Luigi Diotaiuti, an award-winning Washington, D.C.-based chef and restaurateur, has traveled the globe preparing his famed Italian cuisine for celebrities like George Clooney and dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton, yet if you ask him to name the capstone of his career, he’d tell you teaching cooking to Hyde-Addison Elementary School students in Northwest D.C.
“I believe that making food fun is the key to getting kids involved in the kitchen,” said Diotaiuti, owner and head chef of Al Tiramisu, a restaurant in Dupont Circle.
Working with Diotaiuti provides the students with an authentic chef experience.
His classes don’t entail putting the finishing touches on food brought to the school. The students travel to Al Tiramisu, where Diotaiuti closes the kitchen for lunch then teaches them to prepare simple authentic Italian dishes such as “Happy Caprese Salad” with fresh mozzarella, mixed greens and balsamic vinegar, and bow-tie pasta with arugula pesto, served with pine nuts and lemon juice.
“I give them the ingredients to construct a happy face out of tomatoes, mozzarella, radishes and olives, and let them have fun creating their own salads,” Diotaiuti told the AFRO. “You’d be amazed at how popular vegetables can become for children when you transform them from a boring ingredient into edible art!”
Tylear Jefferson, 10, a fifth grader at Hyde-Addison Elementary was both excited and inspired by Chef Luigi’s cooking class.
“I like how we got to make different things that weren't in the U.S.,” said Tylear, who took the cooking class last school year. “We made [focaccia] bread, strawberry and banana smoothies, and a Happy Caprese Salad. I’ve actually been making food at home now because I want my family to try it too.”
Tylear’s mom, Takeisha Jefferson, remembers how excited her daughter was when she came home from school after working with Chef Luigi.
“The class was really an inspiration to Tylear,” Takeisha Jefferson said. “Tylear was so inspired by Chef Luigi’s lessons that she began learning how to make pretzels at home.”
With her mother and 9-year-old sister helping, Tylear has since begun her own pretzel business called “Sweet P’s Pretzels.”
Diotaiuti joyously recalled a class where a student creatively molded his focaccia bread dough into the shape of a clock.
“It reminded me so much of a Salvador Dalí painting,” the chef said. “It was both amazingly creative and delicious.”
In addition to the lessons taught at his restaurant, Diotaiuti also visits Hyde-Addison during the school year, conducting his cooking classes in the school’s cafeteria. Students prepare one to two dishes and distribute the samples to students in every classroom.
“They feel so excited, so proud of themselves for making these recipes and showing their work off to their classmates,” Diotaiuti said.
Hailed as one of the world’s foremost masters of authentic Italian cuisine, Diotaiuti’s culinary skills have been reported by the Washington Post and the New York Business Journal. He was awarded the Regione Basilicata “Sapori Lucani” Award, given only to restaurants and chefs that best represent the culinary arts of the Basilicata region of Southern Italy.
Born on a farm near the town of Lagonegro, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, Diotaiuti’s earliest culinary education and inspiration came from his own family kitchen.
“Food was a part of living,” he said. “My mother and three sisters prepared the meals at home and almost everything we cooked was produced on our farm.”
Upon coming to the United States, Diotaiuti realized that many American children did not know where their food came from or how it was grown. He noticed that children were eating more processed foods than fresh food and realized the importance of getting children involved with cooking in the home to help them become healthy eaters.
By turning cooking into a fun activity, he said, children are more willing to eat the foods they need to eat.
“It’s not necessarily the taste of the food the kids don’t like,” he said. “It’s the idea of eating something new.”
Tylear said the class was a highlight of her school year.
“I really liked the cooking class,” she said. “If I can take the class again with Mr. Luigi I will.”