THE FIRST WOMAN CHEF IN ITALY WITH 3 MICHELIN STARS
In 1993-4 Annie Féolde became the first woman chef in Italy to be awarded a third Michelin star, which she still holds today. Another two women in Italy have since achieved this feat: Nadia Santi at Del Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio in the province of Mantua, and Luisa Valazza at Al Sorriso in the town of Soriso in the province of Novarra in Piedmont. Outside of Italy there are another four: Carmen Ruscadella and Elena Arzak in Spain; Anne-Sophie Pic in France and Clare Smyth in the United Kingdom.
In May of this year Leonardo Castelucci, a highly-respected journalist, writer, and publisher, published a delightful double interview/biographical profile of both Annie Féolde and her husband Giorgio Pinchiorri, a world-famous sommelier. The volume entitled “Pinchiorri a Due Voci” (The Pinchiorri Duet) celebrates the 40th anniversary of their co-ownership of Enoteca Pinchiorri, the world-famous and elegant restaurant located in the same Renaissance palace where Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485-1528) was born, on Via Ghibellina near the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Here Lucy Gordan, Epicurean-Traveler.com’s European Bureau Chief, interviewed Annie Féolde last June.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
AF: Genuine country home-style cooking. Although I was born and grew up in Nice, where my father’s family had owned a hotel, my mother’s family had a farm in central France near St. Étienne à Le Chambon sur Lignon. It’s a fairly well-known place because there’s a university there. I remember that we ate unique local dishes, not repeatable elsewhere. For example, a simple vegetable soup, both because of its ingredients grown in my grandmother’s garden and because of its spring water, didn’t taste the same away from there. Even if we took everything to Nice and made the soup there, it tasted different. In short, the very best genuine ingredients, even if simple, above all vegetables and eggs, are my first impressions, memories of food.
In reading your charming double “autobiography,” The Pinchiorri Duet, it seemed as if your grandmothers, Sophie, your father’s mother, and Lydie, your mother’s mother, were your first mentors; is that right?
AF: Lydie was a very good woman. She’d had several children, five in all, three of whom died as children, so she was content to make her remaining family, especially my brother and me, happy. Her honesty, her simplicity, her gentleness, and her love were very special for me. My other grandmother, Sophie, owned a hotel, so her aim in life was to please her guests. She was a good cook, but she cared just as much about the art of setting the table, that everything looked and was perfect, and about hospitality in general. Hers was an important, crucial I’d say, upbringing, example for me. Sophie was very severe; she was German-Swiss. I had to behave perfectly at the table; my table manners had to be impeccable and, if they weren’t, she punished me. From my grandmother Sophie I learned to set and keep high standards, to work hard at my goals, and to be a self-disciplined yet gracious hostess. Instead, from my grandmother Lydie I learned goodness of heart, generosity, simplicity, and honesty. All the most important things in life I learned from her. Grandma Lydie was a saint. People called her a saint even when she was still alive. In fact, she was a saint for all of us who’d had the good fortune to know her!
As soon as you finished secondary school in Nice, you sought your independence. Your first destination was Marseilles and then Paris, where you worked as a postal employee. Then, thanks to your love of languages, you went to London where you got a job as dogsitter, before you came here to Florence to study Italian. How did you support yourself here at first?
AF: I’ve always been a free spirit, even as a child. Yes, my first job gave me freedom of mind and economic security. It also gave me the security to be able to travel and the responsibility to organize my life on my own. Several members of my mother’s family worked for the French postal system so I was lucky to be transferred early on to Paris. My grandmother Lydie was widowed very young. She had already lost two of her children and was pregnant again when my grandfather died at about age 30 of complications after surgery on his back. He’d worked for the postal system so, after his death, Grandma Lydie had precedence to get a job there too. Both she and then my aunt always worked for the French P.O. My mother, instead, got a job at the Hotel Negresco, probably the most luxurious hotel in Nice. I have lots of happy memories of going there. For example, every year I was invited as a child to the lighting of the Christmas tree. There for the first time I saw luxury, refined people, and happy, smiling faces.
However, let’s return to your question. I quickly understood that working for the French P.O. wasn’t for me, that it was leading to nothing. So I decided to study the two languages I’d already studied in school. So I took off for England. I found a place to live with a childless couple with a dog, a Labrador puppy named Sammy. I couldn’t have landed luckier. I love dogs. In return for food and board they asked me to speak French to them and to walk Sammy.
