From Ric­cione to New York, by way of Bologna, Michele Casadei Mas­sari’s culi­nary and creative jour­ney

All About Italy (USA) - - Editorial - Paolo Del Panta

Aman’s past and her­itage can cre­ate paths ca­pa­ble of tak­ing him far from his point of ori­gin and still stay true to him­self and his in­di­vid­u­al­ity. The hu­man and artis­tic ad­ven­ture of Michele Casadei Mas­sari be­gins in the warm­est part of Ro­magna, in Ric­cione. He is one of the most bril­liant culi­nary chefs draw­ing on his pas­sion, wis­dom. And from Nonno Gigi’s know-how (his grand­fa­ther from the Marche re­gion) who also re­vealed to him the deep con­nec­tion be­tween food and travel. This union will deeply in­flu­ence Michele Mas­sari’s fu­ture and his jour­ney as a true artist. He is able to think of a dish as a work of art, and use his eyes as kalei­do­scopic lenses to share his vi­sion with oth­ers. Founder and ex­ec­u­tive chef of Pic­colo Cafe in New York (now with four lo­ca­tions), Michele Mas­sari re­cently launched the Luc­ci­ola restau­rant. Michele never ceases to ap­ply his in­ex­haustible imag­i­na­tion on new projects and part­ner­ships. In ev­ery new part of his life you find a pinch of his won­der­ful Ro­mag­nola energy. That energy has shaped him and pushes him ev­ery day to present his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of food that started from a dream made in the USA, with a touch of Italian fla­vor.

You were born in Ric­cione, grew up in Bologna, stud­ied in the Marche and live in New York. What do the cities you started from mean for you?

Ric­cione rep­re­sents hos­pi­tal­ity and courage. That city has taught me to not hes­i­tate, to dare, and to seize the best mo­ment of an idea. I’ve of­ten been called “vol­canic”. All my per­son­al­ity is in that ad­jec­tive. Just for­mu­lat­ing a thought is enough to have it sud­denly give shape. On the other hand, Bologna means op­ti­mism. It’s the city that taught me about cul­ture, open­mind­ed­ness, the rich­ness of di­ver­sity. Bologna is art, lit­er­a­ture and hu­mor; I have trea­sured this triad and learned to live by it. I grew up in the shadow of the por­ti­cos, learn­ing the beauty of shar­ing. From Bologna I ac­quired the nu­ances that have har­mo­niously colored and completed my pri­vate and pro­fes­sional life. Bologna formed me, re­buked me and looked af­ter me. And in ev­ery as­pect felt a bit like the ca­resses from my grand­fa­ther Luigi (called Gigi) a big­hearted March­ese.

Michele Casadei Mas­sari’s of­fi­cial ti­tle is Ex­ec­u­tive Chef, but in re­al­ity, he is a com­plete artist. How much does the in­spi­ra­tion stem­ming from your other pas­sions help you in your work?

Quite a bit. I am self-mo­ti­vated and my own great­est re­source in fac­ing and win­ning over my fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties and help­ing me get in touch with my cu­rios­ity. For me pas­sion is the abil­ity to go be­yond weak­ness, lis­ten to dif­fer­ent worlds, and get the best out of ev­ery­thing.

Pho­tog­ra­phy, in fact, is one of your ma­jor in­ter­ests. What drives your in­spi­ra­tion and how does it fit in with your work?

