Francesco Bogazzi is a man who has turned his passions into his job and his fortune, but who does not like to define himself as a chef
by Francesca Portoghese
SITTING IN A CAFÉ AT THE PORT OF VIAREGGIO, WE CHAT WITH FRANCESCO BOGAZZI, a chef on board (but please, never call him chef). As a child, Francesco breathed the passion for cooking and the sea in his family, and then, almost by chance, he got on board his first yacht and decided to make his job into his fortune. That’s right because to cook on board a yacht, you not only need to possess the right skill and craftsmanship, but you also need a strong love for sailing and a desire to go far. And if you happen to love cooking and the sea, this job will be your greatest fortune. Francesco’s grandmother and mother showed him the ropes in the kitchen. One of the first things that our cook learned to prepare was fresh pasta, which remains one of the true trademarks of his work. He manages to create small masterpieces onboard only with water and flour, which delight guests and owner alike. But making pasta is also a moment of relaxation for Francesco, because, as he reveals, there is nothing more therapeutic than kneading the dough with your hands.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Francesco began his career at sea, almost from its very beginning. After studying at the Hotel Institute of Marina di Massa and working briefly in a hotel in the province of Carrara, he embarked, to no surprise, on one of the most famous and oldest sailing ships in the Mediterranean, the Croce del Sud. No wonder, indeed, because in addition to learning how to cook, as a child he also went sailing with his father. A perfect combination, therefore, a family legacy, memories, experiences, and many secrets that shape his work and make it beautiful. His answers are always expressed in a wave of enthusiasm, in the shadow of the yachts berthed at the port of Viareggio, waiting to sail towards the summer and leave behind the immobility of a surreal, albeit necessary, lockdown.
Francesco, can you tell us about your first experience onboard?
It was a fortunate experience. The boat was no less than the Croce del Sud, and, at only 22 years of age, I set sail as a kitchen help to one of the greatest masters I have ever met. For more than twenty years now I have been feeling extremely lucky to be doing what I do and to have a job that is based on the only thing that gives me that rush of adrenaline I need to always serve the very best: the challenge. Therefore, cooking onboard is an ongoing challenge, with yourself and with the owner who indeed likes to push you to your limit, to play with his imagination and your skills. Sometimes, it seems that the dish reaches the table with the soundtrack of Mezzogiorno di Fuoco (Fred Zinnemann – USA, 1952). It may sound stressful, but it isn’t to me. In my case, it is simply the lifeblood of my extraordinary profession. An important thing that I realized on a sailing boat is that it is very difficult to organize the menu in advance. It can be done, and often it can be an advantage, but due to the way I organize my kitchen, and after all the encounters I have had, I know that in the morning when my alarm rings, many interesting uncertainties await me. It is a race against time, but I’m a runner and I like to win.
«When I follow a shipowner’s taste, I try to access his world, study it, learn it, and bring it to the table. Originality is like a suit that has to be made-to-measure for the customer’s character, which is asking to be understood and interpreted». Francesco Bogazzi
How important are communication skills?
Crucial. And also, in this case, luck has something to do with it, because I have always been able to establish highly empathetic relationships with my owners, and have always been able to communicate my ideas, my tastes, my way of living and my concept of the kitchen rather easily. I try to launch a stimulating, fun, and productive dialogue where the dish and the menu become the actual board of the game: I need to move my tokens well and play cunningly, I always want to have the last word. When, for lack of time or shortage of raw materials, I cannot prepare what the owner requests, I have to take him by the hand and guide him into my direction, until he desires a different dish, better than the one he had initially proposed, a dish that will become part of his thoughts and pave its way through his culinary desires, creating an unexpected excitement and a total feast for the eye, smell, and taste. Does that mean I won? No, we both did. But I’m still in the lead! With my job, I access the owner’s personal life, I learn about his tastes, expectations, what he doesn’t eat, and what he just can’t stand. This is where the thrill starts, it is from here that I launch the challenges and receive them. The human factor in my work is fundamental. I always fall in love with my client’s story. Establishing real contact with him has direct advantages also in the kitchen. It is truly difficult that an owner is uninterested in food. His love for one dish or another reveals his values, passions, desires, virtues, and even vices. Opening the doors to my world of knowledge and welcoming him inside it is like embarking on a journey together. I once met an owner who had his vinegar factory and produced a barrel of new vinegar for each new-born child in his family. A family tradition that had been preserved over time and that expresses love for good food, for healthy and genuine things. Beauty needs to exist also at the table, a beauty through which we communicate and express emotions. Eventually, I got some of that vinegar as a present.
What does it take to be a cook on a large yacht?
The faut faire avec, as the French say. The art of getting by is crucial and impossible to do without. I am not saying that you have to settle, loin de là, but among the pots and stoves, you have to be able to bring out the best with what you have. It is a demanding job, which requires concentration, but also great inventiveness. Creativity in the kitchen plays a fundamental role, and on the boat, it is among the essential ingredients for all dishes, from appetizers to desserts. Love for the sea is another of the basic elements you have to possess if you want to work in an on-board kitchen. I was practically born at sea. My parents took me on my first cruise to the Argentario when I was only six months old. I spent a long time away from the mainland even before starting my job and the sea got under my skin. It has to flow in your veins, otherwise, you will give up after the first season. The passion for the sea is the added value that I bring to my work. Thanks to my profession, I have discovered incredible events and magical places.
How do you balance technique and creativity?
