from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. Do you have any unique cooking tips you can share?
There are a few differences in the way I cook vs. the way the internet or television has you follow recipes. One example is that I never use sea salt or kosher salt in baking unless I am making a salted caramel dessert, and then that would be a good sea salt. I use baker’s salt, a very finely ground salt, or plain table salt to prevent getting a chip a taste of salt in an area of the dessert. All the benefits of salt — toning down the sweet a little and harmonizing the other flavors—are still there, just undetectable.
When cooking savory dishes, that is a whole different story. I like to use Kosher salt for the pasta water, but that is my limit as far as Kosher is concerned. I use the various sea salts for finishing salts. I love to use truffle salt with risotto or salt with flowers incorporated in it on ravioli or on a food where the small flowers will show.
With French food, I must be very precise. I do love the traditional cuts and all the sauces. I feel if you can command them, you have French food down. French food is all about restraint. Italian food, it is all about passion and gusto. Cooking Italian food is never stressful; it is always fun. There are no hard and fast rules so taking risks and chances with your sauces is encouraged. Lest you think I am waxing poetic here, I truly mean this.
Another cooking mistake I see on the internet is adding the salt right to the yeast when baking bread. Salt can kill yeast. I would never take that chance. I always proof my yeast the way Julia Child did (and my 7th grade Home Ec teacher taught me!) by adding the yeast to a ¼ cup of tepid water with a scant teaspoon of sugar. The sugar feeds the yeast and after 5-10 minutes you will see massive bubbles. You know your yeast is active and ready for all the severe things you are going to do to it. I never see this step on the internet, but the cautious chefs do it. I would not want to risk having my yeast be killed by salt or too hot of water, not know it, and then have bread that did not rise. That would be a lot of work, time and money down the drain.
Butter can take on any surrounding odors. We wrap our butter in plastic wrap after we open it. I can taste old butter instantly.
2. How do you incorporate your European training to your American dishes?
At La Dolce Vita, we try to work clean. That means cleaning up as you go and keeping your station, your working area, tidy and organized. (Being a Midwestern girl where there is so much wide-open space, it was really hard for me to pare it back when I trained in France!) We have a very European style of serving. This is of utmost importance to me when I train a new employee. We do not hover; we try not to interrupt the guests when they are talking to each other, we are not there with gallons of water every nanosecond. We keep a watchful eye from a distance, tend quietly and gracefully to their needs, and try to be invisible. It is the guest’s night, not our night.
3.We’re dying to go on one of your culinary tours to Italy! What kinds of things can one expect to see and do on one of these culinary tours?
This could be the favorite thing I do! First, the accommodations are always very important and we only stay in the finest hotels. Every tour has had a cooking class or two taught by a local chef, so we get the true flavor of the area. This has been really interesting—I have some great stories to tell! We have many meals together, but not all, so that the guests can wander and discover their own private places. When we do eat together, I choose excellent restaurants, places they can lock in their hearts as a memorable night in a beautiful location. We tour each area with private, local guides and they are colorful and fun. I often put little gifts in the guest’s rooms from the area as surprises when they return from the day.
4. We see that you serve a weekly lunch at your restaurant, La Dolce Vita, in Roanoke, Indiana. How do you decide what to make and which ingredients to use each week?
I must say this is one of the hardest parts of my job! There is no end to what I like to cook, but there are time and money constraints on a lunch menu. I mix it up every week because I find that lots of restaurants never change their menu and become stale. I like to try new things. It seems the harder the recipe, the more anxious I am, the happier I am. Go figure.
I am not going to lie to you and say I use only local ingredients. If I want basil in the winter, I know it is coming from a sunnier clime. But during summer and fall, there is abundant fresh produce to use in almost everything. I also raise honeybees. My honey is particularly yummy.
I try to find a common thread in all we prepare for our weekly lunch. French, Italian, Californian, Mighty Midwest, Southwestern—we go with an idea and figure it out. It keeps me creative!
5. What’s your favorite way to prepare a summer pasta dish?
For me, the best summer pasta is capellini or another thin noodle, tossed with a generous amount of small batch olive oil, fresh grape tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper.
6. Finally, can you share one of your favorite pre-made pasta recipes for our readers?
Perfect Red Sauce
- 1 large yellow or white onion, diced
- 1 red or yellow pepper, diced
- 6 cloves fresh garlic, in their skins
- *8 large, good tomatoes cored and chopped large. No need to take off skin if you don’t want to.
- Salt and pepper
- **Herbs from your garden such as basil, oregano, or thyme.
* In the winter, it is fine to use canned tomatoes
** I love to add Italian sausage to this. I cook the sausage until done and take it out to drain. I pour out of most the fat, but not all. To this, I add the onion, pepper and begin the recipe. At the end of all the cooking, I put the sausage back in the sauce.
- Sauté the onions and pepper until they are soft. Add garlic cloves. Add the tomatoes and turn the heat down. Let tomatoes cook with the vegetables until they are soft. Add the salt, pepper, and herbs. The skin on the garlic cloves should pretty much dissolve, depending on how long you cook the sauce. If I see the garlic I will pop it out of the skin and discard it.
- Cook the pasta until al dente. Add it to the sauce. Serve with generous amounts of parmesan and a nice, crusty bread.
This would be good served over meatballs, or with chicken on the side.
About Laura T. Wilson and La Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita, or “the Sweet Life” in Italian, is located at 165 South Main Street in Roanoke, Indiana. It was founded with the desire to offer delicious food and host beautiful events in my shop during this time of fast food and poor service. When you enter the doors, you will feel as if you have wandered into a shop in Europe, but with an American twist and friendliness. All of the items for sale in the front of the shop have been hand picked by me for their beauty, durability, taste, or uniqueness.
An avid cook and foodie, I began in the kitchen at a very young age, following in my mother’s footsteps, who was an incredible cook, and doing the things many Midwestern kids do such as 4-H and FHA.
My skills have certainly evolved since those days. My classrooms are now at the French Pastry School in Chicago, Anguilla, Bali, Italy, the Culinary Institute of America, and The Ritz Escoffier. I hold a Diplome de Patisserie from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, France. I have been fortunate enough to cook along side such legends as Patricia Wells, Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelsson, and Jean-George Vongerichten. I have trained under three M.O.F. chefs, the highest honor one can receive in France.
Don’t let these credentials fool you. I am all about good, classic food, prepared with as many local ingredients as I can get. Everything we make is from scratch, from our bread to our salad dressings. You will not find cronuts or 12 inch cupcakes in my shop, but you will find many artisan breads, tarts, macaroons, and perfect cakes to name a few. We have many frozen items for carry out, such as soups, Uber cookies, and rolls.