[....] "You see, for your footprint to remain, you need to build. It takes the time needed to do this, not a moment. When you're at the base of the pyramid, you don't even see around the corner and you think you know everything, you feel everything. When you get to the top, you understand how much you don't know.
“What did you understand from your peak?».
“That I’m like the Po, which is born on Monviso: the river rises - a pissada (regional nickname for the river Po), as my friend Gianni Brera used to say - then gradually meets streams and torrents, it swells and arrives at a larger mouth. The tributaries are the things I have absorbed: history, geography, music, cooking. In the end I became the Po, but only because I learned little. Otherwise I would be the Amazon River.”
“You could still become it.”
“At most I could try to be the Rhine or the Danube, but only for a matter of time ". [...] (1)
On December 26th 2017, Gualtiero Marchesi decided to reach his beloved wife Antonietta and leave this land. He was sick, everybody knew it, but he went around (almost) as if nothing was wrong. The strength of the character, as James Hillmann wrote, becomes manifest especially at the end of a life.
The condolences to his death were general, international. Those who crossed him on their own path, even once, had the desire to "accompany" him with a gesture, a word, a memory. As famous people become a little family.
And in the case of master Gualtiero it is difficult to remember him regardless of himself. Let me explain. As far as I can see, Marchesi was generous in his approach to his neighbor: he proudly and amusingly gave pieces of his knowledge - his tributaries - thus giving significance to every encounter. Gualtiero Marchesi was a cook, but even before that he was a curious person, so intriguing, making sure that from every contact one returned home with a new "tributary". If you think about it for a moment, it does not happen with all people. And it is perhaps this that leads him, who wants to remember him, to start from himself, from that small or large "tributary" left to him by the master. Even without his knowledge. To me, for example, he has clarified the ideas on how talent, when there is, can emerge even through unlikely ways.
The first time, out of a handful of others, I met him was for a cameo to be inserted in the opening of my book, from which the exchange of jokes at the beginning of this article was drawn. I had decided to tell the great chefs "far from the kitchen" net of recipes and gastronomic statements. It was back in 2008, soon after the very long wave of Masterchef and its surroundings, with the links and connections of stardom between pots and fires, a question – the stardom - on which Marchesi dwelt only to settle it with one of his jokes: You know, I was born in a village, San Zenone Po, where the inhabitants are equally divided between chefs and doctors: the latter treat the illnesses caused by the former. With these premises, according to you, can a chef act like a star?
On that first appointment I felt a little bit in awe. Of him I had heard many things said and one more insistent than the others: Marchesi is presumptuous, egocentric, touchy. In short, you should “handle” him. Even if reflecting for a second, all people “should be handled”, right?
"Master, I am very afraid of you so I will go on offence", I said, triggering something that Marchesi liked very much: the tight exchange of jokes. That time he did not take out of his pocket any of his post-it with author quotations. He was known for this habit that someone was contesting him: he's just someone who quotes! True, but not out of proportion, for this reason certain times certain aphorisms remained memorable. So, playing both on small harmless provocations (for example: Master why there are no women in your brigades? Do you want the truth? Females have become dangerous. And I keep myself away from them.), in that meeting we found the key to rebuild a piece of Italian cuisine's history without forgetting that "we are just talking about cooks, dear lady, it takes humility, even if one is as presumptuous as me".
From the beginning the stories were filled with smiles and irony, above all his own, because he was used to saying what he really thought but making aesthetically more acceptable even improper thoughts. He went into lightness, but did not miss an opportunity for (almost) philosophical "dunks". On the other hand, he often repeated that "as a grown-up" he would have been a thinker, since "the cook is only a child with little desire to grow up".
I asked him if he remembered his first love. And for a fraction of a second he was overthrown with my greatest joy. He noticed it and as a "loyal contender" he recognized the point: "look what memories you made me catch up! Angelina from San Zenone!” He said smiling with his eyes. And then: "In any case it's good for you to know it: one loves only one woman in any case. The others are just needed to reach “that one and only”.
Here is Gualtiero, who with a leap, a quick fish tail blow of the Baltic re-establishes the route: his own. And the direction for him has never been the past: Marchesi declared himself to be a contemporary of him, which always meant staying in the present, if anything anticipating the future. And you could also see it from a simple, cheerful chat.
In that first circumstance, I was immediately struck by evidence - the culture of Marchesi, anomalous for a chef, especially for the times in which he lived and worked - and then by a kind of revelation embodied in his path: talent - precisely - when there is finds any way to emerge. There I realized - and then I had confirmation of it in other following meetings - that the true, original knack of Gualtiero Marchesi was not cooking, but beauty combined with an innovative, disruptive strength: "Beauty is good, in all the arts" and "Shape is substance" are two concepts that he proposed a thousand times, like a mantra.
On some occasions he said that he became a cook a little by chance - which is often said by those who succeed in a profession - despite the fact that his hotel was certainly a starting point. Here it is, in that encounter for me a perception was crystal clear: Marchesi was the type of person bound to bring about an important change whatever he had done. A real innovator, a "contemporary of himself" even overtaken by his eighty years. “Even at my age in my head ideas do not stop chasing each other," he said. In fact, before leaving, he laid the foundations for a final project, to which he was really attached: the creation of a retirement home for retired chefs. A commitment that today follows the Gualtiero Marchesi Foundation, chaired by his son-in-law Enrico Dandolo, who is also organizing a great event to commemorate the master on his birthday, the next 19th March 2018.
And therefore: the title Marchesi si nasce chosen for his last book (published by Rizzoli) is not an act of presumption. Gualtiero has made the History of contemporary Italian cuisine, but in a certain sense it was only an accident. Its essence lies in having demonstrated that if you listen to your genius and face obstacles, vocation finds its way, no matter where you go. “It takes passion, which is excitement of the soul, as the Latin people used to say" he told me, so you can have fun, wondering how to see through which maze or highway talent will take shape, I thought. Marchesi, curious until the end, throughout his life was amazed and let himself be taken by hand by the "chance" that put him in front of the cookers. The genius born with him, made that occasion his work of art and, in this way, honored life.
(1) Gualtiero Marchesi's words taken from the cameo chat-interview in Spiriti bollenti. Ritratti terrestri di 21 chef stellari by Guido Tommasi Editore.
English translation by Antonella Di Liddo