The sunset over Toscana Resort Castelfalfi is that of a fairy tale. Warm pink hues streak the sky, adorning the terracotta rooftops with an iridescent glow. This 1100 hectare estate is home to a wildlife reserve, exclusive golf course, winery, olive mill, boutique hotel and culinary hotspot, La Rocca di Castelfalfi. With 800 years of history, Castelfalfi is a place where time is suspended; where regional culture still rules, and nature is respected. It is for these reasons which Michelin star chef, Michael Rinaldi, holds the estate and its surrounding area with such high regard, and continues to run the kitchen at La Rocca with great success.
Chef Rinaldi earned his Michelin star early in his career, at 27, after working in some of Italy’s most highly regarded kitchens. Working with passion and steadfast organization, La Rocca has become one of Tuscany’s most esteemed restaurants. Rinaldi entertains his guests with a menu divided between classic and experimental choices. One side of the menu offers a selection of traditional Tuscan fare such as wild boar, and the other offers more experimental, deconstructed dishes like the lime, avocado risotto. These dishes are meant to challenge the patron, and push them deeper into their culinary experience. La Rocca is a quiet culinary haven where the land and it’s history are uniquely key ingredients to each dish. Here, Chef Rinaldi discusses his experience running La Rocca, the timeless culture of Castelfalfi, and why he can’t keep away from polenta.
Describe for us what a week is like running La Rocca, and all the daily details.
Monday morning marks the beginning of the week, but above all, it is the day we dedicate to sum up what happened during the weekend, to clean the restaurant, to do everything related to back office.
My day starts around 9:30 am, except on Sundays, when we also serve breakfast, which starts at 9:00. Every evening we prepare lists to organize and facilitate daily work, so as to arrive at lunch time and especially at dinner without complications. Everyone, in the morning, already knows which his or her tasks are, thanks to the organization done the previous evening. During the early hours of the day we receive and stock the goods, then we deal with the preparation. In the evening, we take care of small finishing preparations.
How did you develop your career as a chef? Where did you start, how did you get to where you are now?
At first it was almost a bet. I was motivated by my thirst for knowledge and the wish to put myself to the test. I devoted myself to the kitchen whenever I could, by choosing, in the summer, to do small jobs that could increase my cultural baggage. The first experiences took place during the study period and the first real job was in the restaurant L’Abacanto in Bergamo, my home town. After a few years I moved to the restaurant L‘Albereta, in Ebrusco, which at the time had earned two Michelin stars. There I had the great honor of working with and above all learning from the master Gualtiero Marchesi. I have developed my working method, technique and precision also in the following years, when I worked also in Spain, before returning to Italy and start working at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Da Vittorio in Brusaporto. Later I became the Executive Chef of the restaurant All’Acquacotta, in Saturnia, where I had the honor of receiving my first Michelin star.
The ultimate achievement of my aspirations came with Toscana Resort Castelfalfi, when I decided to manage the restaurant La Rocca, located inside the ancient castle, a dream location for every chef.
What do you love about being a chef?
The honor and the responsibility given by managing a kitchen staff. To have guys who demonstrate every day that they are a positive and enthusiastic team. Above all, I appreciate to be able to motivate and make them grow, this gratifies me a lot. The Chef is supposed to be a coach, who must get to know each member of the group to be able to help and support him or her in the best way. There is no better reward than being able to make them discover their qualities and potential.
Describe your cooking style and process.
I have always preferred a classic, simple cuisine, based on organization. Therefore, as mentioned, every day is organized the previous evening, so as to have all already established at the time we enter the kitchen. It is essential to optimize time and to organize everything to the best to prevent gaps or problems that can generate chaos. Obviously there may be something unexpected, that we have to deal with. To be calm is essential, even if you are under pressure, and to be able to handle stress is fundamental. With regards to timing, we strive to meet the timing of the commands and, of course, to fail or not depends on initial organization.
Describe your most favorite dish on the menu.
All dishes on the menu are my favorite, because they are my creations and represent myself. It becomes very difficult to choose a single proposal. For sure the “Sensations Menu” gratifies me a lot, because the customer has to completely trust us to be guided in a journey of flavors and emotions. They are new dishes, which don’t belong to the Tuscan tradition, so we could say that choosing this menu requires a little bit of courage. But if I were forced to choose just one dish, I would probably choose the gnocco with foit gras. It is a very tasty recipe: the dumpling is browned and become quite crunchy, but with a soft fois gras heart. I usually add it to a Certaldo’s red onion puree, candied figs and duck prosciutto. For all the lovers of fois gras it is certainly an attractive plate. This plate is always a great success to be served all year round.
What are some of the key elements to Tuscan Italian cooking? How does this region’s cuisine differ from the rest of Italy?
Tuscan cuisine is a poor cuisine, which had, as its main objective, to recover raw materials: just think of the panzanella or the pappa al pomodoro. Tuscany is characterized by many recipes and many variants. Mainly, it offers soups and sauces, like wild boar and ragouts; what I like most is the fact that it is less heavy than other cuisines, but at the same time, is characterized with unique flavors. Tuscan bread, cold cuts, Chianina and specific vegetables are key elements of the Tuscan culinary tradition, which differs, however, from the coast, where codfish, red mullet and cacciucco become the main dishes. Each cuisine has its roots in the most common crops of the area to which it belongs; then, of course, each of them is characterized by ingredients that, at least in the past, could only be found in the region. For Tuscany, a key ingredient, which is still not widespread, is definitely the cabbage.
What personal elements influence your cooking style?
I have been always very influenced by my homeland: polenta, in fact, is an unavoidable dish in my menu. Then, the career has influenced my way of being and working: for instance, despite that Bergamo is not close to the sea, I give great relevance to fish, and of course to Tuscan cuisine.
Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?
Working with raw materials, going to the market. When I see a product, the first thought is how to make it perfect, how to enhance its flavor and which recipes to invent with it. Definitely, working in Castelfalfi helps a lot, as it is a source of inspiration, especially for meat-based dishes.
Which food transports you to the past?
What is the most important lesson you try to teach other chefs in your kitchen?
What I try to convey every day is passion, modesty and team spirit, because at the end of the day it’s the team that wins or loses, not the individual. I also try to convey my objectives, because it is essential to be able to give our best to satisfy the customer.
What do you personally love about Tuscany?
Peacefulness. Bergamo is losing its traditions, it’s becoming more and more modern; therefore, living in a place like Castelfalfi, immersed in a countryside that smells of traditions, brings me back to the past. The agri-food reality, in Tuscany, still plays a fundamental role, which is being lost in other regions.