The French-trained chef of Colletta talks fall cooking, fresh pasta and adopting new Thanksgiving traditions.
as told to Addie Ladner | photograph by Miranda Mounts
Oscar Gnapi has worked in highly-acclaimed restaurants all over the world, including spots in London, Italy, France and California. His formal training includes an internship in Italy and a four-year degree in the culinary arts from the CEFAA in Villepinte, France. The Paris native moved to North Carolina in 2007 to serve as executive sous chef at An: New World Cuisine. After that he served as the executive chef of La Residence in Chapel Hill, then Durham’s Unscripted Hotel. He’s put down roots here in North Carolina, where he met his wife and they are raising their two children.
Food has always been the epicenter of Gnapi’s world. “I was raised in Paris with a very large family, and am from a culture where cooking was as valued as breathing air,” he says. That ingrained love of good food and togetherness, along with his worldly culinary training, led him to his latest role as executive chef of Colletta, a new restaurant at Cary’s Fenton. There, he serves refined Italian classics like lasagna and tiramisu, and adds his touch to seasonal dishes like pumpkin ravioli and his award-winning chocolate molten cake. We talked to Gnapie about seasonal cooking and adopting Thanksgiving traditions.
What do you like about cooking in the fall?
I love to use pumpkin in the fall. I use it in mains, but often in desserts as well, such as a pumpkin parfait, tart or cookie. We make a lot of pumpkin bread, tarts and cookies. My wife loves pumpkin! I also love chestnuts and make a stuffing with them. I love to dice and roast pumpkin, chesnuts and potato together for a really savory side dish on Thanksgiving.
Do you have any Thanksgiving traditions?
Thanksgiving is new to me! Our tradition with my wife’s family always includes a pumpkin tart, apple cider, Italian bread toasted with garlic, and stuffing with potato, brioche, bacon, pecan, breadcrumbs and chicken stock or turkey stock. Roasted turkey with rosemary and thyme. I baste the turkey with the drippings throughout cooking, which makes the skin so delicious and golden. And mashed potatoes — a must-have — with butter, heavy cream and Parmigiano cheese.
What are you liking most about being chef of Colletta?
Making everything from scratch. I also love the quality of the food we’re serving and seeing how happy our guests are, which we can see throughout service from our open kitchen. Most of all, I love our team. We’re a family and work so hard together, but also have fun.
What do you enjoy making the most?
Lasagna and meatballs!
You’re a French-trained chef from France now working in an Italian kitchen… how did you educate yourself in Italian cuisine and cooking techniques?
I was a sous chef in a very popular fine-dining Italian restaurant in London, named Daphne, in South Kensington. Maggiore is another one in the Covent Garden area of London that was Italian-focused, and I was a junior sous chef there. I want to be able to cook any meal from any country and love exploring new cultures so to not be stuck in a culinary box. I have French and European training in school, and we did learn the basics of Italian cooking there. To be a good chef, I felt like I needed to be exposed to different cultures and kitchens.
What is your earliest memory of making pasta?
When I first began culinary school at 17, this was the first time I’d been asked to make pasta. We had to do it by hand, on marble. We made pappardelle, which you cut with a knife. I loved it with Bolognese! I struggled in the beginning to get it paper thin with a rolling pin. With time and patience, and lots of experience, I’ve gotten comfortable with this. By hand is the best way to do it.
Of all the shapes, which do you love to make?
Bow tie, ravioli and tortellini are the most fun to make. I really love the technique for making bow ties and ravioli. Once you’ve mastered these harder versions, the linguini and pappardelle and spaghetti feel so simple.
What are your top 5 tips for making pasta at home?
1. Make sure you have enough space to work!
2. A pastry scraper is very helpful and makes it easier to handle the dough.
3 Be sure to let your dough rest for at least an hour after making it.
4. When you remove it from the fridge, be sure to bring it to room temperature (about an hour) before working with it.
5. As you roll pasta, be sure to add flour as you go, otherwise it will stick to the rolling pin.
Tell us about this pumpkin ravioli on the menu at Colletta.
This is a sweet and savory pasta. The pumpkin lends natural sweetness and the Parmigiano, sage and salt make it savory. I love it as a main course with a glass of Italian white wine. The buttery sauce plays very well with a crisp white glass of wine.
This article originally appeared on waltermagazine.com in November 2022