We met up with Alessandro Borghese, one of Italy’s most influential chefs, and star of the TV show 4 Ristoranti
by Francesca Portoghese
“ALESSANDRO, WHATEVER YOU DO, MAKE SURE YOU ENJOY IT. BECAUSE YOU’LL BE DOING IT EVERY DAY”. This brief quote from ‘Cacio&Pepe, my life in 50 recipes’, Alessandro Borghese’s witty autobiography dotted with family-inspired recipes and culinary hints and tips, reveals a lot about his origins. The chef, a true force of nature in Italian cookery with thick, untamed hair, likes to go wild in the kitchen, fuelled by passion and with his love for food and music to keep the flame alive. It was Gigi, his father, who told him to enjoy himself: Naples through-and-through, a ‘doer’, according to his son, passionate about good food, and the reason for the chef’s links with the sea and with fishing.
Beginning at the age of seventeen in the galley of a large ship, Alessandro charted an extremely long course to reach where he is today, one of the most influential chefs on the Italian circuit. The way he speaks in the kitchen is enthralling, entertaining, fascinating and convincing, without ever appearing artificial or over-the-top. As a chef he does not need anything superfluous, and his dishes, always exuberant, anarchic and revolutionary, yet inspired by the finest Italian tradition, tell you all you need to know about him. And describing yourself through food is an art, just as those we normally call artists to describe themselves with painting, sculpture, dance, music and theatre and who, despite belonging to distant worlds, have much more in common with a chef then you might think. Borghese says that a chef is someone who cooks to make other people happy, and it is easy to smile when presented with his cuisine, even a simple (although who said it was simple?) dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce.
I chat to Alessandro while he watches from afar as one of his daughters has a horse-riding lesson – he has two from his marriage to Wilma Oliverio, his wife and right-hand woman who accompanies him everywhere. Because Borghese is not only a chef but also a highly skilled and theatrical performer, whose stage is the TV set, always furnished with work surfaces, cookware, plates and heaps of good food to cook, taste and evaluate. The undisputed star of various cooking programmes is impossible to categorise and leaves a stamp of authenticity wherever he goes. And he does all this with a cheekiness and brazenness absorbed genetically from his father’s Neapolitan verve – an attitude embedded in his soul, which convinced him to bring music into his work, creating a new, pioneering approach to cooking, to a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Foo Fighters. After the inevitable soundcheck, we immediately start talking about the sea.
Everyone knows you are inspired by your love for music, good food, the cinema and beautiful objects.
But how passionate are you about the sea? «The thing that I find most striking about the sea is its enormity. I look at it and immediately start dreaming. Whenever I look at the horizon, a feeling of relaxation immediately washes over me, calming me and reviving my spirits. As well as the romantic side, however, when discussing the sea my mind cannot help but think about it as an infinite supermarket – a vast pantry that provides us, chefs, with an incredible variety of products that never cease to amaze and surprise, whatever the season. Deep knowledge of the sea is vitally important for people in my profession».
«Simple dishes are the trickiest because they have years and years of tradition embedded in them. And if you don’t know the tradition, you can’t innovate».
When you’re on a boat – definitely the fast lane to this supermarket – do you like to drop a line in the water and wait for a few tasty fish to bite? «Yes». Each of his yeses is delivered enthusiastically and impulsively. «I’ve been fishing since I was a child; I did it with my father, and I still fish today. I enjoy experimenting with lots of different types of fishing: deep-sea fishing, surfcasting, underwater fishing, angling, longline fishing, and so on. And I love looking in shallow water for sea urchins and limpets, or scouring rocky areas to bring home (or onboard) octopus, sole and cuttlefish».
As well as inspiring your love for the sea and fishing, did your father teach you how to cook? «I certainly got my visceral love for cooking from Gigi. He was the chef of the house, the Sunday chef who enjoyed cooking and who delighted us with his specialities. So I would say that as a starting point, cooking at home with my dad inspired me and pushed me to take things further».
I’ve read you often replicate his pacchero alla pummarola schiamazzata [a pasta and tomato dish]. «It’s true. I make it all the time at home for my wife Wilma and my two girls Arizona and Alexandra, who are huge fans of it, and it is one of those dishes from the past, one which, like meat and tomato sauce or a baked rice dish, is part of a long tradition that is vital for those who love cooking».