I’d hoped to repeat my luck in Italy. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Florence, the family I was to live with, had said yes to me and yes to another girl. The other girl had arrived before me so I was left in the lurch with nowhere to live. However, I had no intention of leaving Florence, so I found a job working in a restaurant here in downtown Florence to cover my rent. It wasn’t a difficult job. Even if I didn’t have money for the tuition in a language school, I could talk to the clients and so learned Italian that way. Instead of staying a year as I’d planned, I met Giorgio. It was 1970. I soon understood that he had a clear mindset and alluring ambitions so I decided to jump on his bandwagon. I soon understood that with him I would have the possibility of a pleasant life, even if there’d be hurdles at times. My life would have goals and be full of contacts with refined people. I was right. It’s been just as I thought. I learned many things and I continue to learn every day. My every day is a 360 degree search to improve professionally and culturally. It’s a constant personal challenge on how to behave, how to find new guests and keep them, but also on how to help others in need: the elderly, sick children as well as prisoners in jail on the Tuscan island of Gorgona.
Please tell me more about this project?
AF: I was asked to give a second chance to the prisoners on Gorgona. I was happy to do so. It’s a socially beneficial act for people, who, yes, committed a serious mistake, but shouldn’t remain without hope. By working here for me, I will give them a better chance of finding a job after they’re released from jail. The program has only just started so, so far no one from Gorgona has worked here.
If you hadn’t met Giorgio, would you have gone back to Nice and worked in a hotel?
AF: No, I doubt it. I would have looked for a job connected to tourism for certain, but obviously I never looked deeply into this possibility. I would have looked for a job in tourism because I love to travel and learn about other countries. I’ve achieved everything I aspired to. Because of my success in the restaurant world I’ve been invited to many, many countries around the world to promote Italian cuisine or to attend professional meetings. For example Les Relais Châteaux sponsors events or holds meetings in the countries where we have members. I travel often and this gives me a lot of satisfaction.
A blurb on the cover of The Pinchiorri Duet recounts that during your first meeting you and Giorgio argued about wine and then cheese, but… So what made you fall in love with Giorgio?
AF: His character, of course, his vitality, his detailed research about wine, his ambition and goals. It’s special to live with someone who’s passionate about his or her interests. I also admired the gracious ways in which he welcomed people, and his never-ending quest for the highest quality. I love these aspects of him and I still do because this quest never ends. There is always room for improvement.
What are Giorgio’s best qualities?
AF: When I first met Giorgio in 1970, he wasn’t yet 30 years old, but he was already very decisive, very quick on his feet, thin, and always elegantly dressed. He really cared about dressing elegantly. When, like me, you love beauty and beautiful things, you can’t help but be attracted to a person who takes care of his or her appearance, aren’t I right? He’s always been very handsome and full of things to research, talk about, and explain.
What would he say are your best qualities, the same?
AF: No, I don’t think so. He would say I’m French so he mixes me up with my nationality. He’s always loved France so by marrying me he found a way to be closer to his beloved France.
AF: Giorgio is always in a hurry so he misses opportunities. It’s not true that you always have to think about what will happen tomorrow or the next day. You should concern yourself with today calmly and seriously instead of ignoring today for what you might do tomorrow or afterwards. I think it’s better to accomplish things step by step and take care of every detail. Instead Giorgio would say I’m too slow, that I weigh every tiny detail, that I procrastinate. Yes, I’m sure that’s what he’d say about me.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef? From The Pinchiorri Duet it seems that rather than a decision it was a vocation which you sensed in order to help Giorgio but which was already in your DNA, right?
AF: At the beginning I certainly did not want to become a chef precisely because I knew what it meant, since I grew up in the hotel world. Exactly what sacrifices it incurred: no free time, physical but also mental strength! I didn’t want to be a chef, but I liked to cook and make other people feel good. This passion of mine overcame my reservations.
After Enoteca Pinchiorri opened, you would count Luigi Veronelli as another of your mentors and of Giorgio too, right? What did you learn from him?
