Few restaurant experiences have left a profound influence on my way of thinking about gastronomy as Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso. This Italian chef who was riding the crest of the wave in terms of fame and success decided to close his restaurant in 2008 and since then has never returned back. Pierangelini, who had never taken a plane in the previous 30 years, as he himself says, has been away on a pilgrimage for the past six years.
Pierangelini, an Italian, is probably one of the most enigmatic, underrated and captivating chefs of our time. He is maybe enigmatic because he hates the limelight, hates the internet with a passion and didn’t even know that restaurant guides existed when he opened his restaurant in 1980 in a small fishing village in Tuscany which as he himselfs says was in the middle of nowhere.
You will wonder why an evening at Gambero Rosso had such a deep meaning for me. First, when we visited in 2006, this was the first 2 Michelin star experience for my wife and I, second the food in its simplicity was so profound. The explosion of taste and flavours was nothing like we had ever experienced before. Third, and this is probably the main reason, I had vouched to eat whatever was served at this restaurant despite the fact that I had a phobia of cheese. Alas, I still remember a cannelloni of suckling pig being served with Parmesan grated on top. At first, I started to sweat but once I got over it, and it took some time, I had the first bite and unbelievably asked myself “what was the fuss all about?”.
But less about what I think and more about what this great chef thinks and in particular how he grew tired of restaurants and the dining scene, what he misses about cooking and what he dreams to do once he returns back from his ‘exile’ which if one is to go by what he says in the video below may be sooner rather than later.
Pierangelini was speaking at the Mad Symposium which is organised annually by Noma’s Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen. Here, the Italian chef replies to a letter Redzepi sent him which asked him some profound questions on why he quit cooking and what will happen next.
A letter to Redzepi – A chef in exile
Pierangelini is not someone who likes the limelight. He actually hates promoting himself to the extent that he did not have any public relations, website or email address despite his success.
“Being at an event like this feels a bit like being an old rockstar invited to an avant-garde music concert,” he said. “Perhaps you think I have the solution to remake the world. I hope I will not disappoint you. But I am just a cook, for long a cook in exile.”
Pierangelini talked about talent. “The more talent you have, the more you have a responsibility to care for it and to cultivate it. Cooking is a social engagement. You need to be a bit tense, to have doubts. But you should overcome doubts with one of the best attributes that chefs have – courage. Don’t ever be arrogant to think that you have understood it all. Be proud to be a chef and only stop when you find that there are no more ingredients that can be removed from a dish. When you prepare a plate, don’t retouch it, don’t try to add texture or crunch. A great dish comes out like that without the necessity to add anything.”
He called on the audience made up of young chefs to have the courage to be imperfect. “Don’t ever forget that simplicity is the ultimate goal. Always remember that a cook is someone who executes. Many chefs today think of themselves as composers. To this I would say that the world needs a perfect schnitzel much more than an improbable dish of dover sole with chocolate,” he said to applause.
“To cook is to tell a story. And to do it well you need to know the facts. The facts in this story are the produce. You need to have a deep familiarity with the produce. It has to be a relationship of affection, confidence and care.”
You can see where Pierangelini is going. “Every ingredient is important in its own right. A potato is just a potato. But alone a white truffle means nothing. You cannot bite into a white truffle. But match the white truffle with potatoes and you have created something magical.”
He urged young chefs to go crazy for the most humble ingredients. “Price is just an artificial commercial construct.”
Why I opened Gambero Rosso?
“Rene, you asked me why I closed my restaurant. But first I want to tell you why I opened.”
“First I opened the restaurant because I loved cooking. I loved watching the sunset every night by the sea. I had no money. I had the equivalent of 2000 dollars, I got into huge debts, I did not carry out any market research, otherwise I would never have opened a restaurant in San Vincenzo, far away from everything with no roads, I did not know that guides existed. The internet, thank God did not exist. I had worked with chefs in hotels as a way to pay for my studies at university. I would say that a cultural basis is essential if you want to be a chef, today this is more essential than ever before.”
“Success arrived naturally. Till the last day I cooked in my restaurant, I was cooking more than anything to please myself. The global success and the long waiting list did not wither but the emotion started withering. My greatest true love was fading. I started to become bored with restaurants. I actually started to answer the phone for reservations and if a person was not kind on the phone they would not get a table.”
Hate relationship with the internet
Pierangelini, as someone who hates publicity also hated the internet. “I had to say no to many things. I took radical positions against the fake democracy of the internet even though I was loved and praised by everyone. I reached the limit when I said that food blogs are to gastronomy what pedophiles are to love,” he said with a smile.
Chefs and the media
“I have always wondered why a good chef or a good waiter should not earn more than a bank employee. A bank employee handles ‘dead’ paper while we handle ‘live things’. Then came the overexposure of chefs in the media. This has made us lose all our dignity. We have become just a way for directors and producers to get an audience without any ideas. They just exploited us for audiences. With our massive egos, we fell into the trap.”
“But our job is something different. it cannot be quantified. How much does passion, sacrifice, independence cost? Suffering, emotion, freedom, how much does this cost?
Closing the restaurant
Pierangelini speaks of what happened when he closed the restaurant. “I had a sudden rush, I took a plane after 30 years. I looked elsewhere and I chose a physical exile – the one inside was always there. I was looking for a new experience, but it was one still one of melancholy and frustration. I taught cooks in different places in the world. But oddly enough they were all making the same mistakes to the point that I was thinking that actually I was making a mistake. In the hotels I worked in, I cooked for very rich people but they made me reflect on how useless our sacrifices are, of our hardships in telling our stories.”
The Italian chef says his pilgrimage did not have an end. “There was no island in sight. But I want to be able to find land. I have spent so much time training and choreographing unwilling dancers to perform for a vain and incompetent audience. If I restart, I know I will be happy again because they will say the same things that they said when I left, – he’s gone crazy, why is he doing that?”
A new beginning?
Pierangelini says that he wants to get rid of the soft and safe hug which is now slowly but surely starting to strangle him. “I want to return back to singing my songs on the road, i want to find my courage. You ask how will my restaurant be? I don’t know. But I am sure it will not betray my history, it will not be boring with ceremonies from the past. The dishes will come to the table pure. The plates will not have to express all the work that has gone into it. I will try not to compromise or make concessions for things which don’t come from my soul. And I will be more generous with those who will be next to me in the kitchen.”
“Rene, in the letter you sent to me you asked precise questions. Do I miss being part of a team? Do I miss having an audience? Do I miss the visibility? Do I miss the power? No I am not interested in all this.”
“What I miss is being on the pier waiting for the fishing boat and the fishermen to arrive home with their fish. I miss the emotions of going to a market to get inspired with ingredients that make me dream. I miss walking in the countryside with those who go foraging for herbs. I miss going to say hello to the wild pigs in the woods, I miss the burned fingers or cuts, I miss the heat of the pot on the stove. I miss the adrenaline of a crazy night. I miss the rosemary’s perfume which first hugs the pigeon, then me and then the kitchen. I miss arriving home in pieces because I am so tired but proud of the day. Maybe I am mad but I will read a phrase from Jacques Brel who says. “It took talent to get old and not become an adult,” Pierangelini concluded to a huge round of applause.
If you have 30 minutes to spare, I would urge you to watch this video of his speech.