If you haven’t already heard of Gualtiero Marchesi, listen up. He is, by many accounts, The Great Italian, maybe even the Greatest. A larger-than-life, Milan-born chef who has spent more than six decades in the kitchen, Marchesi is the godfather of modern Italian cuisine. From the beginning of his career, his dishes have been multi-sensory works of art, beautiful and revolutionary recipes that inspired legions of students and chefs to define and drive innovation in Italian cuisine. And now you don’t even have to go into one of his four restaurants in Milan and Monte Carlo to get a proverbial taste. Marchesi has landed on the big screen.
The Great Italian, a one-hour film celebrating the career of Italy’s most famous chef, debuted last summer in a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was one of the wide-eyed viewers in the audience. Mixing a dash of Chef’s Table with Paolo Sorrentino panache, the film shares the touchstones in Marchesi’s life and career in a non-linear format. We sit at the table as colleagues, friends, and former students — Alain Ducasse, Yannick Alleno, Jean Troisgrois, Massimo Bottura, Davide Oldani, Andrea Berton, and Carlo Cracco among them — tell stories about their experiences with the chef. Marchesi himself brings us into wood-paneled libraries, fresco-covered billiard rooms, and contemporary kitchens to dish about his story, illustrated by enchanting diorama-styled animation from family photos and news clips.
The film, directed by Maurizio Gigola, is delightful and literal eye candy, but what had me at the edge of my seat were the vivid, jaw-dropping, close-ups of Marchesi’s signature dishes — Raviolo Aperto, Dripping di Pesce, Seppia in Nero, and Riso Oro e Zafferano — spliced side by side with scenes of Marchesi walking through galleries filled with Pollocks, Stellas, Warhols, Fontanas, and so many others. This art and food lover saw stars.
A musician before he became a chef, Marchesi is also a lover of the visual arts. He uses avant-garde ideas — Pollock’s drip paintings, Fontana’s cut canvas, and Warhol lithographs — as ingredients in his dishes, mixing masterpieces with Italian produce and DOCG products to plate the perfect multi-art trifecta — visual, conceptual, and performance. And he started doing this long before modern Italian cuisine was even a concept.
It makes sense. Born in 1930, Marchesi grew up during the most epic periods of modern art — abstract, Arte Povera, optical, conceptual, performance, pop — experiencing all the genres that redefined the second half of the 20th century and set the foundation for the 21st. These ideas, images, and experiences flowed into Marchesi’s sensibilities, inspiring him to play around with tradition, leading him to innovate Italian cuisine for the 21st century. And in turn to do so through his acclaimed protégés and their restaurants, a who’s who of Italian gastronomy that includes Andrea Berton (Pisacco), Paola Budel (Venissa), Davide Oldani (D’O), and Carlo Cracco (Cracco).
On the silver screen and at the table, Marchesi comes across as humble and relatable, a chef who loves cooking for its ingredients and for who and what his dishes can inspire. After the screening, I briefly met the chef, surrounded by friends, family, and press. I congratulated him, told him how much the film moved me and how I remembered dining at Hostaria dell’Orso, his Roman restaurant, holed up on the top floor of a medieval palazzo on the edge of Piazza Navona. At the time, I didn’t get that Italian food was supposed to be about tradition, not art. He chuckled. Now I get it.
For Marchesi, it wasn’t about art at all. It was about love — for the ingredients, for the technique, for the experience, and, yes, maybe also for a little art.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fathom, September 2017.