You might run into chef Enrico Cerea at fashion parties in Milan smartly dressed, hosting and schmoozing, or in his chef whites, directing and perfecting. But one thing is for sure, he is never alone.
Hosting Top Chef, Master Chef, Prova del Cuoco and others is just the tip of the iceberg. One of only seven chefs in the country to hold three-michelin stars, Enrico Cerea and the restaurant Da Vittorio run by the Cerea family is an internationally known spot for jet-setting Italo-file gourmets looking for a 5-star dining experience. If this wasn’t enough, Da Vittorio’s catering operation also happens to feed many of the creative minds at some of the most famous brands in Milan including the staff at Gucci.
When my friend Gary Rulli was in town last he had high praise for Enrico and the Cerea family. A well-connected pastry chef and entrepreneur himself, Gary is based in San Francisco but well-known on the international pastry circuit. Curious to meet this legendary “Bergamasco” chef of which Gary spoke, I would soon discover that an interview with chef Enrico Cerea is an interview with the entire family and it is their strength together that makes Da Vittorio so successful.
Located in Bergamo, the restaurant is a part of a gorgeous villa and hotel with a pool that satisfies every fantasy you’ve ever had about a romantic Italian escape. It’s up on a hill in the careening northern countryside, dotted with flowers, and a chic stone terrace overlooking the lush grounds.
The air was chilly and the sky was grey but a warm greeting by the entire family followed by a white glove served morning feast gave us all the feeling of home. We could barely contain ourselves, all handmade, fresh-cut, just-squeezed everything. Brunch will never be the same.
My look of the day was inspired by Chef Cerea’s contemporary personal style and the radiant romantic fantasy of Da Vittorio itself. Luisa Beccaria is a famous Milanese designer that makes exquisite gowns that every Italian girl dreams of wearing on her wedding day or any special occasion. It turned out to be a spot-on choice as I discovered later that Beccaria is a close family friend who also designed the wedding gowns of all the Cerea women.
A day in the kitchen dodging chefs and making pasta in a delicious velvet dress, City Girl Cooks learned more than a recipe for sauce. An Italian family with 50 years experience building a successful international brand and business, the Cerea’s had some important advice for overcoming adversity, on being a good leader, and on what to do when you make mistakes along the way.
You were a host on the first Top Chef Italia and also MasterChef. What changes do you see happening in Italian cuisine?
ENRICO: Well it is definitely changing. A lot of chefs are in the spotlight now, they’re stars. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s bringing attention to the profession but the negative side is that a lot of young chefs disappointed that being an actual chef is not like what you see on TV. While everyone else is enjoying the holidays or watching sports during the day, you’re working. It affects your friendships — all of your relationships — you’ve really got to love this type of work.
FRANCESCO: I would also add, that this type of work does offers great opportunities. You can go abroad and find Italian cuisine almost anywhere, not every type of work offers this kind of freedom. So I would consider not only what you’re doing now but what you’d like to do in the future with this.
What is the role of a host on a cooking show?
ENRICO: I’ve participated in quite a few tv shows like MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Top Chef and others and I’m always happy to get the call because it is gratifying to be recognized for what you do. You’re able to offer something truly of yourself and help them understand the nature of the job (for those who really want to do this) in just the tiny amount of time you have.
What special experience does Da Vittorio bring to the contestants?
ENRICO: We’re about to approach 50 years. There has been a continuation, a family, a group that is a tradition and a revolution that in 50 years has been transformed into what it is today.
How do you guys stay current in terms of the menu and the plating and still hold on to tradition?
ENRICO: We continue the evolution. The intelligence of a chef is to not be left behind
by time but find a way to apply those same traditions in a modern way in the right measurements.
I want to talk about how you started. It was in 1966 right? And you guys were right in the center. But that’s not why you become famous is it? It’s because you took a risk. You started serving fish in Bergamo when everyone else was serving meat.
ENRICO: yes, yes that’s true! Especially birds with polenta, even pigeons and quail! Bird polenta!
So in your opinion, how important is it to take risks, especially if you want to build something that lasts? How can you tell if you’re taking the right risks?
ENRICO: It’s something you know inside. Something you feel in your skin. The desire to give as much as you’re ready to receive. There are a lot of things to weigh. But this makes you grow. You make mistakes in the process but when you do, you go back again and do it over. It happens at work, it happens with people, it happens in all places.
“…It’s something you know inside. Something you feel in your skin. The desire to give as much as you’re ready to receive.” -Chef Enrico Cerea on taking risks
So many people are afraid of making mistakes, what kind of advice would you give to them?
ROSSELLA: You’ve got to set it straight right away. Whether it’s with co-workers or clients.
ENRICO: You can either run away or make it right. You have to make recoup, to face it right away. Mistakes happen at work often. New beginnings can start with mistakes.
In restaurant work you can just get tired of it all. What do you do when this tiredness sets in?
FRANCESCO: When you’re tired you’ve got to pull yourself away and regroup. But this kind of work is in your DNA. Everything you do with the contractors, kitchen staff, clients…you don’t want to stop. It’s your lifestyle. It’s like a drug.
So I have to ask…what is the best and worst thing about working with your family?
[LAUGHING AND COUGHING]
ok ok let’s start with the worst!
FRANCESCO: She can go first (pointing to sister Rosella)
ROSELLA: Bad tempers. It’s better to stay upbeat.
ENRICO: Let me explain — there are already contrasts when working with your family. Everyone has something to say, maybe something to take care of, or something new to share, and you need to sit down and discuss it and figure out what to do. This doesn’t come easy. But you see we’re all still here together after 50 years, that means something.
FRANCESCO: And never ends.
And what is the best thing about working with your family?
FRANCESCO: Definitely the power of a group. When you’re going through a crisis you can depend on each other. Only the best things can happen working with your family
How do you get from a dream to a reality? How do you make all the small pieces come together to arrive at your goal?
ENRICO: Look, my dad started with a tiny trattoria and then a restaurant, the schools, then there was a hotel and little by little it became the villa and now there are books and we do consulting and so on. But really you follow your passion in the moment. Like we’ve just put out our 50th anniversary book but you follow your joy.
ROSELLA: If it’s something you want to do you do it.
ENRICO: You make a plan, you decide you want to do something and you do it.
What makes a good leader?
FRANCESCO: like a good boss?
ENRICO: a good leader, it’s different
Exactly my point
ROSELLA: To make people around you understand their importance. If you think you’re better than anyone, that’s not a leader. They’ve got know that you’re there for them and the importance they have. And you have to do twice the work as everybody else…kind of lame but that’s the truth.
Do you follow fashion, design or music? any favorite artists or designers?
ENRICO: Oh yeah, I mean we’re so close to Milan I’m often in the city with all different designers, we’ve worked with Gucci, Prada, Zegna but we get clients across sectors. Like cars, jewelry…luxury basically. And actually we also do lunch for over 350 people at Gucci.
What do you guys serve?
ENRICO: we have a grill station, a pizza station, a vegetarian station, stations for rice, and sweets and coffee.
Wait — are you telling me Gucci crew eats pizza?
ENRICO: well if it’s gourmet they do.