AF: Veronelli made an impression on us because he always had the desire to promote all top food products, not just the best French and Italian wines. First he compiled a catalog of Italian wines, but then another of wines worldwide. Whatever he did, he did with passion, with enthusiasm. He was a leader. He moved mountains. He was special because of his indefatigability. He had a heart of gold, but he was also a bit fierce and outspoken. If there was something he didn’t like, that didn’t make sense to him, or was rude or disrespectful, he’d say so. He was highly criticized for this and even sued because he said what he thought. Many people, if they felt criticized, resented his insightfulness. If someone hears himself called “a nasty piece of work” and knows that it’s true, he feels a little ill at ease.
Has it been difficult to work together all day everyday, or have you found a modus vivendi to leave your problems here at the Enoteca when you go home?
AF: No, never. We took our work with us at all times wherever we were. We still don’t talk much about other things. Our work is our life.
What are the essential qualities to become a top chef like you?
AF: You must respect your ingredients, but also be curious about how they’re different in the various regions of Italy. If we used all the fresh products we have in Italy, it would be a miracle because they are endless, but many are not well-known so go unused. If we increased our knowledge with regard to all the food products available, there’d be enough to learn to spend our entire life in the kitchen. To be a top chef, it’s not enough to be talented and inventive. A top chef must have humanity and humility, care for others, be patient with his or her apprentices, have respect for everyone, especially his or her team. Here at the “Enoteca”they’re not in the majority, but we work with people who’ve been members of our team for 20 or 30 years. We’re one big family with our good and our bad qualities. To be a top chef you need to want to evolve, to improve, to create new dishes. A personal evolution is essential. You can’t stand still, rest on your laurels if you’ve created a dish that you like, even if your guests like it too. You need to take risks for a better future.
In a nutshell how would you define your cuisine?
AF: My cuisine is Italian and contemporary. I use high-quality top ingredients and with an eye towards the evolution of the times which keep changing. Society keeps changing and extremely quickly so we can’t pretend, as I said before, to rest on our laurels. We have to keep looking for new outlets.
What are your specialties? Are they the “historic” dishes illustrated in The Pinchiorri Duet?
AF: The “historic” dishes in The Pinchiorri Duet used to be my specialties, but they’re not my present ones, even if we put them on the menu from time to time because they’re good and popular. We’ve recently changed our menu because the season changed. It’s summertime now we propose lighter dishes like “Fresh Strawberries with olive oil in an infusion of roses and other flowers, lavender ice cream, and strawberry gelatin,” “Agnolotti filled with ricotta and mint with a tomato, shrimp and saffron sauce,” and “Lobster with rosemary, sweet and sour peppers and floured with chickpeas.”
What are the reasons for your enormous success, which has lasted for so many years?
AF: First and foremost I know that a cellar like ours doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s always been one of our advantages. Then that my cuisine succeeded in reaching the same high-quality as Giorgio’s cellar on the one hand was necessary and on the other was a great personal satisfaction for me. It inspired me to keep trying to improve my style and my creativity. I love this quest for improvement. As I’ve said before, I don’t like to prepare the same dishes over and over again. I like to keep evolving, but never in a rush.
Do you still have your restaurant in Nagoya in Japan?
AF: Yes, but as consultants to the owners. For the time being we’re in Nagoya, but we’re evaluating a proposal to reopen in Tokyo. Next month I’m going there to evaluate firsthand whether the proposal will work out. There’s always room for improvement. Earlier today I received request to do a culinary promotion in Hong Kong at the same hotel where in the past I‘ve done two others. The same hotel wants me as a consultant. I’m tempted because the people in Hong Kong are very lively, even if they’re always too much in a rush. It’s easier to be a consultant and not the owner because you can change the menu complete with photographs of your proposed new dishes over the Internet or by phone. Of course you can’t taste the final outcome, which might have needed a little adjustment. It’s not that difficult to have one restaurant far away, but what marvels me is when they become 30. Obviously I’m referring to Jean-Georges Vongerichten who owns more than 30 restaurants all over the world.
Besides Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, what other chefs do you admire?