Well, it has to be a successful marriage. You have to be able to see, touch, intuit, perceive and savor technique and creativity. Only if a dish involves all five senses, if it truly embraces the guest, if it catches and hypnotizes him, only then do I know that it is well done. The first glance has to be like a promise, the promise of an excellent taste. The art of cooking is also visual and it is essential to excite the aesthetic sense even before taste. Don’t think that it is only a matter of imagination because if I don’t choose the right raw materials if I don’t rely on my skills and knowledge, I risk ruining the dish. It is like standing in front of a blank sheet of paper: I draw a dot with a pencil and around it I have to draw a perfect circle. I can’t do it freehand, so I take the compass and with extreme care, I begin to rotate the instrument until the two ends match perfectly. They shouldn’t just mark the point of departure and arrival but have to merge into one perfect shape that seems to have been created like this.
How important is it to be original?
This depends a lot on the customer. I have had the chance to cook on charter ships and, in that case, the amazement at the table is part of the package. So then I invent, expand, dare. On the other hand, when I follow a shipowner’s taste, I try to access his world, study it, learn it, and bring it to the table. Originality is like a suit that has to be made-to-measure for the customer’s character, which is asking to be understood and interpreted. My kitchen must become a microcosm of the excellence he is used to. He (or she) must feel embraced, must perceive the magic of flavors and smells.
What is your relationship with appetite?
I don’t often get a big appetite when I’m working. I am busy with the ingredients that I touch and transform, but I don’t necessarily end up wanting to eat them. I snack, yes, that is what I do when I’m on board. Often, while I cook, I prepare a snack for the crew and then I may have a bruschetta myself, but appetite I think is different. I think I am so satisfied with what I do, that I only feed on working with my hands and eyes. But then, once I’m on land, nobody can take away the pleasure of eating good food prepared exclusively for me and my family. Because in the end eating is pleasure, pure ecstasy.
What kind of dishes do you prefer to cook?
Family traditions are the pillars of my job and perhaps for this reason preparing fresh pasta is one of the things I like doing most when I am on board. If you choose to become a chef, it means you like to give pleasure to others, because satisfying the palate of your guests is the gratification that you can’t live without. It is a continuous act of love, even for people you don’t know. Preparing pasta with my hands is the maximum expression of this love. My parents worked six days a week, but on Saturday night I could hear them work busily in the kitchen: they were kneading the dough for the Sunday lunch. When I heard them, I would get up from the bed and go help them with my brother. It was a job done by an extremely passionate family team. Probably, this is also where my obsessive preference for simple and genuine condiments like an extra virgin olive oil, or a very high-quality vinegar comes from. In my kitchen, there are no glazes, heavy sauces, or any other excess that risks overshadowing the flavor of the raw ingredients. The almost obsessive search for excellence guides me in everything I do… and in everything I do, I always risk. I remember that once in Bodrum, Turkey, I went to the dock because the owner had an urgent desire for fish. As I wandered around looking for the market, I was approached by a guy on a scooter who promised to take me to the right place. I jumped on without thinking about anything except the dinner I had to prepare. After a few kilometers, I realized that I had no idea where this gentleman was taking me, he spoke broken English and I saw the port slipping away into the distance behind me. But I was lucky: we found the fish market, I got what I needed and went back to the boat safely. Once I was back in the kitchen I laughed, I had run a risk, but the challenge had been saved. We were ready to go on stage. I also enjoy making desserts on the boat and I never make compromises with the ingredients. Once, at the end of dinner, an owner made me promise to hide the Caprese cake that I had prepared for him as a dessert because otherwise, he would have finished it all by himself. It was about four in the morning when they came knocking on my cabin door telling me that the owner was turning the kitchen upside down to find the cake. I went to him, we looked at each other with a sly smile, without exchanging a single word: hidden behind a pile of pots, there was his Caprese. I took it and gave him the booty. He deserved a night cuddle. And I too deserved that satisfaction. He asked me never to listen to him again, and I kept my promise.
The best cuisine in the world?
Italian cuisine is the best, but I also love Greek cuisine and Spanish cuisine and I often offer dishes that are rich infusions, but where the Italian tricolor always echoes with pride. I also enjoy experimenting and when I know that an owner follows a particular diet and wants to eat specific foods for health reasons even on the boat, I immediately adapt to him. I taste, experiment, change, enrich, eliminate, and create. Lately, I have received requests for vegan dishes, and there is no doubt that that is a challenge… These are the occasions when you become an illusionist: you have to be able to surprise and deceive, conquer with something new that has its philosophy, but don’t want to (nor should) give up good taste.
What is never missing in your fridge?
Natural yeast takes the place of honor and of course, I also prepare it for the boat. In the pantry, on the other hand, I keep many homemade liqueurs. The passion for healthy food was passed on to me by my family and, to my great pride and satisfaction, it is now also winning over my four-year-old daughter. She follows me everywhere and, in addition to fresh pasta, I also prepare jams and marmalades, biscuits, bread, and focaccia on board.
What book do you have on your bedside table today?
When I work, there is very little time to read, but in the evening, I need to unplug and give myself a few minutes of mental rest by reading a few pages before falling asleep. Today, I have three books on my bedside table: Stephen King’s The Institute, Anodea Judith’s Book of Chakras and Everything you know is false.
Can you get out of the kitchen now and then when you’re on the boat?
Rarely, because I like what I do so much that time passes without me noticing it. But whenever I can, I try to escape and go look for a place where I can do yoga, or go on land for a jog or treat myself to a regenerating sauna.
Have you become what you dreamed of as a child?
Oh no, no. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a superhero.
(Francesco Bogazzi, don’t call me Chef – Barchemagazine.com – Agosto 2020)