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Chef

Gianfranco Minuz is soft-spoken and retiring, quite the antithesis of what chefs are portrayed to be on television. He’s certainly no Gordon Ramsey. His voice is deep, a little raspy and heavily accented Northern Italian with a hint of Austria in his w’s. He grew up in a small country village in Venice, but not the Venice of our imagination, the one we see in movies, a Venice of canals and singing gondoliers. He’s from farther inland, the Tre Venezia area near the border of what once was Yugoslavia. His eyes are sharp blue, though you can’t really get an idea of just how blue they are behind his glasses. He has big hands, but they are oh so delicate. His fingers move like a piano player’s only his keys are ingredients. He gently touches fruit, or turns a squash just so it’s perfectly displayed. He is fascinated by colors, shape, scents and tastes. This chef has a bit of that Italian swagger in his walk for all that he is a humble and shy soul. He’s strong too, at age 58, he lifts heavy boxes of fruit and veg like they weigh nothing. If you are cooking something, you can be sure he’s watching with all the intensity of a hawk seeking prey. He watches every move you make, his blue eyes darting from side to side, mentally cataloging your movements, what you did, what spice you used…he is a human food computer and when I cook for him, I can almost see his brain processing my actions. He knows everything about food, pretty much – a walking  talking encyclopedia of science, flavors, chemistry, food and the sociology and anthropology of it.

“That happened because you disturbed the glutens,” he said to me once, when I’d had a baking fail. “They were in the process of changing their molecular structure, but you disturbed when it was in that delicate process. Need wait!” He was right. The next time I didn’t pay attention to time on the recipe, I simply waited like he counseled until the smell changed signaling the end of the chemical process. He’s always right about food.

Who is this unassuming guy? “Just a cook,” he says in that self-deprecating way. That cook has earned Michelin stars in Italy and here in the States when he used to have a restaurant in Pasadena. He shrugs when I ask him about his stars. “I’m just a cook,” he says as he rubs dried focaccia dough off his arms. “I care about the food, the tasting of it, the process.” He does. I’ve watched him cook countless meals here in my home or at the restaurant in Santa Monica where he used to be the executive chef. That restaurant was  a fast-paced place with none of the elegance the chef was used to, but with his usual zen-like manner, he dealt with it with grace. He speaks kitchen Spanish, what Anthony Bourdain calls “Kitchenese” with stresses on the wrong accents, making it sound Italian. The cooks understand him, although at times they pretend not to. I once saw him try to show a young cook how to do something, but as I watched, the line cook just ignored him and rolled his eyes, saying, “I know, I know, I know.” Clearly, he didn’t know because he proceeded to do it completely wrong. I was appalled and thought to myself, “This man you just ignored, you could have learned a lot from.” Chef saw me watching from the counter and knew I was seething over it. “It’s okay,” he smiles that cheeky grin of his and sets down in front of me a plate of tortellini di fonduta, stuffed with fontina cheese, covered in a zucchini/borage flower sauce that tastes like heaven. “Mmmm,” is all I can say as the flavors coat my tongue. The cheese is silky, clinging like a lover, the sauce delicate, just a naughty whisper on  your palette and then it’s gone. The pasta was al dente, with just the right amount of bite.

At my home on days off, he cooks. Sometimes, I cook for him. He’s fascinated with the flavors of the traditional Mexican kitchen. I explain to him about how we make mole or enfrijoladas. He loves the similarities and the differences from his rustic Italian roots. If I make rice and beans, he has a story ready about his mother’s pasta e fagioli. The following week, we’ll have it his way. He loves queso cotija and often uses it in pasta when he’s making home-cooked meals. Some days I’ll text him…”can I put x,y, or z in pasta?” The text always comes back, “Try it. We see.” He loves experimentation and fusion. He hates fast and poorly cooked meals, big meatballs, and tons of cheese. It’s almost obscene to him. “It’s not like that!” he exclaims in a rare display of temper. “You cannot taste the food like that.” To him, good food must be served at the moment, freshly made and with fresh ingredients. “For a good meal”, he says, “you have to wait. For it to taste beautiful, you cannot drown it in cheese.” Restraint is key. Another thing he repeatedly says, “Don’t put too much stuff.” He wants the food to speak for itself. He wants you to taste the glory of a tomato picked at the height of its ripeness in a simple way – a slice of tomato, good burrata, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s always wonderful. Once, he put together edible flower petals, orange tomatoes, olive oil, and burrata. The astringent bite of what appeared to be marigold petals elevated the taste of the tomato to something sublime. The creamy and delicate burrata contrasted with the astringency and it was a work of art. Simple food yet elegantly presented with a focus on taste. It’s very much like the man himself: seemingly ordinary yet incredibly elegant, complex and interesting.

In the kitchen where he used to work some people think he’s not smart because of his accent. I once heard a hostess belittle him. He was explaining the menu to her in English and she rolled her eyes at him and said, “I don’t speak Italian.” He cringed. “Is my accent so bad?” he asked me. “No, I said. She just didn’t want to listen.” This is often the case. Friends and other co-workers seem to understand him perfectly. We’ll carry on with conversations about philosophy, history science, art. Gianfranco is incredibly cultured and not once will people stumble over his accent. Only in that awful restaurant, did they take him for some bumbling version of himself and it infuriated me. He never let it bother him though because his focus is only on the food. He wasn’t allowed much experimentation though and I know that that does bother him. How could it not? The man is an artist with a creative soul. He lives and breathes the art of food. Once, a couple of summers ago, he brought me out a plate of slices of his freshly baked focaccia (his mother’s recipe) topped with bright red sections of tuna which were topped with cilantro flowers (a favorite of mine) and drizzled with olive oil. It was incredible. The soft, herby focaccia, coupled with the satiny, cold texture of the fresh tuna and the musky, the almost bitter seduction of cilantro all blended together in a harmonious symphony of delight. That is, until his boss, the owner of the restaurant whined, “Gianfrannnnnnnnnco, this is an Italian restaurant, not a sushi place.” His boss could have sold that plate for a good sum and people would have begged for more, but he chose to be close-minded, something a restaurant owner should never be. Chef carried on,though, working five years in a place he was unappreciated, stifled and put down until finally in April, he went on a much-needed vacation and came back to find another chef in his place. It was a relief. “I am on vacation!” We wandered off to Malibu, hiked up Encinal Canyon and celebrated this new chapter in his life with a fish dinner.  His future is bright but uncertain. He’s working on a cookbook filled with his ideas, old favorites like his mother’s recipes or new ideas brought about by things that inspire him.

These days, especially here in LA, most restaurants want executive chefs that know Excel, have a degree in Business or focus on P & L. Accountants, more than chefs are the wave of the future and someone like Gianfranco by virtue of his age, and his lack of computer or accounting skills can be rapidly shoved to the back of the line. He is a treasure and holds a vast wealth of knowledge about food and flavors in his head like an encyclopedia of food, art, and science. In spite of the brave new world he finds himself facing, he is, as always, showing grace under fire, a winning smile and delicious new recipes to make.

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