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Focus February 2018

Gualtiero Marchesi and Paul Bocuse are gone

Yet their principles and many valiant pupils remain.

Our friend Gualtiero Marchesi has left us, aged 87. The undisputed Master of high-end Italian restaurant cuisine, he had trained a multitude of top chefs including Carlo Cracco, Paolo Lopriore, Andrea Berton, Pietro Leemann, Enrico Crippa, Davide Oldani and Ernst Knam. He had opened his first restaurant relatively late, in 1977, at the age of 47: occupying a basement in Milan’s Via Bonvesin de la Riva, it garnered immediate success. I remember that Edoardo Raspelli invited me to try it and I was favourably impressed. The descent into a subterranean windowless environment didn’t initially endear the place to me (as I experienced years later, going to eat at Carlo Cracco’s restaurant). Nevertheless, it was immediately clear that this was a new mode of cuisine, brimming with inventiveness and ability, and a new type of establishment where, for the first time, one might spend 200,000 Lire. Sure enough, a Michelin star duly arrived, followed by another in 1978 and a third in 1985. Marchesi was the first three-starred Italian cook. Subsequently, for various reasons, he left this brain-child of his to relocate far from Milan, to the Albereta hotel in Franciacorta. The relocation wasn’t advantageous: a scathing review in The Espresso and the loss of one star fuelled his unprecedented gesture of ‘returning’ the stars, declining to appear any longer in the ‘red guide’. Other efforts to market his name - on McDonald’s hamburgers and Surgela ready meals - did not produce the desired success. He then returned to Milan, opening his Marchesino restaurant and the Foundation headquartered in the very birthplace of his career, Via Bonvesin de la Riva, and became rector of the Alma International School of Italian Cuisine in Colorno, which he founded in 2004. A member of the “Franco Marenghi” Study Centre for several years, he had always hosted, and invariably attended, its meetings: a charming raconteur, generous with his advice. Only for the last meeting did his illness force him to be absent, sending his Foundation’s Vice-President Enrico Dandolo in his place. An observation of his remains valid and current: “Food is beloved by the stomach. But we must have eyes to admire it, a mind to discuss it, a heart to appreciate it...”.
Only days after we lost Gualtiero Marchesi, another eminent Master of haute cuisine passed away in France at the venerable age of 91: Paul Bocuse, Monsieur Paul, a superlative chef, inventor of nouvelle cuisine and cuisine du marché, who trained generations of chefs all over the world. In his (very kitsch) Auberge in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or near Lyons, he was the only chef ever to retain three Michelin stars for 50 years, and the first chef to receive the Legion d’Honneur, personally delivered in 1975 by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing for whom he invented the celebrated VGE Soup (a black truffle broth in a cup, covered by a thick layer of puff pastry). It remains on the menu at his restaurant. He leaves an empire of 700 employees, a prestigious cooking school at Ecully, and restaurants in Orlando, Tokyo, New York and London. As a young Florence Delegate I had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago at an Academy conference attended by the greats of nouvelle cuisine: Bocuse, Roger Verger and Jacques Maximin. I recall a simple, tall, smiling man, a genuine lover of good food, who preferred bread and salami with friends over large elaborate dishes. I remember him saying: “for me there’s no new, or old, or classic cuisine - merely good cuisine”. To avoid hypocrisy, I’ll admit that the Academy has never been enthralled by the infinitesimal portions lurking under the cloche, the barely cooked green beans and the exorbitant prices of nouvelle cuisine, and in truth we don’t know how enthusiastic Bocuse himself was about certain affected overinterpretations of his philosophy emphasised by the French journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau; but most of his dishes were good and free from excess. As a consummate gourmet, he knew the strengths of Italian cuisine, observing: “When your cooks discover the value of your products, nobody else will stand a chance”. Four years ago he was to deliver an award to Gualtiero Marchesi in Montecatini Terme, but was prevented by Parkinson’s disease. He was the first media-savvy cook, but as a wise thinker he left behind an observation which is particularly valid nowadays: “I lured cooks out of the kitchen, but now they would do well to go back in”. Well said, Monsieur Paul!

Paolo Petroni