In Milan chefs are king.
The Milanese are brand obsessed, and the label of excellence ascribed to the city’s culinary chiefs promises haute cuisine if not haute couture. More than that, Italy’s northern capital is the nation’s epicentre of creative dining. Restaurateurs here have a license to invent, evolve and garner glamour in a manner unlike their contemporaries in Rome, Naples or Bologna. The relocation of a head chef from one eatery to another is as closely followed as a transfer from A.C. Milan to Inter.
Chefs are also viewed as custodians of local fare.
For example 85-year-old Gualtiero Marchesi, the first Italian to be awarded three Michelin stars, is regarded as the one of the greats in modern Italian cuisine - if the best of the best puts parsley in his ossobuco then you should too. And the legacy continues as top chefs tend to learn in their mentor’s Milan cucina, of which Marchesi’s pressure-cooker kitchen has turned out the most.
The enjoyment of food isn’t just limited to eating in Italy, you can switch on your television for another type of culinary culture. Carlo Cracco’s turn as presenter-judge on a much loved food TV show has made him as famous as Paolo Maldini. Fellow Marchesi disciple Antonino Cannavacciuolo made it big on Kitchen Nightmares (or Cucine da Incubo as it’s locally known).
“A master", says The Wall Street Journal. "Unanimously considered to be the best Italian chef of all time", claims foodie club Identità Golose. Milan-born Gualtiero Marchesi is the man who flipped Italian fare from trattoria tagliatelle to nuova cucina grand cuisine.
A pilgrimage to his restaurant in the Teatro alla Scala to try reinvented typical dishes like “Minextra” minestrone is a Milan-must.
Marchesi was born into Milanese hospitality – quite literally, as his mother gave birth to her son in the family’s Milan hotel, the L’Albergo del Mercato. But unlike other local chefs, Marchesi travelled far and wide, from the centres of France’s nouveau cuisine to the street markets of Tokyo. Such experience allowed him to reinvent tasty, if traditionally rooted, dishes. Witness gold leaf atop a bowl of bright yellow risotto alla Milanese, or “Quattro Paste”, four alternate pastas shaped into a work of art.
Like a Dali-style showman, some critics claim that Marchesi has courted controversy. In 2008 he gave back his three Michelin stars in protest at the venerable red guide for overlooking Italian cuisine. In 2011 he designed a hamburger for the world’s largest fast-food chain: "I simply asked what and where young people were going to eat," said the-then 81-year-old chef.
When Identità Golose (Italy’s travelling culinary congress) hit New York recently, its must-munch star was Carlo Cracco. Having trained under both Gualtiero Marchesi and Alain Ducasse, the Creazzo-born chef has an impeccable culinary lineage. But it’s in his eponymous kitchen that he has made Milanese cuisine his own.
Lombardy flavours are suffused into Cracco’s local root vegetable antipasti, which are desiccated into chips like crunchy pressed flowers. The two-star chef is so synonymous with Milan that Miuccia Prada flew him to Beijing to cater her Chinese catwalk show. Philippe Starck, a vegan, dined chez Cracco and was purportedly wowed by the functional design of his dinner.
Like his mentor Marchesi, Cracco has become a cult of personality: his culinary kudos is now attached to in-flight meals, hotel menus and a new communal dining table concept in the Navigli district.
At the tender age of 50, Cracco’s concept is only half-served. In 2015 he won an eye- wateringly expensive auction for a rare space inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world's ritziest – and one of its oldest – malls (opened 1877), where the Prada flagship has pride of place. It’s here that him and his team plan to open a Cracco- inspired café and exhibition space.
A female chef in a man’s world, Viviana Varese is an outsider in more ways than one. Brought up in Salerno in Campania (linked tenuously to Milan by its Lombard roots), she wowed her adopted home not with meat and country fare but with fresh fish and coastal flair. Dishes like “Pop” – a fishy fantasy with katsuobushi (fermented tuna) and smoked mackerel oil – and “Omaggio ad Angel Léon” – a plankton risotto with cuttlefish stock – had never been seen before.
Milanese took to Varese’s finely executed creations like tifosi (fans) to a local derby. They even admired her distinctly modern contrivances: sustainable seafood, gluten-free desserts and lactose-intolerant alternatives. Her latest offering, Alice Ristorante, on the top floor of Eataly, even boasts the most anti-Milan invention possible: a ‘social table’ where you pay for an eight-course tasting menu, to be eaten in the company of strangers; with profits going to charity. Outlandish, we know.
The 42-year-old Varese is now as established as her contemporary cuisine. Gambero Rosso, the Italian answer to the Michelin Guide, elected her Italy’s Best Female Chef. To cap this off Varese was an ambassador chef for the landmark Milano Expo 2015, which ran on the theme: “Feeding the planet, energy for life”.
Few take food as seriously as Claudio Sadler; the leading chef has been known to log on to TripAdvisor to give recalcitrant reviewers a stern telling off. As well he might, as the Milan local has achieved the heady heights of two Michelin stars and two Gambero Rosso forks for his lean, mean, contemporary cuisine.
Claudio Sadler's culinary philosophy is, “buono, bello, moderno, leggero” (good, beautiful, modern and light). In real terms this equates to, for example:
Indeed, Sadler’s long sojourn in Tokyo attuned him to the sensitivities of harbour-fresh fish (he still maintains a restaurant in the Japanese capital), and fortunately Milan is Italy’s unlikely seafood Mecca, where fish is flown in each dawn to be wholesaled and distributed across the land.
Sadler’s other influence is gritty, not gastronomic. Brought up in the rough-tough neighbourhood of Sesto San Giovanni where hard work is as honoured as jobs are precarious, such ethics have propelled the Milanese chef to become the J K Rowling of the Italian cookbook world. Italy’s Amazon store hosts more Sadler recipe tomes than Harry Potter mysteries.