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Music for the palate, Maestro! Interview with chef Gualtiero Marchesi

His philosophy is proudly original, an innovative approach to Italian cooking, respectful of its history while open to the future. “If a restaurant client doesn’t know how to eat, it isn’t his fault: the cook has failed to transmit the culture of food.” he tells us

Gualtiero Marchesi - photo by Borchi

In 1985 Gualtiero Marchesi obtained the first “three stars” awarded by the Michelin guide in Italy. Since 1986 he has been president of Euro-Toques International, the European community of chefs that enjoys the patronage of the European Economic Community. Since 2004 he has been director of ALMA, the International School of Italian Cooking at the Ducal Palace in Colorno (Parma), which boasts the latest teaching facilities and a vocation for turning out chefs specialized in Italian high culinary art. He personally runs two restaurants: one at Erbusco (Brescia) that also hosts the Relais & Châteaux d’Albereta, one in Milan, the Teatro alla Scala il Marchesino.

Gualtiero Marchesi, Milanese, 78 years of age, has had his share of prestigious awards, both in Italy and internationally. They include the Grand Prix Mémoire et Gratitude of the International Academy of Gastronomy and an honorary degree in Food Science from Rome University Sancti Cyrilli. However, it is only by talking to the maestro that we realize he has always had an innovative approach to Italian cooking, respectful of its history while open to the future, highly professional and creative without unnecessary embellishments.

His philosophy is proudly original, to the point of inducing him to hand back the famous “stars” of the Michelin guide. His passion for music and his intellectual affinity with the many musicians in his family also gives his gastronomic verve a certain harmony.

“It all begins with mastery of the art; then it is possible to develop certain ideas. Those graduating from ALMA, for example, have to be able to prepare any recipe with talent and precision, just as a musician has to know how to play any score,” he tells us. Improvisation requires a rigorous technical basis; interpretation of a recipe springs from the capacity to understand the essence of the dish. “If a restaurant client doesn’t know how to eat, it isn’t his fault: the cook has failed to transmit the culture of food.”
“More or less” is the motto of his dishes: “To arrive at the essence of flavours, I conceive recipes that are easy to make, without heavy sauces and based on impeccable ingredients – a melody composed only of the necessary notes.” A simple pheasant with salad, for example, is essential but exquisitely flavoursome.

Marchesi is remembered more for certain famous dishes such as rice, gold and saffron or the open raviolo, though he is also appreciated for many traditional recipes that combine flavour and lightness. He proudly recalls the compliments of a French couple: “We know good cooking. You go beyond.”
Marchesi holds typical products in high esteem “but they must not be binding, and care is needed not to spoil them. In other countries we must all do our best to spread the culture”. In his view, Italian cooking is fundamentally regional cooking.

Next year he will be organizing an exhibition entitled Sixty years of Italian gastronomy at the Milan Triennale. He is convinced that we should promote a concept of food that is respectful of Italian traditions. He regards imagination and improvisation as having their limits. He favours extra-vergin olive oil but prefers those with a milder taste, warning that “one has to know how to use them properly, according to the characteristics of the dish.”

The same is true for wine. The Marchesino is also open for breakfast and after-theatre supper and has a wine list of 250 labels, that he wishes to reduce to 80. He remarks that combination is a delicate question. Not for him the rules of degustation menus and confusing names: he prefers recreational cooking that brings pleasure to the table.

At a recent prize-giving at Madrid Fusión (21st January) he emerged among leading world-class chefs, and has often promoted cultural and gastronomic events, such as MARTE (Marchesi arte), a table for twelve laden with the essence of his cooking, prepared in person.

And his hopes for Italian cooking abroad? Marchesi hopes that Italian cooks understand the value of the historical roots of national dishes and offer them in attractive and modern ways. Here he cites a memorable phrase of Wolfgang Goethe: “The great writer does not say anything new, but is able to say it as if it had never been said before.” If that isn’t art …

Gold leaf saffron risotto:

- Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi – Via Vittorio Emanuele 23 – Erbusco (Brescia) – Tel. +39.030.7760562
- Ristorante Teatro alla Scala “Il Marchesino” – Via Filodrammatici, 2 corner of piazza della Scala – Milan – Tel. +39.02.72094338

by Monica Sommacampagna
02 february 2009, Food & Fun > Gastronomy