AF: Many, truly many. We’re all colleagues. Besides the sacred monsters, Bocuse and the
Troisgros brothers, luckily there are many great, great chefs, each with his own personal style, different from all the others, so it depends on my mood, on the occasion, which one I admire the most. I don’t just admire one chef and that’s it, the only one! Once in a while I like to go to one or to another depending on the occasion or my mood at that specific time. I admire all the greatest chefs because each one has something to say. For example, Frédéric Anton, the chef at Le Pré Catalan in Paris, comes to mind. He’s fantastic! I had the opportunity to eat at his restaurant for a Les Relais Châteaux event. He made an unforgettable dessert, a very light sugar bubble with ice cream and other ingredients inside. It was divine, ever so refined that I remember it as if it were in front of me now. The same is true of a stupendous dessert in a cognac snifter I had at “Quay” in the port of Sydney, one of the most award-winning restaurants in Australia. The chef is Peter Gilmore. There are chefs, restaurants, dishes, tastes, that make deeper impressions than others. For example, the other day on my way to the prison on Gorgona, because of its proximity, I stopped to eat at Luciano Zazzeri’s La Pineta in Bibbona near Livorno. He serves only fish. What an exceptional meal! He’s an artist, a genius in the kitchen!
A woman chef that you admire?
AF: All of them.
You arehelped in the kitchen by your two Executive Chefs, Italo Bassi and Riccardo Monco; how do you divide the responsibilities?
AF: I brainstorm, organize, quality-check everything with them. I taste their dishes and propose some changes and new twists. They divide their duties in the kitchen between themselves and they work very well together. They compensate each other well both character-wise and culinary-wise. Italo Bassi is more of a manager; he shuts himself in the office after dinner because he likes to prepare all the orders for the next day the night before. Instead, Riccardo Monco is the artist and an excellent photographer. He likes to present his dishes choreographically laid out on the plate. He took all the photographs in record time for the only cookbook we ever published before The Pinchiorri Duet.
Do they always follow your advice?
AF: It’s a never-ending tug-of-war. I’m forever trying to explain to those two and to the other cooks under them the following concept: you have to put yourself in the clients’shoes. Without a doubt Italo and Riccardo don’t spare themselves; they cook and afterwards they think they’ve done the very best they could, but that’s not necessarily so. For example, they mustn’t create dishes that are difficult to eat, that can easily spot the diners’ clothes. Their dishes can’t only be good and pretty to look at; they must be respectful of the diner, and of course of their special diets if they have allergies or religious concerns. We always have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free dishes in the kitchen ready to serve. That’s part and parcel of being professional.
What advice do you have for a young chef who’s just starting out?
AF: They should be sure that being a chef is the right profession for them, a job they’ll enjoy. They have to put out of their minds that being a chef means a life of sacrifices, because realistically-speaking every job has its demands and negative aspects. Therefore my first and only piece of advice to a young would-be chef is to develop his or her passion for cooking. The rest will follow automatically.
Certainly the most terrible experience of your career has to have been the fire set by arsonists in 1992 which severely damaged Giorgio’s cellar, yet it seems that it was you who encouraged him not to close the restaurant, right?
AF: Yes, it was truly terrible and yes, it was I who convinced Giorgio not to close the restaurant.
In 1995 you lost your third Michelin star (which you’ve since regained), which must have been devastating for you.
AF: Yes, that too was a devastating experience. I never would have imagined it. Obviously, when you put so much devotion into your work, you think that you’ve satisfied everyone in every way. The real reason was that many Michelin reviewers came to the “Enoteca” when we were not there and so they thought that we were giving precedence to our restaurant in Japan. That same year, in 1992, that we opened our restaurant in Japan, we suffered the arsonist’s fire here and received our third Michelin star. That great news came at the same time that we were battling the insurance companies. We’d never had such a terrible experience. We had to open some of the bottles that survived the fire to prove to the insurance companies the gravity of the damage we’d suffered, first with two sommeliers present, one representing us, the other the insurance companies and later with three sommeliers and a referee. We were fully caught up in, occupied with this tragedy for two years. The stakes were very high. In the end we did get some money back, but not the full value of our cellar and I lost my third star because we were so preoccupied with the insurance companies and completely stressed out.
The event that you are proudest of?
AF: When in 2006 the French Government nominated me Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merité. The French Ambassador to Italy in Rome awarded me my medal here in Florence. It gave me great satisfaction because I wasn’t expecting it at all. In 1994 I’d received another award that had pleased me deeply: Il Premio Internazionale Caterina de’Medici [The International Prize Catherine de’ Medici] because it compared me to one of the greatest Italian women in history who married a king of France.
