Ink-black risottos sprinkled with petals; colorful forests of vegetables growing out of cubes of eggplant mousse; sweet islands emerging from foamy lakes. Antonio Guida does not tell his stories in words. Indeed, he is quite reticent. That might be because he is humble – as well as tired – after watching a summer pass outside the windows of his kitchen while he worked every day, from 8am until after midnight. He smiles as if to say: please, don’t pity me, this is the life of a cook. And instead of trying to explain the ideas behind his cuisine, he asks, "Would you like to try the spaghetti with lobster and beet sauce tonight?"
Italy. Paris. Italy. That is the brief summary of Guida’s résumé. Currently, he is head chef at the restaurant Il Pellicano in Tuscany. And as one might guess from his suggestion for the evening menu, his idea of the culinary art is the union of simple Italian cooking with sophisticated French cuisine. For this, the Michelin Guide awarded him two stars.
Guida was born in Apulia in 1972. This is the province that runs along the heel of Italy’s boot, with over 500 miles of coastline. It is the flattest region in the country, and its bread basket. The original Apulian cuisine is based on vegetables, fish, and olive oil. Pasta in every imaginable form and bread (dried or fresh) play a major role. This is the birthplace of orecchiette, a kind of pasta that resembles small ears – hence the name. Traditionally, Apulia is not a region where sauces are reduced over many hours or where pigeon are stuffed with foie gras. Fish and meat are quickly roasted in the oven; vegetables are dried or preserved in olive oil.
Guida’s family lived in a rural area. Even as a boy, he was interested in what was happening in the kitchen and stuck his nose everywhere. He says he has never met a head chef who was as rigorous as his mother. Every day, she made a wide variety of pasta from scratch. It took a long time before he was able to meet her standards. He also learned from her not to waste anything and to work very precisely. At heart, what she taught him was respect: for the ingredients, for the people one cooked for and for oneself. Perhaps respect and humility are two sides of the same coin. At 14, Guida invited all of his friends for a meal. They were so enthusiastic about his food that from then on he cooked for them regularly – mainly pasta.
He began his professional training at a pasticceria in Apulia. In the Hotel Il Pellicano, one is lucky enough to discover Guida’s passion for sweet things even in the morning. At breakfast on the white tablecloth, alongside home-made croissants, pains au chocolat, and raisin buns, one finds a bombolone, a kind of doughnut filled with vanilla cream. After that, it is difficult to give the moist lemon cake the attention that it deserves.
One of the stages in Guida’s training was a period spent at Pierre Gagnaire’s world-famous restaurant in Paris. Here he learned the art of French haute cuisine. Moreover, Pierre Gagnaire was also a pioneer of fusion cuisine, which in retrospect likely contributed to Guida’s idea of combining the peasant cuisine of Italy and the artistic haute cuisine of France.
Of course, "simplicity" is a relative concept – which is to say that preparing Italian cuisine is by no means simple if one hasn’t been trained by Antonio Guida’s mother. This quickly becomes clear to me when his sous chef Federico Dell’Omarino shows me how to make pasta in the large restaurant kitchen: specifically, the aforementioned ear-shaped orecchiette. Water and semolina flour are mixed in a ratio of one to two and kneaded to a dough. No salt is added, as it would make the dough sweat; the salt in the cooking water provides sufficient flavor. Before the orecchiette are formed, the dough is left to rest for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Federico places a lump of dough on the countertop in front of him and begins rolling it into a long, thin sausage shape. Then he cuts off a piece, roughly half an inch long and flattens the thin disk with his knife. Then he uses his fingers to form it into a little hat and turns it over once, so that the edges roll slightly outward like a woolen hat.
The pasta dough is so thin that the sunlight falling through the windows onto the reflecting surfaces of the metal cabinets and the countertops shines straight through it. In mid-October, it is still pleasantly warm in Tuscany, but the kitchen is kept cooler than outdoors so that nothing spoils. Fourteen cooks work under Guida, and now, at the end of the season, they look just as pale as their boss. On midsummer evenings, gourmet meals are prepared here for up to sixty people.