Articles in Chefs
Mexican cuisine has no high or low. Unlike in French, Chinese or Japanese cooking, it is from the humble tradition of everyday kitchens that most Mexican recipes are culled. The difference is more a matter of degree of luxury in presentation than of basic cooking concepts.
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In recent years, a culinary trend has emerged from the kitchens of a new generation of chefs called Nueva Cocina Mexicana or Modern Mexican. Utilizing international culinary techniques, but working with traditional Mexican recipes and ingredients, these cooks have created a body of dishes as well as a contemporary context for serving and eating them.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of presentation: Martha Ortiz’s duck in black mole varies little from that eaten in an old Oaxacan home. But it is elegantly served on contemporary designer china in a streamlined, posh venue in Mexico City’s Polanco area, surrounded by less standard accompaniments, and chased with a nice Baja Chardonnay. Or take Patricia Quintana’s salmon appetizer with its vanilla-infused dressing: nothing time-honored here but for the separate ingredients. And Mónica Patiño’s chicken soup perfumed with té de limón — that’s Thai lemongrass sold in every market across the country, but never before served at a Mexican dinner table.
An earlier generation of chefs have paved the way for an extraordinary renaissance of fresh, creative cooking, led by star chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol, now head chef at New York’s Cosme. Young culinary-institute-trained chefs are returning to their roots while exploring contemporary concepts developed in Europe. Mexico City has become an amazing place to discover not only the wide range of classic and regional cooking but also new traditions being forged every day.
Main photo: An appetizer of marinated raw scallops in “ash vinegar” with cucumber and cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sud 777
From dining on a romantic island in the Venetian lagoon to feasting on handmade pasta in Bologna, northern Italy’s gastronomic capital, this list guides you to the best places to eat in Italy’s northeast. Award-winning food writer Carla Capalbo has spent more than 20 years eating her way around Italy and has uncovered its best-kept secrets, from new-wave pizza to the elegant restaurant of one of the world’s top female chefs. She’s brought together great food for every budget, from take-away noodles to three-Michelin-star refinement.
With this list as your guide — the first of a series — you’ll have a fabulous eating holiday in Italy — whether you go in person or just dream from your armchair.
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Main photo: At Venissa restaurant in Venice, fresh squid is served on a bed of black risotto. Credit: Copyright 2013 Carla Capalbo
Traveling to Europe this summer? If your plans include Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark, Zester Daily’s community of food writers knows a few restaurants you won’t want to miss. These are our favorite spots — our personal bucket list of dining destinations we share with our closest friends.
The most important thing for us is the food. It has to be exceptional. But we also love beautiful places and nice people, so rest assured that our favorite spots will feed you body and soul. Alfresco dining ranks high on our preferences. And we are equally fond of the culinary extremes of cutting-edge innovation and home-spun comfort. We celebrate cultural traditions wherever they are delivered with care and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.
As you chart your European vacation, allow for side trips to these delightful dining rooms. Some will dazzle you. Others will enfold you. None will disappoint. Happy travels!
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Main photo: High on a peak in the Dolomites — accessible only by gondola, horse-driven carriage or skis – sits Gostner Schwaige, a rustic cabin where chef Franz Mulser serves exquisite South Tyrolean cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2015 South Tyrol Marketing Corporation
Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.
Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.
Teaching chefs to cook for health
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At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.
Food as a cure for what ails us
Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.
The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.
“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.
Beyond a diet of grated carrots
“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.
“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”
In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.
Slimming cuisine based on research
Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.
“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”
You can eat dessert on a diet
The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.
A dynamic and lasting legacy
Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.
Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
Zester Daily’s community of food writers recently put their heads together to create a bucket list of restaurants too wonderful to miss. These are the places where we’ve eaten that we tell our dearest friends they must visit. These are the places that, at journey’s end, make the whole trip worthwhile.
While beautiful settings are often part of the package with these restaurants, the food is the main attraction. That does not mean these dining rooms are all well known outside of their home towns. Our list includes high-toned and down-home restaurants scattered across the country. And we obviously enjoy dining with family and friends. If children are beyond booster seats and moderately well-behaved, they can join your dinner party at nearly all of these restaurants.
We’ve eaten at these places and know the chefs are creating some of America’s best food. As you plot your summer vacation, we hope this list of American eateries will inspire a few dinner detours. Happy travels!
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Main photo: Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.
Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.
But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.
It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.
The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.
“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.
To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.
“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.
The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.
The woman behind the book
In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.
Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.
Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.
Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.
Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.
“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”
Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.
The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.
“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”
In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.
Latin American cuisine
When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.
“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”
Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.
She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.
Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.
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Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)
Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock
1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*
1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves
1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)
1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded
1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded
Para Espesar (Thickeners)
Choose one of the following:
2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;
or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;
or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente
1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente
1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente
1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente
1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish
1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.