I had another great satisfaction last November when I invited to lunch here the elderly guests at the nearby home for the elderly, Montedomini. Instead of going there to fix their meal, they came here to the “Enoteca.” It was a very moving occasion.
Past assistants of whom you are most proud?
AF: You live in Rome so you should go to eat at Pagliaccio. Anthony Genovese already has two Michelin stars. He worked here when he was younger. I admire him greatly.
Up to now we have talked about Annie Féolde the chef with three Michelin stars, but I think my readers would like to know more about Annie Féolde the person. For example, what’s your zodiac sign?
AF: I’m a Gemini; Giorgio is a Libra. Usually two air signs don’t get along.
What are your favorite foods?
AF: When I’m at home, I like to eat simply, lots of vegetables and gorgonzola, which is my favorite cheese. I’ve always loved ice cream. I used to compete with my mother about who could eat the most ice cream. My favorite flavor is hazelnut. I also love chocolates. I used to forbid myself to eat chocolate; now, if I don’t eat chocolate every day, I’m not content.
Your favorite wines?
AF: I no longer prefer the great French reds that I loved when I was young. Now I prefer white wine, especially Chardonnays, and in particular those from Friuli. I also love Cloudy Bay from New Zealand. Even though it’s not a Chardonnay, it’s fantastic.
Your favorite color?
AF: Emerald green, electric blue, red, all bright colors.
Your favorite flower?
AF: Roses and peonies. They’re romantic.
Your favorite spice?
Your favorite cooking utensil?
AF: Pastamatic, the electric pasta machine.
A dish you don’t like?
AF: I eat everything French and Italian.
Five items that are never missing in your refrigerator?
AF: My fridge is often empty because I’m almost always here at the “Enoteca.” Only when I decide to research and invent new dishes, then I have to make space in my fridge. Nonetheless, there is always water, wine, non-alcoholic beer, mayonnaise, French butter, and some prosciutto and bresaola, and perhaps some cheese. I only drink French water, “La Volvic.”
Where do you like to go on vacation?
AF: Nice of course.
Chefs are known for having collections, often of motorcycles, fast cars or fancy watches; do you have a collection?
AF: Yes, knick-knacks of all kinds of horses, always in pairs and made of all kinds of materials. I have so many now I have no more space. I have them made of cord, of wood, of porcelain, of semi-precious stones, of different metals, of crystal, of gold. I’m missing only those made of diamonds. I chose the horse because it’s the most elegant animal.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what profession would you have chosen?
AF: Interior decorator.
In your press kit you and your husband say that you still have many dreams, ideas and projects to realize, can you give me a short list?
AF: You could call my projects for the future “wanderers.” I would like to leave some good advice for the people who look to me as an example to follow. For this reason I collaborated and contributed to The Pinchiorri Duet to show that our careers developed out of serious research, very hard work, and enormous satisfaction. I’d like to show people how they can find fulfillment if they have a passion for what they do, not only in our field, but in many professions. You can make progress in any profession. You have to be considerate of the people around you; you cannot think only of yourself; you have to set a good example. Giorgio and I are responsible for two of our chefs in the kitchen, another two waiters, and one person who works in the cellar. They’ve all been with us for more than twenty if not thirty years. They have done such a good job for us that we must think of their future. They know every detail about what goes on here. They know every detail of the ambience and about our guests. If we’ve sweated together, worked hard to make this restaurant and cellar what it is today, it would ideal to pass the restaurant on to these long-term collaborators rather than see it transformed into a shoe shop.
Can you give me more specifics about one of your projects already underway?
AF: Recently I’ve been asked to participate in a project sponsored by the Les Relais Châteaux Foundation: to protect the gastronomy and wines and their traditions in France, but also in other countries. I say to start with France because Les Relais Châteaux was born in France.
Just a couple of days ago a woman asked me to help her research a very profound and all-inclusive study of the bonds between food and culture in France and in Italy and to compare my conclusions for France with those of Italy. That’s such a huge and overwhelming subject that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. It’s like a long chain, each link of which must be thoroughly explained: top-quality cuisine is connected to interior decorating; interior decoration is connected to artisanry; artisanry is connected to culture and art. I don’t believe that I create dishes only for the stomach. I create them for the intellect and spirit too.
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