Gualtiero Marchesi has been described as the godfather of modern Italian cuisine. His combination of traditional regional cooking and the avant-garde was the catalyst for a new era in Italian fine dining. Inspired by music, history, art and design, he paved the way for expressive Italian chefs like Massimo Bottura and Davide Scabin. But despite his attention to presentation and technique, Marchesi’s food always retained an air of simplicity and respect for the integrity of the ingredients, keeping it close to the hearts of Italian people.
He was born in Milan in 1930 to hotelier parents. It was in the kitchens at their L’Albergo del Mercato hotel in the Via Bezzecca that Marchesi first experienced the intensity of a professional kitchen, and he was hooked. This was where he first garnered a love of traditional Italian cooking, but it wasn’t until he served his apprenticeship in France that he began to learn the importance of refinement. At Ledoyen in Paris, Le Chapeau Rouge in Dijon and La Maison Troisgros in Rouanne, he began to form his cooking philosophy that ‘form is matter’. His belief was that although the technical application of the chef is paramount, it should never overshadow the inherent qualities of the food itself.
Emboldened with fresh ideas from France, he returned to Milan with a sense of purpose. He opened Via Bonvesin de la Riva with an ambition to innovate, while respecting the local cuisine’s rich heritage. Signature dishes such as saffron risotto with edible gold leaf added a touch of elegance and showmanship to an iconic Milanese recipe. While his open ravioli took another archetypal dish and deconstructed it to reveal its component parts in all their vibrant glory. With visual presentation and artistic sensibilities to the fore, Marchesi would go on to create ever more striking dishes, such as his Fish Dripping. Inspired by the drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock, a scattering of tiny calamari and coquina clams rested on a shallow pool of light mayonnaise, dotted with tomato sauce and black squid ink, in a dish that would have looked equally at home in a modern art gallery.
Via Bonvesin de la Riva quickly gained recognition, gaining two Michelin stars within two years of opening. Marchesi became the first chef outside France to win three Michelin stars in 1985, and the following year he was made a Knight of the Italian Republic. He picked up many more titles and accolades during the course of his career, but in 2008 he famously returned all his Michelin stars. He had become frustrated with Michelin’s voting system, stating that chefs should not sacrifice their art or their health in pursuit of a star.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Marchesi moved away from Milan to open the Ristorante di Erbusco at the Albereta Hotel in the Franciacorta region near Brescia. His empire continued to grow, with further restaurants in Italy, one in Paris, and even one in Japan. In 2011, in a slight departure from haute cuisine, he even designed two hamburgers for McDonald’s – the Adagio burger, and the Vivace burger. But then confounding expectations was always in Marchesi’s DNA.
Marchesi mentored the likes of Carlo Cracco and Dante Boccuzzi, and his ‘ALMA’ International School of Italian Cuisine aims to teach successive generations of chefs, who will no doubt reinvent Italian cuisine all over again. For everybody else, there are a number of cookbooks to pore over, including his seminal work of 2006, The Marchesi Code, in which he expounds his theory of ‘Total Cuisine’. A documentary film called Gualtiero Marchesi: The Great Italian (2017) remains as a testament to his life’s work and vision for Italian cuisine.
As an innovator who put art at the centre of his creations, Gualtiero Marchesi will go down in culinary history. But his respect for the traditions and simplicity of Italian food will always make him legend.