Kitchen talk: chefs’ perspective on Florence’s restaurants

Beyond the pass with Gianluca Giordano and Gentian Shehi

Karl Whittaker
June 19, 2019 - 14:19

Behind the cameras of televised cooking shows and the pages of food reviews and travel guides, the customer knows very little about what really goes on in the minds and kitchens of the chefs who prepare their food. As a former chef with work experience in both low- and high-end restaurants, I have some awareness of what happens behind the pass of an English kitchen. But are the perimeters the same in Florence? What is Florentine food? Why do chefs here in this historic city do what they do? Industry experts, from diverse standards and serving styles, discussed with me their restaurants, the importance of food guides and how they do what they do.

 

 

Gianluca Giordano is the owner of Antica Trattoria da Tito. The restaurant has been in his family since 1917 when it was started by his great-great-grandfather, Tito. Since then, the via San Gallo locale has stayed true to its legacy by serving the same traditional Florentine food it did over 100 years ago. The style is a basic family trattoria, offering pleasing plates such as coal-cooked ham with smoked burrata, bistecca fiorentina and coniglio alla boscaiola, a rabbit stew.

 

Executive chef Gentian Shehi of Winter Garden by Caino has been cooking since the age of 14, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2015. The hotel restaurant at The St. Regis Florence serves memorable dishes, reminiscent of Tuscan heritage with a finer and more particular edge. On the Temptation menu one can try “a variety of ten typical Tuscan cereals and legumes in a warm creamy soup”. Before starting his experience in the kitchen, Shehi studied piano for four years at Taranto’s Conservatoire.

 

 

Executive chef Gentian Shehi of Winter Garden by Caino

 

 

“I left because my family couldn’t afford it, and working in the restaurants was the fastest way to get a job and be independent. After spending every day in the kitchen, learning how to cook, I started to love it. Now I can’t live without cooking!”

 

 

When asked about the importance of food and travel guides, Shehi contributed, “The Michelin Guide is an objective and transparent indicator that ensures that what we offer in our restaurants is at the highest level of excellence of food and service.”

 

 

Giordano differed on this point. “Guides are part of a different culture, not ours. Michelin is worldwide, but it’s a guide only for those who need rigid plans. We Italians like to get lost in the city and find ourselves, so it isn’t as important here in our culture as it is in the US or the UK. It’s not synonymous with quality, but is instead synonymous with a backwards way of thinking, and that thinking is that fancy is the only good thing and rigidity is better than free-thinking.”

 

 

Having come from a Michelin background, I diplomatically agree with both. The star awards offer restaurants something prestigious to work towards, and because of this incentive, restaurants can go on to push the boundaries and create rather than copy. But focusing solely on such accolades can lead to issues in the dining room. The guest’s needs can be tossed to the wayside, and the staff’s wellbeing disregarded. It is extremely important for a restaurant and the restaurant’s owner/chefs to find a balance between both ways of thinking.

 

 

 

 

Gianluca Giordano, owner of Antica Trattoria da Tito

 

 

 

The topic of the discussion shifted to what should be at the forefront of a chef’s priorities, such as produce, personal originality and customer care. When asked, Giordano suggested that chefs and restaurant alike must value their identity above all other considerations. “We don’t want to run a fancy place, because we are not that kind of people. Identity now in this globalized world is so much more important for businesses because everybody seems to be trying to be exactly the same.”

 

From my experience in the UK, I find truth in this statement. Many restaurants have dedicated themselves to copying recipes from innovative restaurants in the hope it will bring them success.

 

Shehi agreed that it is important for a restaurant to solidify its own identity, but he believes that the guest’s needs should come first. “Of course the identity is tied to the guest’s needs and what he or she is looking for and the offer of a high-level restaurant should be tailored to meet at best the customer’s expectations and local market needs.”

 

Despite the differences in costs, styles and backgrounds, these Florentine restaurants share values. And despite differences on the importance of guides, and what makes them “tick”, they are both fuelled by a passion for quality Florentine food. Gianluca Giordano and Gentian Shehi care about what they serve, which is evident in the plates they produce.

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