2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.
3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.
4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.
5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.
* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.
Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.
Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.
The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.
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In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.
One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.
Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.
Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.
Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.
Otramanera steps up dining in Havana
Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.
But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.
While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.
Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman
Today chefs are superstars. Reality TV idols, prima donnas on various food channels, authors of best-selling books, online food gurus, guests of honor of important culinary events … you name it.
But what seem to be most exciting to the public are TV chefs battling against each other. Sure, such shows are entertaining, but what about chefs who can be maestros at their art and communicate without having to feed our thirst for “blood”?
Last summer, I traveled through Europe and I had the pleasure of meeting five chefs who do not need to cook in a boxing ring to be exciting. Each of them communicated in their own style. Meet them, and join the tour.
Let’s start with Lithuania’s splendid capital: Vilnius. Chef Linas Samenas could not have chosen a better location to express his culinary inspiration than the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Uzupis, a new area cherished by artists and avant-garde people. It is a city within a city, with its own constitution — somewhat serious, often ironic — written on the walls of Paupio Street.
His tiny restaurant, the eponymous Linas Samenas, is open for lunch only, and its menu changes daily. Samenas is on top of everything: He grows all products in his farm, entertains you about his specialties, takes orders, cooks, coordinates assistants and serves the dish at your table with a glass of delicate berzu (birch water). I tried his delicious saltibarsciai, beet root soup with sour cream.
A great chef can run the show solo without being selfish and pretentious.
Beautiful Riga, Latvia
I went to Riga’s exclusive Vincents Restaurant, where I ordered a beef tartare as an appetizer. Chef Martins Ritins approached to my table, carrying a paper bag.
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“I apologize,” Ritins said. “The beef tonight wasn’t recommendable. Fortunately, there is a fine deli close by, and I got some canned tartare. I hope you like it.”
Well, it was just a funny hoax: The can was actually made and labeled for Vincents and once I opened it, I found one of the freshest tartares I have ever eaten, topped with a quail egg.
After this opening number, the chef was ready for the drama. He brought out a metal squeezer, so similar to a Middle Ages torture machine. On the plate was a red wine-marinated and slowly roasted baby duck. A muscular assistant started the squeezing, with no mercy for the bird’s carcass. The duck was served in tender slices with the extracted natural juices copiously irrigating the meat.
The process, emulating the famous “canard au sang” of the prestigious and rather stuffy La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, here got a standing ovation from the audience.
A great chef can keep a sense of humor while running the show.
The imperial city surprised me with the discovery of Konstantin Filippou, a no-showman chef who leaves the fame to his creations.
There is choreography between waiters and assistants that somehow reminds me of a ballet. The dish delivery is like a religious ritual, from the kitchen to the waiter to the maître d’ who finally lays the plate on the table. Food presentation and ceramics are amazing. Art is in the plate, somehow referring to a Picasso or a Kandinsky.
The taste? Imagine minimalism meets adventure, in total freedom. Lamb tongue with chanterelles, artichokes and orange. Konstantin seems to be very reserved. He doesn’t like to be interviewed, and rarely gets out from the kitchen.
A chef can appear as a creative genius and remain humble.
Back to Vilnius. Dinner at 1Dublis.
This is a trendy restaurant where Chef Pirmas Dublis operates in the open kitchen that looks like a puppet theater where the assistants carefully finish the plates cooked in the adjacent kitchen. The ritual is captivating.
Dublis is supervising the action with a perfect harmony of movements and constantly checking the food preparation reflected in the mirror over the kitchen counter. He loves to join the table just seconds before the dish is served and explains the origins of ingredients and the technique he uses. With only 25 seats, intimacy and attention to details are highly valued. In my opinion the biggest hit was the fish stock, crayfish and brown butter.
A chef can offer a show and not be a show-off.
Milan: Antonio, cameras with a mission
Meet the entertaining chef Antonio Marchello, former TV comedian, writer and excellent connoisseur of Italian cuisine, traditional and innovative.
Antonio hosts “Social Kitchen,” a one-hour online show that airs live on Tuesdays (vegan dishes only) and Wednesdays (anything else). Antonio goes online at 8 p.m. Italian time and prepares the dish interacting with fans and amateurs who follow him from home. At 9 p.m. the dish is ready. A quick selfie is sent to the Social Kitchen Facebook page with an invitation of “tutti a tavola!” (everybody eat now!) to enjoy the meal.
I visited him during the show and I tried the spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, pecorino cheese and a zest of Sorrento lemon. Simply divine.
“I love to learn and to teach,” says Antonio. “I hate those commercial cooking shows, but I found the way to compromise and still fulfill my inspiration.”
A chef can have a show online and prefer sharing over fighting.
Main photo: Chef Antonio Marchello. Credit: Copyright Rosanna Curi