For me pho­tog­ra­phy is like putting on a new pair of eyes, which al­lows me to go be­yond the vis­i­ble. Pho­tog­ra­phy in my life is like “Dip­pold, the op­ti­cian” in Spoon River’s An­thol­ogy. When you wear those lenses, you cre­ate a dif­fer­ent world, not nec­es­sar­ily a bet­ter world, just full of mean­ing that you could not see be­fore. Pho­tog­ra­phy has taken care of that bit of astig­ma­tism that I have. It was my friend and part­ner Al­berto Ghezzi, who led me to the dis­cov­ery of this pas­sion. When I was in Ja­pan, he took me to visit pho­tog­ra­phy mar­kets. He in­tro­duced me to this world by telling me “this is a cam­era, study it, it’s made for you!”. My pho­tog­ra­phy has lit­tle al­ter­ation and a lot from my mem­ory. I photograph to re­mem­ber those mem­o­ries. Im­ages that are very clear in my mind’s eye yet are some­times dis­torted and poorly de­fined. Ev­ery shot is ded­i­cated to some­one; very of­ten to the Emil­ian pho­tog­ra­pher Luigi Ghirri. He was a teacher, as well as Gian­franco Rosi, who taught me how to choose the right cam­era and lens to shoot the im­age. And then Ed Lach­man, who pro­vided me with the tools to re­lax into the shot and cre­ate an im­age that shows ev­ery­thing I see or would like to see with my “de­fec­tive” eyes ... Oh there’s An­nal­isa Milella, who al­lowed me to iden­tify the unattrac­tive part of an im­age, not to glam­or­ize the ap­pa­ra­tus or the tech­nique, al­low­ing more space for spon­tane­ity. I have had ex­cep­tional friends and teach­ers who made my pho­tog­ra­phy bet­ter. That’s good for­tune, an honor.

The Bolog­nany line was born out of your pas­sions and pho­tog­ra­phy?

Yes, the project was thought up dur­ing an evening spent with friends while I was talk­ing about what New York & Bologna mean to me. While talk­ing about these two cities, I re­al­ized that yes, I was in New York, but I ba­si­cally had never left Bologna. I had not

Meet Man­tha: an artis­tic shot of roast beef cre­ated by Mas­sari for a fash­ion col­lec­tion dur­ing Fash­ion Week. “In my eyes it was a Manta. This im­age has be­come my master­piece, so much so that it has be­come my most iconic por­trayal.” “I found them aban­doned on a rusty cook­ing sur­face of a kitchen in a place I was rent­ing with my friends in Sar­dinia. It’s the re­union/com­ing to­gether of two eggs and rice. As I looked at them I saw a love story, the story of love and started pho­tograph­ing them.” dis­con­nected from that city in the way I ap­proach ev­ery­day life, the rhythm of time, peo­ple, food. In Bologna, I had, and still have the spark, the tech­nique that helps me seize op­por­tu­ni­ties and com­plete ideas. The only dif­fer­ence was the lack of Ro­man walls of the beloved “Felsina” (the La­tiniza­tion of the Etr­uscan name Velzna - or Felzna - given by the Etr­uscans to the city of Bologna, ed), here in New York I found se­cu­rity in the sur­round­ing wa­ters of Man­hat­tan Is­land.

What is Bolog­nany?

It is the syn­the­sis of my ex­is­tence. It was born from the de­sire to cre­ate a brand with de­signs that re­veal my personal way of con­nect­ing with the two cities. My past and my present. I wanted to do it in a pop way. Hence the idea of cre­at­ing t-shirts, with prints that rep­re­sented this union. The t-shirts have some­how be­come mov­ing im­ages, a sort of mo­bile gallery of the city. Some of them have be­come re­ally pop­u­lar. What joy! To­day Bolog­nany is the spin-off of all my artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual man­i­fes­ta­tions. There are many projects un­der this brand: cloth­ing, books, mu­sic, film ...

The art in your cafe comes from some im­por­tant part­ner­ships, like with the Italian singer-song­writer Luca Car­boni.

I ad­mired and have al­ways fol­lowed Luca Car­boni. He is a sin­cere, unique artist. He’s silent and re­served but in­sight­ful. One day, I was think­ing about how to per­son­al­ize the pa­per cups in my cafe. I wanted an artis­tic ex­pres­sion to be held in the hands of New York­ers as they moved through­out the city.

And I thought I’d write to him. Luca de­signs, paints and cre­ates ob­jects of unique beauty and I wanted this form of art to be seen by ev­ery­one. Thanks to his artis­tic tal­ent and to­tal un­der­stand­ing of the con­cept, he de­signed three won­der­ful de­signs for the pa­per cups. We call them Popcups at our Pic­colo Cafe. We had 350,000 pieces made, peo­ple kept ask­ing for them.

With each cus­tomers cap­puc­cino or cof­fee that was served in the Popcups the re­ac­tion was al­ways “Wow! Who did these de­signs?” And the an­swer was “Luca Car­boni, can I tell you more about Luca?” and many would re­spond “Yes please!”

