Gualtiero Marchesi, Renowned (and Feisty) Chef, Dies at 87
Posted January 17, 2018 2:52 p.m. EST
Not many chefs earn the coveted three-star rating from the Michelin Red Guide. Almost none who do later tell Michelin to buzz off.
Gualtiero Marchesi, a chef and restaurateur widely credited with being the father of modern Italian cuisine, did both, in an influential career that helped elevate traditional Italian food to international acclaim.
Marchesi died Dec. 26 in Milan. He was 87. The death was confirmed by the Fondazione Gualtiero Marchesi, which supports the fine arts and the culinary arts.
“Gualtiero Marchesi is the Chef of Chefs in Italy, or, as we always call him, the Maestro,” the chef Fabio Trabocchi, whose restaurants include Fiola in Washington, said by email. “His role as a chef was instrumental in paving the road for countless Italian chefs in this century and the last. His work to refine and personalize Italian regional cooking was revolutionary.”
Marchesi was born on March 19, 1930, in Milan. He began learning the culinary trade by observing and working in the kitchen of the restaurant in his parents’ small hotel.
He continued his learning at the Kulm Hotel in Switzerland and at several notable restaurants in France, including Ledoyen in Paris. In 1977, he opened his own restaurant in Milan, named after himself, and it quickly drew attention, receiving one star — signifying a very good restaurant in its category — from Michelin, the French rating guide. Soon came a second star (excellent and worth a detour), but the third star proved elusive.
Critics of the Michelin system had long said it was biased in favor of French cuisine and a certain type of formal dining that ran counter to Italy’s more relaxed mealtime tradition.
“I am convinced that my dishes can honorably compete with anybody’s,” Marchesi told The New York Times in early 1985, his restaurant still stuck at two stars, “but maybe we still are somewhat lacking in choreography, also because we in Italy don’t really have a three-star public.”
Marchesi mixed ideas he had picked up during his sojourn in France with regional Italian recipes and ingredients. One dish was a risotto adorned with a gold foil leaf.
In December 1985 the breakthrough occurred: His restaurant became the first in Italy to receive a third Michelin star.
The award, he said at the time, “gives the prize not only to me but also to the renaissance of Italian cooking that has been in progress for the last 10 years.”
Marchesi capitalized on his renown with numerous ventures — a line of frozen foods, for instance, and a signature Gualtiero Marchesi Liqueur. He closed his Milan restaurant in 1992 but quickly opened another about 45 miles to the east in the luxury hotel L’Albereta, in Erbusco. He was soon branching out further, providing managing services to other restaurants and striking a deal with the Costa cruise line to create menus for its ships.
Marchesi’s interest in promoting regional Italian cuisine grew along with his reputation, and in 2004 he opened Alma, a cooking school in Parma, to promote, as he put it, “high cooking as applied to everyday recipes.”
With success came pressures, as Marchesi told The South China Morning Post in 1995 during a trip to Hong Kong as a guest chef.
“The best part about being the first Italian chef to be awarded three stars was the satisfaction of gaining recognition for Italian food,” he said. The worst part, he continued, was having to maintain that standard.
“Every dish we prepare, every meal we serve, every day we have to reconfirm our reputation,” he said.
In 2008, when Michelin knocked his Erbusco restaurant down to one star from two (it, like his original restaurant, had once had three), he called a news conference and announced that he was repudiating the rating system.
“I do no want to be judged by guides using points or stars,” he said, adding, “I realize I run the risk of not being in any guides, but this is a risk which I can take at my age.”
Yet when Michelin dropped him from the guide entirely later that year, Marchesi was furious.
“Faced with a case of lèse-majesté, the Red Guide has responded with a beheading,” he said. “I regard it as an out-and-out attack on Italian cuisine and its symbols.”
The next year, when a second Italian chef, Ezio Santin, rejected his Michelin rating, Fausto Arrighi, a Michelin representative, fired back.
“They were excellent chefs, but in Marchesi’s restaurants in particular, the food is not what it once was,” he said.
Marchesi caused another stir in 2011, when he created two new hamburgers and a dessert for McDonald’s restaurants in Italy. One burger, the Vivace, he topped with ingredients typical of Northern Italy, including spinach; the other, the Adagio, featured flavors of Sicily. (The box for that one, according to The Atlantic, read, “An embrace of eggplant mousse harmonizes with tasty grated ricotta, fresh tomatoes, and beef.”)
Some culinary figures mocked him, but Marchesi brushed off the criticisms.
“If I had to worry about all the comments that have been made about me, I wouldn’t have arrived anywhere,” he told The Atlantic.
Marchesi is survived by his wife, Antonietta Cassisa, whom he married in 1957; two daughters, Simona Marchesi Dandolo and Paola Marchesi Magada; and five grandchildren.
Stars or no, Marchesi was a pivotal figure for the current generation of Italian chefs.
“Gualtiero made Italian cuisine known to the world and made it possible for Italian chefs to be recognized and celebrated,” Trabocchi said. “His genius impacted and touched culinary schools and educational programs throughout the world.”