«My cooking expresses all my past experiences. I only cook the things I like eating».
Do you think these dishes from the past could make it onboard a boat, onto a boat owner’s dining table? «The pacchero definitely could! Because on any boat, pasta – either spaghetti or paccheri – served with tomato and basil is an absolute classic. The culinary landscape provides us with a vast array of dishes that are perfect for preparing on a boat. I began my career on ships when I was just seventeen years old, and sailed all over the world. I even sank once: I was on board the Achille Lauro when it went down just off the coast of Somalia in 1994. I was one of the on-board chefs, and in three years I travelled the world on those ships».
You must have come home with a wealth of experience, which allowed you to think outside the box, and provided the basis for the cuisine you make now: full of life, fun and communicative, describing you and also quintessentially you, making you stand out from other chefs. «My cooking expresses all my past experiences. I only cook the things I like eating or the things I’ve tasted over the years. I wouldn’t have managed to do any of this if I hadn’t studied hard to hone my technique. My philosophy is to always cook with the luxury of simplicity [Alessandro Borghese – il lusso della semplicità is also the name of his restaurant, which opened in Milan in 2017], and by ‘simple’ I don’t mean easy. The simplicity I’m referring to, which I’m always looking out for and which I’ve managed to find, is the key for the contemporary Italian cuisine I create».
Your cooking describes you, and your story is one of cooking and passion. Here’s a philosophical question for you: is it cooking that led to your passion, or was it your passion for cooking that made you what you are today? «It’s my passion for cooking that made me what I am today. I believe that if you do something without thinking about the potential financial rewards, things will happen of their own accord. I like this profession. I spend most of my time in the kitchen: even after an entire day recording on set, in the evening I go to the restaurant and get to work. I like it, and I would do it even if I weren’t famous. I‘ve always wanted to be a chef, and while all this other stuff came with it, it was without me ever seeking it, asking for it or longing for it. I simply found my passion and made it my job. I have fun when I cook, and since I work day in, day out, it always feels like I began yesterday. Then I look back over my 44 years and think about how much time has already passed». He ends the sentence with a sly ‘goddamnit’, said with a smile.
What have you learnt from your culinary travels to kitchens all over the world, and what lessons do you still bring back with you? «Definitely the importance of a good dose of humility, which is required at all times, and of giving credit to everyone involved. I didn’t achieve my goals on my own. I have always had my wife Wilma, my sous-chefs, the team from Alessandro Borghese 4 Ristoranti [a programme broadcast on Sky], and my manager, who has been with me for twelve years. There’s always someone else helping me to develop. And I like that».
«If I’m sitting in a trattoria with stone ceilings and a steaming plate of pappardelle with a wild boar ragù arrives… well, you don’t get any more beautiful than that».
You say that you cook without worrying about cliches. Do you think the same would apply to an on-board chef who has to build a relationship with the boat’s owner? «If you mean young chefs who haven’t yet found their approach to food, one that allows them to create something starting with a blank sheet of paper, that could be rather difficult. Getting off the boat, going to the fish market and going shopping to prepare dinner for all the guests on board, and making do with local products, is no easy matter. To stay clear of cliches, you need to be able to draw on an infinite wealth of techniques so you can think quickly and translate your thoughts into creating an excellent dish in the best way possible and in a very short space of time».
Foreign owners often choose Italian chefs. «Well, we’re a nation of seafarers and cooks», Alessandro says, with a hearty laugh that, I realise, highlights the banality of my question. But I press on: to be represented abroad, Italian food needs strong personalities. In your opinion, what personality does a chef need to work in the kitchen of a large yacht? «I worked on an ocean liner from a very young age, and being in the kitchen there is nothing like being a chef on an 80-metre yacht. I can imagine it is not all sunshine and rainbows in those kitchens. You need someone highly experienced on board to keep the owner happy. I don’t think a chef who is just starting would be ready. That said, the chef’s age is another crucial aspect: experience is all well and good, but someone entering a yacht’s galley must of necessity be able to cope with extremely intense work, with no set kitchen opening and closing time».