Among your many col­lab­o­ra­tions, in the artis­tic and cin­e­mato­graphic fields, the Bolgona Biografilm Fes­ti­val, brings you back to Italy ev­ery year. Is this an­other pas­sion or a great bond with your home­land?

“A rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my Parei­do­lia. While cut­ting a piece of meat and serv­ing it I saw a scary face, a mon­ster made of meat, I pho­tographed it to neu­tral­ize it!”

Ab­so­lutely, yes for both choices. This project too, came from an erup­tion of ideas born from an en­counter. Many years ago, while liv­ing in Bali, I met An­drea Romeo, founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Biografilm. We talked for whole days and nights. We talked a lot in my door­less house full of geckos. He ex­plained to me what Biografilm was all about, but also what it would be­come. I did the same. I talked about my­self and my ideas and I en­trusted them to dear An­drea. From those con­ver­sa­tions a sort of man­i­festo emerged based on our mu­tual in­ten­tions and prom­ises. An­drea sug­gested that we cre­ate the Biografilm Food Academy to­gether, so that those who love cin­ema could also ex­pe­ri­ence the food and tra­di­tions of our re­gion. To­day the Academy boasts strong re­la­tion­ships all over the world, and here too ... what joy! Meet­ing peo­ple like An­drea en­riches my life. From our col­lab­o­ra­tion I also cre­ated Won­der Pic­tures, a film pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany. The cin­ema is an­other im­por­tant piece of my personal mo­saic of life.

Your New York story started with Pic­colo Cafe, which now has four lo­ca­tions, and con­tin­ues with La Luc­ci­ola restau­rant. Did It all start one sum­mer evening?

It all started one sum­mer evening af­ter the end of a dif­fi­cult cater­ing event. We were on a sail­boat telling sto­ries, the kind that light up your imag­i­na­tion and form ideas that leave you think­ing for hours. That’s where a “unique and ex­cep­tional” idea was born. That’s how it was de­scribed in the visa ap­pli­ca­tion. In 2009 I de­cided to make cof­fee and cap­puc­ci­nos (later on also pas­tas) on the street, at Union Square, dur­ing the Christ­mas mar­ket. It had never been done, but I thought I could do it any­way. I ex­plained it to the NY State New Busi­ness Di­vi­sion, with a draw­ing. It worked, and how if it worked. Il Pic­colo Cafe was born there for 30 days, the time nec­es­sary to change my life. In a 3-foot space filled with cof­fee, sweets, talk and courage, we came across ideas, sug­ges­tions, advice, and ex­pres­sions of af­fec­tion. And then on the evening of De­cem­ber 24, at the end of the thir­ti­eth day of the Christ­mas mar­ket, with record snow­fall and a hand­shake we were given the keys to Il Pic­colo Cafe’s first lo­ca­tion.

What does cook­ing mean to you? Ex­per­i­ment­ing or pre­serv­ing tra­di­tions?

Ex­per­i­ment­ing AND pre­serv­ing, but also nur­tur­ing, pro­tect­ing, con­nect­ing, for­giv­ing, se­duc­ing, nurs­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, mov­ing, touch­ing and ob­serv­ing. Cook­ing means lay­ing bare my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. It is where in­se­cu­rity and con­stant study meet up. The two ma­tri­ces come to­gether in a sin­gle dish, whether the dish is tra­di­tional, in­no­va­tive or up­dated. My ap­proach to cook­ing is like Hilma af Klints ap­proach to paint­ing. It’s spir­i­tual, philo­soph­i­cal, devoted to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mans’ ex­is­tence.

Who is Michele Casadei Mas­sari? A chef, an en­tre­pre­neur, a dreamer?

A man, a happy fa­ther, full of fears. For years I confused fears with lim­i­ta­tions. But then one sum­mer evening I re­al­ized that in re­al­ity the fears were emo­tions, ideas that quiver and fear that they won’t be heard or re­sponded to.

And in­stead, here I am! Fear, in the end, is ba­si­cally the rea­son to find courage and stim­u­late ideas. Even at the be­gin­ning of this interview I could have maybe been afraid, in­stead I have an­other idea!

Bot­tom right, part of Michele Mas­sari’s vin­tage cam­era col­lec­tion. Strictly ana­log.

The Popcups. The cof­fee cups de­signed and signed by Luca Car­boni.

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