Chef Gilberto Guidi weighs in on cooking honest food, olive oil farming and what it’s like running a rustic trattoria in Northern Italy,
By Janice Nieder
I happened upon Cà Guidi, a little bite of Italian heaven tucked away in the captivating hill town of Longiano, while I was traveling through the virtually undiscovered part (by Americans at least) of Emilia-Romagna. You can find Gilberto Guidi’s unpretentious, heart-felt cooking at Cà Guidi on the top of a winding hill that offers views of vineyards and castles. Even his austere dish of farm-grown, fire-roasted potatoes brings back pleasurable memories of fabulous alfresco lunches enjoyed with good friends and even better local food and wine.
Everything about a meal prepared by Guidi is memorable, from the freshness of the organic ingredients and the clean flavors enhanced by a drizzle of the farm’s intense olive oil to the gracious hospitality of the Guidi family. The chef even invited me into the kitchen for an impromptu cooking lesson, which gave the perfect opportunity to learn more about his culinary idols, cooking trends, and proud moments.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Gilberto Guidi: I grew up in the ‘70s, a sharecropper’s son. My father, a hard-working, honest man and an amateur boxer with a short temper, expected me to help out in all the farm work, even from the young age of six. I spent summer holidays harvesting wheat as an apprentice farm hand. The farmer’s wife would come to the field carrying table cloth bundles filled with prosciutto, eggs, frittatas, cold pasta from the previous day, cheese and, of course, our traditional local flatbread, the piadina. We would all stop work to have our colazione (breakfast) right there, sitting on a steep slope with the scent from piles of freshly cut wheat to fill our lungs and tickle our palate. I believe those [convivial] moments sparked my passion for food.
Who is your culinary idol?
GG: Pierluigi Fabbri (Gigi); my mentor and good friend. He is a quiet, delicate man, with an encyclopedic knowledge of food. Gigi, who trained with Gualtiero Marchesi (a renowned Italian chef considered to be the founder of modern Italian cuisine) taught me the essential lesson in cooking and life in general: in simplicity lies beauty. You can create elaborate dishes, complex in volume, colors [and] taste, but one must never forget that every single ingredient deserves respect and must not be overshadowed by other components of the recipe.
Your favorite ingredient or cooking trend at the moment?
GG: At present I am intrigued by the concept of fire and stone. This method of cooking, as ancient as mankind (with a simple stone slab set over an open fire), enhances the flavors of the cooked ingredients: potatoes, meat, fish, tomatoes, pizzas and focaccia with delicacy—never too obtrusive, never mistreating nor burning the food. Again, respect. I adore the scent of hot stone imprinted on my roasted potatoes with garlic, rosemary and olive oil. It bears something primeval.
What are you trying to do differently from other chefs?
GG: I rarely look at what others do. My approach to cuisine is very simple: food is a self-pleasing experience. It is made by people for people. It is one of the highest cultural expressions of a civilization. So I travel, listen and talk to people, hear what food means to them. Whether I am deep in the heart of the Balkans or sitting on an unstable bench in a grease spot in Beijing, I find deep pleasure in learning from everyday people about their food.
How much of the food you use is grown by you?
GG: We are olive oil producers with over 500 olive trees, some of which [are] over 150 years old. We produce a robust olive with a decisively pungent and slightly bitter aftertaste thanks to our special variety of olives, the Selvatico (or wild olives). Nearly forgotten, this olive tree was brought back to life by us [through] a painstaking selective work that lasted 20 years. We also grow vegetables and have a tiny vineyard of local sweet Albana wine.
If someone could only order one thing off your menu it should be?
GG: Try my ravioli filled with squacquerone (young soft cow cheese, slightly sour), sautéed with fresh garlic, ground tomatoes, olive oil and wild mint.
What is your proudest culinary moment?
GG: First and foremost, I cook for my family: my wife Cristina (a vegetarian) and my boys, Giovanni William (a wannabe rock star) and Riccardo (the world’s biggest fan of Stan Lee and Spider Man). If they say it is good, I’d better believe it. What really makes me proud is to create pleasure with my dishes, to watch that very moment when the fork enters the mouth and then a humming sound comes out.
What is your food philosophy?
GG: I firmly believe we are and become what we eat. As [a] consumer, one should demand to know the origin of the ingredients used to prepare meals. We need to read clear labels that explain in uncomplicated terms every single component of the ingredient and whether or not any additives, preservatives and other chemical products have been added.
For a fresh, healthy choice of ingredients, we should buy them from the people who make them; look at them in the eye, talk to them, encourage them to do more and better. Get out of the supermarkets, drive to your local farmer or farmer’s markets and become a responsible buyer, responsible for your health as well as for a sustainable economy.