It’s not often we get the opportunity to get to know the people behind the scenes of some of the most glorious affairs in our lives, but that is exactly what the new Netflix show Say I Do is allowing us to do. Joined by Jeremiah Brent and Thai Nguyen, Chef Gabriele Bertaccini is revealing much more than his cooking skills on the show. While Bertaccini has demonstrated his affinity for authentic Italian cooking as well as his ability to modify a menu at a moments notice, he also got personal, revealing his own HIV diagnosis during the premiere episode. I sat down with Gabe to talk about making a splash on Say I Do, why being forced to now stop and take time may be a good thing for all of us, and what it was like cooking for the force of nature known as Cher.
Michael Cook: How have you been getting through quarantine>?
Gabriele Bertaccini: Pretty good! Listen, if there is one thing that Italians are good at, and I think that is where my Italian comes in handy, it’s to relax. Easy things; we are really good at that. We are also very good with dealing with uncertainty. I think it is something that everyone is having to deal with in one degree or another. For us, we kind of take it day by day. That is why Americans come to Italy and love Italy and want to retire there (laughs). Of course we struggle a bit, one day here and one day there, but I think it is forcing everyone to see things in a different light. To actually bring back what is important in your life and what feels authentic and dealing with not knowing what is happening in the after and we have to be okay with that. That is the secret to life; and I think that is the silver lining of these dark times.
MC: Retiring to Italy certain is something that many are finding attractive, especially in these times!
GB: Absolutely; I will retire to Italy. We call it “la dolce vita”; or “la dolce far niente”-the sweetness of doing nothing. That is kind of what we are attracted to, especially living in the states where everything is “go go go” and not stopping, and I think that is what people are attracted to. Right now, this forces us to stop.
MC: Tell me about Say I Do….
GB: I would have never expected to be on this show to be honest. It came at a right time in my life. It came at a time, like everything beautiful, it comes when you least expect it. When you are able to relieve and ease into things, that is really when you allow the universe, God, or whoever you put your trust in to really do their magic. The show kind of came that way and it really felt right. What felt right about it is that this show is not about me, Jeremiah or Thai. The show is not about the food or the dress or about the wedding. It is really about stories, it’s about sharing stories. The show is about uniting people, and sitting down with individuals that you might think you have absolutely nothing in common with, then you all of a sudden discover that you too have been going through similar struggles and you too are feeling fearful regarding life in a different way. What I love about Say I Do is that it is a storytelling project. It just happens that love is the common ground, it is the element that brings everything together. It asks the viewers to really put the trust back in the power of love. Being grounded in knowing that the power of love, without any doubt, will make things better. That is what the show is about.
MC: Did you ever expect that you would now be on a show from the producers of Queer Eye and you would be helping bring couples like this together?
GB: If you had asked me five or ten years ago whether I would have expected to tell my story through my trade, I would have said that I do that on a daily basis. I have been doing it for fifteen years with my clients with my company and the amazing dining experiences that we put together, the weddings, and the clients that we have. Would I have expected to be broadcast to one hundred and eighty countries in the world in many different languages? I would have thought you were crazy, it would have never happened. When things feel right though, they just feel right. I stopped second guessing myself a long time ago and when you have that gut feeling and that confirmation, that “yes:” this feels like a “right” project, this is a feel good project. I did not want to ever do television where it celebrates me, I am just another dude. I show love and passion through my trade, which is cooking and the dinner table. This is a feel good project and a project that elevates that story that we are experiencing and that the viewers are experiencing. The stories are worth not only being told, but worth listening to. Through that, I learned so much about myself. So selfishly, this project was beautiful for the couples, but more importantly it was so beautiful for me. It made me understand the things that I am struggling with and how I approach love and what I believe love to be. Its a win win; its a feel good show that unites people and it feels good.
MC: To you, what is love?
GB: That is a big conversation (laughs). I can tell you that I went in thinking that love was something that the couples and the show showed me that it definitely wasn’t. Love for me is acceptance. It is vunerablity and being able to share my story with someone, with the person that I am close with and being in complete confidence that the person you are sharing your story with understands the magnitude of that moment. They are the safe keeper; he takes your story and he hugs it and he keeps it in his heart and lets you know that it is safe to be who you want to be and who you truly are in that space. That is what love is for me. All the best partnerships and all the most amazing love stories that I have personally experienced, they have always been love stories deeply rooted in deep acceptance of each others flaws, failures, fears and rooted in believing that love goes beyond that. We need to communicate, we need to share what we feel, we are not machines. We make mistakes , we are passionate human beings and it is important to find somebody to accept it and to hold space for this moment. That is what love is for me.
MC: When did you know that cooking was going to be the passion that you would follow?
