Gualtiero Marchesi is, without question, the godfather of Italian food. Even at eighty-seven years old, he’s a picture of that youthful Mediterranean exuberance that supposedly comes with a diet of olive oil, pasta and fresh tomatoes. Though he is no longer behind the stove – he announced his retirement in 2017 – his restaurant Il Marchesino in his hometown of Milan remains one of Italy’s very best, serving Milanese food with Gualtiero’s typical avant-garde flair.
Most agree it was Gualtiero that inspired a new era of Italian food. His marriage of art and cuisine and his openness to take inspiration from music, culture, the landscape and far away food cultures blazed a trail for chefs like Massimo Bottura to eventually flex their creative muscles. Along the course of his career, he inspired a whole new generation of Italian chefs, including current Michelin-starred chefs like Andrea Berton, Riccardo Camanini, Viviana Varese and Luigi Sartini, who all credit him as an important mentor.
When Gualtiero started cooking in the kitchen of his parents’ hotel restaurant, Italian food was still staunchly traditional, entrenched in the past. It wasn’t until Gualtiero headed to France – at the time in the midst of a golden age of haute cuisine – that he found his first ‘moment of enlightenment’, as he calls it. Gualtiero apprenticed at the legendary Ledoyen in Paris, as well as Le Chapeau Rouge in Dijon and with Jean and Pierre Troisgros at their eponymous restaurant in Rouanne. He even befriended the illustrious Paul Bocuse. ‘It was at Troisgros that I first realized that simplification was the way forward,’ he says. ‘They taught me so much about having respect for ingredients, and the importance of great technique.’
Armed with a new perspective, Gualtiero returned to Milan and opened a small hotel with his parents, before opening his first restaurant, Via Bonvesin de la Riva, in 1977. Within a year, he had his first Michelin star, and he added a second a year later. ‘It was a good time to break from Italian traditions. I took inspiration from the way France was approaching food – innovating, whilst still respecting the roots and traditions of cuisine at the same time.
‘My ultimate aim was to reinvent the Italian kitchen by freshening it up,’ continues Gualtiero. ‘Traditionally in Italy, we tried to do too much with food in the cooking of it, and not enough in the presentation. For me, respect for the ingredients meant completely reversing that – simplifying the cooking process to preserve the true flavour and quality of the ingredients, and being more thoughtful and creative about how we presented dishes.’
A break from Michelin…
In 1985, Gualtiero earned a third Michelin star. No-one outside France had ever received a three star rating from the guide before, and people came from far and wide to experience the new face of Italian cuisine. Gualtiero opened restaurants all over Italy, and even one in Paris, but in 2008, he returned all his stars to Michelin. Gualtiero was one of the first to reject Michelin – the legendary Alain Senderens at L’Archestrate in Paris also returned his three stars in 2005 – and though his decision was shocking at the time, his attitudes towards Michelin seem to be shared by more and more chefs today. Only this year, Sébastien Bras of the three Michelin-starred Le Suquet in Laguiole, France, also asked to return his stars, saying that he wanted to cook ‘without wondering whether my creations will appeal to Michelin’s inspectors’.
‘I think there’s a trend today that places are more concerned with stars than they are with great cooking,’ says Gualtiero, frankly. ‘I think local restaurants and osterie are the exciting places these days. Michelin played an important role in the evolution of Italian cuisine, but I chose to return my stars because I was keen to start a new agenda.’
That agenda has meant a change in focus for Gualtiero’s restaurants, and for his Marchesi Academy school, which he hopes will soon be equivalent to a university-level education. He laments that the ‘art of being a chef is being lost’, but has dedicated himself to teaching a new generation of chefs about cooking. As for Italian food, he hopes it will continue to find its roots. ‘Globalization is a fantastic source of inspiration,’ he says. ‘I have been hugely influenced by Japanese cuisine over the years, but I think Italy has to draw on its traditions and continue to modernise it.’