Among food lovers of a certain age, Fulvio Pierangelini needs no introduction. Only a few years ago, he was considered to be one of the most influential if not the most influential Italian chef of the 2000s. He has left a very important impact on the food world and has advocated collaboration and exchange between chefs for at least 10 years at a time when this was unheard of.
So when Fulvio says that it is time for us to relearn everything about food we should sit and listen and also reflect on the state of the food and wine world today.
“In history, there was a time when the rich were fat and the poor were thin. Today, the opposite is the case and we need to ask ourselves why this is the case and whether this is good because clearly we have a problem,” he says.
“We have reached a stage where we need to relearn everything. We need to have more respect for ingredients, all ingredients. People may feel sorry for a lobster or a lamb but ultimately we need to remember that even a carrot is alive. We need to understand the ecosystem and need to decide whether biodiversity is essential or not. We definitely need to eat less meat,” he says.
“Ultimately this is not a discussion that can be solved by you or me. Obviously, if people are starving who are we to say that they should not eat meat and to tell them what is right and what is wrong.”
There is a lot to ponder in just a few sentences but that’s not all. “We are living in a time when things like food or luxury wine are becoming extremely expensive and completely detached from today’s reality. We need to ask ourselves what is quality? What is a luxury ingredient? What is a fine dining restaurant? Unfortunately, we have reached a stage where the people who love great food cannot afford it and the same goes for the wine. This moment is a barbaric one but we need to live with this,” he tells Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
These are questions that stay with me long after our discussion. That is Fulvio. He is not afraid to call a spade a spade and that is very refreshing in today’s world when many try to be politically correct or not to criticise guides which can make or break a restaurant.
You can see where Fulvio is going. For him, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil of which only 100 bottles are made is the ultimate in luxury. “Knowing that there are only 100 of these bottles, knowing the producer who has made it, the scarcity of these olives and the fact that they have not been treated with pesticides is priceless. That is luxury for me.”
Ultimately, Fulvio believes that the humble ingredients can be the most luxurious because price is just an artificial commercial construct and not necessary an indicator of quality or worth.
Millennials who love food may ask who Fulvio Pierangelini is and that is a legitimate question because the Italian chef is not someone who seeks publicity or who uses social media.
Today, Fulvio is chef consultant to the Rocco Forte group of hotels but until 2008, he was cooking in his restaurant Gambero Rosso, in a remote village called San Vincenzo in Tuscany close to Bolgheri, famous for its super Tuscan wines.
The Italian chef was riding the crest of the wave in terms of fame and success when he closed his restaurant. 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.
Fulvio, may today still be a chef in exile, as he himself says but he does not want to be that any more.
“I do miss cooking in a restaurant,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview held at the Hotel Amigo in Brussels where he visits from time to time to consult for the restaurant Bocconi.
‘I wish to have the courage to open a restaurant’
“Since I closed the restaurant I have learned a lot but I wish to have the courage to open a restaurant. I miss the cooking and if I had to open my own restaurant it will be in Rome because I don’t want to be in exile any more. It will be a restaurant with my vision of how a restaurant should be. I no longer have to prove anything to anyone,” he says.
The Italian chef is a man from a different era and that is not a bad thing. Today, he is considered to be the father of Gelinaz!, the collective of chefs that brings experienced and young chefs together to exchange experiences. That collective is now co-curated by Andrea Petrini and Alexandra Swenden though Fulvio is the father figure for many chefs who come together to share knowledge without the pressure of competition or judgement.
Fulvio is not someone who is looking for the limelight even though he knows the importance that the limelight can have on the business. Today he recognises that the internet has its plus points, particularly as a way to share information but he also says there is a lot of shallownesss. He himself admitted that he had reached the limit when he said that “food blogs are to gastronomy what pedophiles are to love.”
The internet in many ways was good to him because he was loved and praised by many to the extent that he was the first and topmost Italian chef to be recognised by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants when it was not so commercial as it is today.
When Fulvio opened his restaurant in San Vincenzo, he did not even know that food guides existed. It was a completely different world to what we know today. “Guides are no longer as relevant or as important as they used to be 30 to 40 years ago. At the time I did not fixate with Michelin because the French guide had a certain way of seeing things which was not necessarily relevant to Italy. In France, there was a concept of fine dining but in Italy the bar and the level is set completely difference so this was never my guide,” he says.
Some of today’s chefs whose cooking is exceptional but who stay away from the fanfare of fine dining may understand exactly what he is saying.
It would be hard to believe today that this Italian chef used to serve the Italian cult wine Sassicaia as his house wine when the restaurant was open. But that is also who Fulvio is, someone who loves to share and exchange ideas with people who appreciate it.
He tells me that at the time when he was about to close the restaurant he would pick the phone himself to take reservations and would refuse people who he felt would not appreciate his approach. Some would ask him when he would have availability and he would tell them not for the foreseeable future.
He built a relationship with his suppliers even though opening in San Vincenzo was not easy. “Ultimately, I was not right about the produce and the terroir. Although my cuisine was olive oil based, if I wanted butter I would go for the best butter and that butter would be French not Italian.” His knowledge was such that the fishermen would tell him from which side of the sea they had caught the fish because whether they were caught from the North or South side of San Vincenzo made a difference. How did you learn all this I ask him. “It is all about experience, it is about being able to listen and learn,” he says.
His cuisine could have been described as the ultimate in simplicity but it was not at all simple. “Simplicity is being able to find the right produce and ingredient and then eliminate as much as you can. When you have very few ingredients on a plate, there is no where to hide,” he says.
He believes that culture today is crucial. “When mothers tell me that their children want to become cooks, I tell them that they should go to study and if they are really serious about cooking they should go and work in restaurant kitchens on Saturdays or Sundays.
Will Fulvio find the courage to ultimately open his own restaurant again? For the sake of the food world, we really hope so. It would be refreshing to see how this talented and philosophical chef would approach it today away from the constraints of social media and not having to prove anything. We are sure it will be a lesson for many.