GB: I had a very supportive family. They never told me what branch to take in life or what kind of trade to learn and they never told me what they expected me to be or who I was expected to be in terms of profession. When it came to my passion for food, they very well knew that I was going to end up in this industry, Since I was twelve or thirteen, I was obsessed with dinner tables and the cooking portion of it, and bringing people together. That is rooted in an Italian individual I think; in order to learn about Italians, you have to join them for lunch or for dinner at the table, to be part of the eating process. It says a lot about who we are, we slow down, and we take the ritual of dining so seriously. It is a ritual that allows us to connect. It is a ritual that allows us to pay homage to our heritage and where we come from and to share it with so many friends and family. That is an act of vulnerability itself, it is an act of love itself. That is the deep understanding and connection that I have with food.
MC: So food is something we should all be taking the time to truly savor right now you would say?
GB: It is not just something you eat in the car, even though I also have to sometimes just have a sandwich in the car. Then I feel awful though, I didn’t pay attention to this beautiful act that for centuries, has brought us together and for centuries will bring us together. I knew that it was my profession since I was thirteen. I was obsessed with doing a dinner table for Christmas, bringing people around the table and making the art of dining an experience. At that point, I was doing it for my family and friends and spending an outrageous amount of time in the kitchen with my grandmother and my mom. I would wake up in the morning at eight or nine am with the smell of sofrito, which is celery, onion and carrots. Today, one of my favorite things to do is to wake up super early around five thirty or six am and start cooking the classic ragu that my grandmother was making and have that smell permeate the house. For me, it brings me back to my childhood and its a way of reliving that moment, of reliving my childhood. Food is a very, very important part of my life.
MC: You have cooked for some incredible people, but who would you want to cook for that you have not had the opportunity?
GB: I would say that I would love to cook for my grandfather. I would love to hear his stories. I would love to hear how life evolved during his time and how it changed him. A one hundred year old man who really saw it all. I would love to sit down and understand the fears, the expectations and how different the world is now days and if he ever though he would experience and witness this. How it was going through World War II, how it was going through the fear of leaving his family and not knowing if he would return. Those are the stories that need to be shared. In my view, those are the heroes, people who are living their lives openly and they have seen it all. Those are the heroes of our modern times.
MC: You have cooked for Cher, Oprah Winfrey and the Clintons, just to mention a few. What did you cook for Cher that she absolutely loved?
GB: (Laughs) The favorite thing, it was gnocchi al pomodoro mozzarella. That is just a classic, its a potato gnocchi that is made with so much love and we make it from scratch; they are just fantastic. Then a very simple sauce; some Italian tomatoes, you cook it down for six to seven hours and do a double reduction on it and it becomes very concentrated with some basil and onions. You finish with a nice handmade burrata cheese or mozzarella cheese. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina-people in the South of Italy especially in Sorento and the Capri area, you see this dish quite often. It’s really a peasant dish, Italian cooking is peasant cooking it’s not fancy. Its no like our neighbors in France who elevated Italian cooking and made it French (laughs). It’s about the right ingredients; I really say that cooking for me is pristine ingredients and simple execution. I am not capable of creating anything that is better than what Mother Nature creates. I do not have that ability and that need, I don’t want to do that. Mother Nature already creates perfect ingredients that are beautiful the way that they are and to think that I could make a tomato paste better than a tomato, its impossible. It would be foolish of me. Italian cooking is about slowly, carefully and with a lot of authenticity, showcasing the beauty of those ingredients. With Cher, it was exactly the same, just such a simple dish. You think you would know what celebrities like to eat, and really they just love simple authentic food that speaks for itself and gnocchi was one of them
MC: We’ve all had to slow down significantly right now; how do you think your cooking and your career have creatively grown in this time?
GB: I think we have been creatively able to go back to a more simple way off entertaining and cooking. Sometimes I have a client that wants to do a dinner, but they get flustered with everything going on. I always say, “you put the pressure on yourself”. No one expects anything to be as perfect as you are requiring it to be. I think we finally went back to a place where it is okay to be imperfect. It is okay to have a dinner party that might not match the idea we see in a magazine or on tv. It is okay to cook in a more simple and imperfect way. It is okay to invite people over and have a bowl of simple minestrone soup and share the story of what it is so important. We are going back to simpler times. I appreciate that. In the cooking, entertainment and hospitality industry, we are going back to that. You are going to see three star Michelin restaurants cooking family meals. What does that say about what people crave and connect to? They connect to a lasagna, some Mac and cheese, some fried chicken. seeing the amazing cuisine that dates back to our family and our history, our everyday history, and having the chef reimagine and pay homage to the dish itself, I think it is a movement we never expected in the hospitality industry, or for a chef to experience. It is a really beautiful time. We are going back to authenticity and bringing people together that really mean something to you, and that is beautiful. The intimacy of that is something that needs to be celebrated.
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