At 82, an age when nearly all his peers are usually retired, Gualtiero Marchesi, considered by many as “Italy’s most famous chef,” is still making surprising career decisions that explain why his Milan restaurant Il Marchesino stands to this day amongst the best in the country.
Marchesi has a youthful exuberance and isn’t afraid to stir things up. “I can’t help it, but I keep getting new ideas. I really believe in Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist worldview: ‘We are the result of what we have seen and what we have done.’
I always tell young people to see and try new things in order to get inspired by nature’s beauty. Go out there and travel, attend art exhibits. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. It will inspire you anyway. I was recently in Northern Italy, surrounded by mountains. It was incredible. I felt so inspired,” he says.
“In 1966, my parents’ restaurant had to close due to bureaucratic problems. For me it was time to try something new. I had this seed in me that kept on growing – something that I simply couldn’t control – a desire to express myself in a more artistic way,” he confesses.
Marchesi wanted to experience creative cuisine, which had not yet reached Italy where traditions were still strictly respected. He needed to get out and be in the middle of the action, so he headed to Paris in the midst of 1968. He apprenticed at the legendary Ledoyen and went on to the Chapeau Rouge. Later, Marchesi met the world famous chef Paul Bocuse with whom he became friends.
“I came back to Italy with a totally new perspective and a precise objective in mind to do things differently,” Marchesi recalls. “I wanted to express an Italian version of nouvelle cuisine in my own personal way.
When you make a risotto, while the dish must look good, it’s also important to pay attention to the whole process starting from when it comes out of the pot to when the waiter serves it with an elegant flair. I said to myself, why not include this philosophy in my meals? So I tried to integrate this vision in my dishes through an aesthetic approach that would enhance the quality of the raw material,” Marchesi explains.
First three-Michelin-star restaurant in Italy
The rave reviews received by Gualtiero Marchesi over the years are a testament to his philosophy, his gastronomic entrepreneurship and his creativity. Opened in 1977, his restaurant Bonvesin de la Riva obtained its first Michelin star the same year. It was awarded its second star the subsequent year and in 1985 the restaurant finally received its third one – becoming the first institution in Italy to reach this stellar consecration and making Marchesi the first non-Frenchman to be awarded three stars.
In 2008, Marchesi unexpectedly decided to give back his Michelin stars, causing an outcry on both the Italian and international culinary scenes. His decision was directly in line with his whole culinary philosophy: “I find it outrageous to see how Italians blindly accept that a French guide tells them which of their restaurants are worthy or not.
Last year this very same guide gave the maximum vote to only five Italian restaurants as opposed to 26 restaurants in France. If this is not a scandal, I don’t know what to call it.”
When it comes to comparing France and Italy in terms of high-end cuisine, Marchesi quickly answers, quoting his late friend Paul Bocuse: “‘French cuisine will lose its clout as soon as Italian chefs realize the sheer amount of quality raw materials they have access to.’” But this has yet to happen, reveals Marchesi.
“In my opinion, there is a lack of professionalism in Italy. We don’t have the same gastronomic culture as in France. Moreover, there’s also a big difference in the way dishes are generally created.
French food is usually over-elaborated compared to Italian dishes that tend to be far more subtle. Which one of the two is best according to Marchesi? “Taste is the last remaining democracy,” he answers with a smile.
Asked about the latest trends in Italian haute cuisine, Marchesi hastily digresses on the importance for up-and-coming chefs to master basic cooking knowledge. “Today, many cooks consider themselves chefs. But it’s the wrong attitude. You really have to work hard to even become a cook. You need to assimilate a wide array of information.
It is, therefore, very important to have a solid technical base in order to get acquainted to the many different aspects of cooking. Like a musician, you have to work hard and you need to have a solid technique if you wish to eventually become a composer. It’s exactly the same in the food world.”
Today Marchesi teaches young chefs through his Marchesi Art courses. In 2006, he founded The Italian Culinary Academy in New York (now called The International Culinary Centre, ed.), and since 2004 he has been the rector at the ALMA culinary school near Parma, the only school in Italy that trains international chefs in Italian cuisine working with chefs from 11 different countries.
written by Jesper Storgaard Jensen