Can you also achieve the luxury of simplicity on a boat? «On a boat, the luxury of simplicity means getting off, walking along the jetty, going around the fishermen to find a silver scabbardfish, an angler fish or four red mullets, buying a few vegetables at the market, hopping back on board and improvising a spaghetti dish or a seafood salad. This is the epitome of creativity, which is the philosophy behind the concept of the luxury of simplicity. The fun thing about cooking on a boat is the diversity that the journey allows you to create in your dishes, based on the route, which can take you to several different places over just a few days. Only, of course, if boat owners give chefs enough freedom to enjoy themselves in this way».
«To cook well on a boat, you need to be able to draw on an infinite wealth of techniques that allow you to bementally agile and translate your thoughts into an excellent dish, in the best way possible and in a very short space of time».
«On a boat, the luxury of simplicity means getting off, walking along the jetty, going around the fishermen to find a silver scabbardfish, an angler fish or four red mullets, buying a few vegetables at the market, going back on board and improvising a spaghetti dish or a seafood salad».
You call yourself a pasta addict. What is the best pasta dish to eat at sea? «Yes, I’m mad about pasta, but I never eat carbs after 5 PM. My problem is my lack of self-control: I can’t sit at the table with a plate of 80 grammes of spaghetti in front of me. I’m a traditionalist: apart from spaghetti with a tomato sauce, which is sure to make people happy wherever you are, I would make spaghetti and clams. I fry a crushed, unpeeled clove of garlic in some olive oil, and when I hear it beginning to sizzle, I immediately pour in a good handful of genuine Italian clams, perhaps harvested at Sacca di Scardovari, into the red-hot frying pan, and allow them to open without losing their character. I take them off the heat and, without ever adding wine – that’s a legacy of the 1970s and 1980s that ruins the clams’ flavour – I leave them to rest. Meanwhile, I cook the spaghetti in salted water, drain it three or four minutes before the recommended cooking time ends and mix it with the clams, as well as a bit of the pasta water. I allow the sauce to reach creamy consistency because the secret of true spaghetti and clams is that the pasta is slippery: then I add a splash of olive oil, a light dusting of parsley and serve. Simple dishes are the trickiest because they have years and years of tradition embedded in them. And if you don’t know the tradition, you can’t innovate».
You periodically exhibit artworks by both famous and emerging artists in the bistro at your restaurant. In recent years, many shipyards have started to dedicate a lot of space to art, embellishing their boats with wonderful paintings and sculptures. To what extent does being surrounded by beautiful things – either at a restaurant or on a yacht – increase one’s enjoyment of good food, even if beauty is often subjective? «My wife and I are passionate about it, and we love to collect modern art. I think it’s fair to say that we are advocates of beauty; we love surrounding ourselves with beauty – it’s good for the soul. I like admiring a painting, sculpture or other artwork, but equally,
I think an incredible plate of food paired with a glass of wine can be art too. That’s the beauty of life. It’s true what you say about beauty is subjective, but I also think objective beauty exists. Eating in beautiful surroundings further enhances the culinary experience. For example, if I’m sitting in a trattoria with stone ceilings and a steaming plate of pappardelle with a wild boar ragù arrives… well, you don’t get any more beautiful than that».
In one of your most popular programmes, Cucina con Ale [‘Cooking with Ale’], you brought music into the kitchen, amidst the worktops and cookers, and it worked brilliantly, almost as if it were the extra ingredient that made all the difference.
Having music in the kitchen is a trait unique to Alessandro Borghese: what would your on-board playlist be? «Crikey! I don’t tend to put together specific playlists, but now you’ve asked, I’ll have to start coming up with one – I don’t have any sort of boat playlist, and I feel like I need one. It would take some thought, and it would be a meticulous process: there’s the setting off, the journey, the time spent in the harbour, and the time when you return to the marina at sunset. How about this: I’ll answer this question the next time you interview me».
«I’d like to form a rock band and tour the world».
You say you’d need another life to do all the many things you would like to do in this one but will never manage to fit in. Could you tell us one of them? «I’d like to be a racing car driver. I’d like to build my watches – I currently collect them, dismantle them and put them back together as a hobby. I’d like to paint. These are all things I’m trying to do now, but doing them well would require another two or three lifetimes. I’d like to form a rock band and tour the world. Who knows, perhaps I’ll manage to achieve some of these in this lifetime. But I’ve got lots of dreams, plus I have my wife and my daughters, who are my number one priority». There are no two ways about it: Borghese certainly isn’t short of ambition.
(Alessandro Borghese, Rock ‘n’ roll chef – Barchemagazine.com – February 2021)