The Charger Blog

The Kitchen Becomes the Classroom for Students Studying Abroad in Tuscany

Students studying at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, didn’t just watch a local chef prepare a traditional Tuscan meal. They, too, became chefs, learning from Italians who are excited to share their culture and cuisine.

March 8, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

A local chef teaches students how to prep a meal.
A local chef taught students how to prepare a Tuscan meal.

Tom Woods ’23 whisked together the ingredients of what promised to be a tasty dessert as his classmates worked alongside him. They were learning from a chef, who then added water to the bowl containing the batter Woods was blending. The chef was their instructor, and their classroom was a kitchen at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy.

Woods was making Castagnaccio, a popular Tuscan cake-like dessert made from chestnut flour. It’s a simple dessert made with few ingredients, including olive oil and rosemary. The students learned that, unlike a typical cake they might eat in the U.S., this one doesn’t have sugar added, as the chestnut flour is mildly sweet. Woods and his classmates were collaborating to prepare a Tuscan meal as part of an immersive cultural experience while studying abroad.

“This was a fantastic opportunity because it’s something few people get to do,” said Woods, a national security major. “It was a great way to experience the culture.”

A local chef teaches students how to prep a meal.
Students learned about the fresh ingredients that go into a Tuscan meal.

The cooking lesson was one of several that Woods and his classmates took part in as part of their “Cultural Understanding of Food and Cuisine” class. The students chopped, mixed, and measured under the guidance of a local chef, who also teaches in a local high school where hospitality is part of the curriculum. In addition to learning how to make a quick version of a ragu, they whipped up a risotto. Students took turns trying their hands at cutting the loaves of bread fresh out of the oven into slices of biscotti.

The students’ professor, Leonardo Borsacchi, Ph.D., also guided them through their culinary class. He explained where the dishes are eaten – Castagnaccio, for example, is a popular Tuscan dish that isn’t typically eaten in other regions of Italy – and discussed the ingredients themselves. He pointed out the codes printed on the eggs the students were using, which he said indicated the producer.

“The key to Italian cooking is that there are few ingredients,” he explained. “They are fresh and high-quality ingredients. For the most part, preparation is fast, and food is made from scratch.”

‘Very special to me’

As part of the course, students take part in several cooking classes like this one. They are a fun and hands-on way for them to further explore what they are discussing in the classroom. These demonstrations also covered making fresh pasta from scratch.

For Emily Kelliher ’24, who enjoys cooking at home, the classes have been a fun way to expand her repertoire in the kitchen and to build her skills while immersing herself in the Italian culture. She says she particularly enjoyed a crepe with spinach and white sauce that she and her classmates made.

Tom Woods ’23 (left) learns how to cut biscotti while Sarah-Jayne Sellers ’24 (right) prepares dough.
Tom Woods ’23 (left) learns how to cut biscotti while Sarah-Jayne Sellers ’24 (right) prepares dough.

“As a cook, I learned a lot more skills in Italy,” said Kelliher, a national security major. “It’s so different cooking in Italy than it is at home in the U.S. There are more oils used here, and the proportions are different. I’ll definitely take a lot of skills home that I can apply to my cooking.”

After they finished preparing their meal, the students ate it together, enjoying an authentic and homemade Italian dinner that they’d prepared themselves. Woods says it was a great way to not only learn about the culture, but to experience it.

“Some of these dishes are hundreds of years old,” he said. “Just experiencing this, even for a short time while studying abroad, is very special to me.”

Noah Iott ’25 takes a selfie during the cooking lesson.
Noah Iott ’25 takes a selfie during the cooking lesson.