The chef and the musicians: Jeff Thickman and Igor Polesitsky
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The chef and the musicians: Jeff Thickman and Igor Polesitsky

Sat 03 Oct 2020 10:43 AM


In this enchanted city of Florence, it isn’t just the art, it’s the artists, where meeting one might lead to meeting two, or four, and then, as if by some magical Medici potion, seven might just find themselves on a Tuscan hilltop on a mid-September afternoon, where the dry heat of summer has given way to a gentle fall rain, and a celebratory canopy of umbrella pines are peaking through the delicate mist in the distance. Just below the “1930s California Cottage” as it is known, the neighbor’s flock of colorful chickens are meandering about. Two sheep come up for a visit, followed by four peaceful Alpacas, who call the neighbor’s house their home. The ancient pomegranate trees, like characters coyly holding their light burgundy baubles by the fingertips, stand guard at the entrance of the garden, while the Gravenstein apple trees and abundant basil bushes fragrance the luncheon table where a mouth-watering pasticcio awaits. There is music of sorts already in the air on this Scandicci hilltop, where Igor Polesitsky and Jeff Thickman, virtuosos both, pay great attention to detail, one on violin and viola, and the other to his wizardry in the kitchen: two great Florentine artists, who have welcomed me into their art-filled Tuscan home. 



The ideal Tuscan view. ph. Marco Badiani



Gathered around a table on a terrace overlooking yet another breathtaking Tuscan valley heaven-painted with cypress, ancient olives and many hundred years-old holly oak are guests who eagerly stare at the magnificence on the table. The Maestro della Cucina, Jeff, gently cuts into this pie of lightly fried eggplant, whole-wheat pasta, veal meatballs, mozzarella and tomato sauce. The secret, il Maestro says, is simple. Garden-fresh produce. No garlic. Olive oil. Well-chosen herbs. Pasta cooked in water for only two minutes so that the pasta will properly cook and absorb flavors in the oven. Lightly fried eggplant decoratively lining the baking dish, sweet tomatoes, for that is how they are by nature here in Tuscany, and the “secret” secret: a touch of Calabrian chilli pepper in the tomato sauce. Jeff is one of Florence’s best kept secrets: educated in Paris by Cordon Bleu chefs, a longtime resident of Florence and private chef to Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Maestro Zubin Mehta, while also having cooked for Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Madonna, Sting, Tony Bennett, Hubert de Givenchy, Roberto Cavalli, Gregory Peck, Daniel Day Lewis, Walter Matthau, Sophia Loren, the list is endless. Jeff is an artist in the truest sense of the word, equal and perhaps even greater than the sum of all these parts. It is worth noting that he began his life as a virtuoso pianist and music historian who loved to bake, often bringing cakes for his students to try during his Columbia University music history class that he would teach. It was his piano teacher Raquel Adonaylo, long gone but whom he still idolizes, who said, “You torture yourself every time you must play, but you are so happy when you bake!” “Ok,” Jeff said, “then bake, I shall.” 



Jeff Thickman in his well-appointed kitchen / ph. Marco Badiani



Now a late-summer salad arrives, and immediately one feasts with the eyes. The dish is a glorious combination of velvety red and yellow peppers with silky caramelized onion, sprinkled with what appears to be wheat-berries but is actually minced zucchini on a bed of succulent chicken breast and pesto haricots. The vegetables are from the Tuscan vegetable garden. But the chicken, ah, the chicken! Now that is a trick. “It is cooked in the ancient Chinese style,” Jeff tells us. “Bring a beautifully seasoned vegetable broth to a boil, vegetables intact. Turn off the flame. Place the chicken in the hot liquid and make certain that there are two inches of broth above. Cover the pot and simply let it sit until the broth is lukewarm. No flame. No fussing. And then, apple crumble, made from the fruit of the little old tree in the garden. There’s even a semifreddo al torrone friabile on a crushed amaretti crust wrapped in a dark chocolate band topped with torched meringue. Or perhaps more aptly entitled “Dolce Jeff a la Michelangelo.”



It is then that Igor Polesitsky stands. “Now, we play!”



Igor, a handsome, elegantly groomed mustached gentleman, looks like a kind, gentle and artistic Stalin, had Stalin been kind, gentle and artistic. Igor has that miraculous combination of rooted power and a childlike twinkle in his eye. It is amazing to think of such a combination because at the tender age of 19 Igor risked his life to defect from the anti-Semitic, individuality-crushing Soviet Union to find himself at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music, a prized student of the viola, with a subsequent invitation to play with the great Maggio Musicale Fiorentino orchestra for a one-year contract. That was 40 years ago. However, Igor remained, and as the orchestra’s first violist for all this time, born in Kiev, Ukraine, and a Florentine by soul, Igor has said that, after 40 years, every day in Florence is still a dream.



Klezmerata Fiorentina playing in Igor and Jeff’s Tuscan home / ph. Marco Badiani



And who is this “we” who shall play? None other than Francesco Furlanich, the orchestra’s bassoonist, who happens to also be a virtuoso accordionist, pianist, organist and a native of Trieste with part Slovenian roots. There is Riccardo Donati, a world-class bassist and first bass of the orchestra, also a pianist having graduated in both instruments from the Conservatory of Florence, a Tuscan born of centuries of Tuscans from Fucecchio, whose ancestors worked the land and who now lives not far from the very plot of his birth, having played in internationally renowned orchestras but having returned home. When asked, “Why?” the answer is immediate as he looks at the hills to his right. “But where else is there to be?” And then there is the first clarinetist of the orchestra, Riccardo Crocilla, a Sicilian who moved to Genoa as a child. The others say, “He has the characteristics of both!” Everyone laughs, including Riccardo. I can only wonder, who is in on the joke, and who is not, and what exactly is the joke one is to be in on?



Instruments are tuned and… Vrum. The first note. The first chord. The ensemble reaches deep into the soul, not pulling at the heartstrings, but pulling out the heart. It is impossible not to spend the next hour fighting tears that desperately want to escape. Tears for a man who defected from persecution as a boy. Tears for another who found his joy in pleasing others with his symphony of flavors, tears for the Sicilian, who takes a cylinder of wood and metal and gives it a human soul, tears for an accordionist who laments generations of Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans lost to the terror of power-hungry murderers in world wars, tears for the man who sees himself as a contadino, a man of land, but who brings forth his land in every note he plays. And tears for the world that we all once knew, now lost to a pandemic of heart-breaking proportions. These are the artists of Klezmerata Fiorentina, the Klezmer ensemble as they bring forth the sounds of generations past, generations lost, uniting souls as one, while the man, who sustains them on this day with the most beautiful Tuscan food, sits silently and observes. 



Marco Badiani and his beloved camera



All the while, there is another man, with a perfect eye and a generous sensibility, quietly capturing the proceedings, capturing souls. He is Marco Badiani, textile merchant by day, genius photographer by night. These all are but a select few of the many great artists of Florence, for Florence is not only an enchanted city of art, it is a city of enchanting artists and because of these artists, every day in Florence is a dream. 





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