This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us Thursday and Friday to read parts two and three.
To meet Maurizio Ferrarese, the executive chef of Quattro at the Four Seasons, is to immediately be charmed by him. He radiates Italian charm with his bright, easy smile and his warm, genuine persona. The first time we met, it was the middle of August, and having just arrived in Houston, he'd been tasked with creating a menu for Houston Restaurant Weeks.
"Get the risotto," he told me that day. "It's my specialty." I've been a fan ever since.
This week, our chef chat delves into Ferrarese's childhood in Italy and his rise to the top of the Four Seasons kitchen, starting with his first job at the Four Seasons at age 24.
EOW: You're a real Italian. I love your accent. Where are you from?
MF:I was born and raised in north Italy, a city between Milan and Turin. The city is called Vercelli.
EOW: What's the weather like there?
MF: The weather is foggy and snowy in the wintertime, sunny and hot during the summertime, and kind of dry. It's a good climate for the rice. In that area, we have 70 percent of the Italian production of rice.
EOW: So what did you grow up eating, rice?
MF: Rice. (Laughs.) Rice, lasagna, chicken -- chicken and eggs and chicken...and rabbits. (Laughs again.)
EOW: Obviously in Italy, food is a big part of the culture.
MF: The good thing of Italy, it is, yes. The city where I grew up is not big. There were 11 to 12,000 people. You don't have fast food.
EOW: No? No McDonald's?
MF: Of course not. The first McDonald's is 100 kilometers away.
EOW: What do you eat if you're in a hurry, then?
MF: You make yourself a sandwich with mozzarella, tomato, prosciutto or salami, mortadella.
EOW: Mmm...all my favorite things! Do you come from a culinary background?
MF: My mom cooks at home. Usually Saturday or Sunday, we have a big family, so there is always a big party of ten to 20 people -- we are four brothers and sisters. I have a twin, a big brother and big sister, and now they all have kids. Usually every Sunday, we all get together at my mom's house, and she cooks for everybody.
EOW: So she starts cooking at what time?
MF: She starts cooking a day before with six, seven, eight appetizers, at least two pasta dishes, one or two main courses, usually a meat or fish, and dessert.
EOW: What was your favorite thing that she always made?
MF: The favorite or the thing that she always made? We used to raise chicken and rabbits, so that's what's on the table every Sunday. The first time is great, the second time is great, the third time is okay, and the fourth and fifth time...(trails off, laughs) One of the dishes I love the most, the dish that she always makes me, is "rabbit with lemon." You marinate the rabbit in a lot of lemon juice for a couple of hours with a lot of herbs, and then you bread-crumb and stick in the oven until it's golden brown.
EOW: Okay, so tell me about your culinary career. How did you get started? Where did you go to school?
MF: I went to school in the north of Italy, in a city two hours from the place where I was born. It was a culinary school. I did five years. I started when I was 13, commuting back and forth between my home until I was 16 and old enough to get my own place.
EOW: (Incredulously) Culinary school starts when you're 13? That's like seventh grade over here! Nobody knows what they want to do in seventh grade! How do you know? Did they make you choose?
MF: Yes, they ask us what we want to do, and we choose. Hopefully it's the right one.
EOW: So they make you declare when you're 13. Wow, that's crazy. Okay, so you started at 13 and it's five years. What are you learning?
MF: Back in the days when I went to school, the first three years, they teach you exactly what to do in the kitchen. Then the last two years is more management, like hotel management and how to run a restaurant.
EOW: So you're graduating when you're 18. What happens. Do they help place you?
MF: When I was still in school, I used to work end of May to beginning of June. Usually I went down to the south of Italy where all the resorts are, and I worked every summer for these five years.
EOW: What did they let you do when you're just a kid?
MF: I started at an entry-level position. By the time I was 20, I was running a resort of 500 guests, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
EOW: So when did you start with the Four Seasons?
MF: I started when I was 24. Twenty, 21, 22, 23 years old, I was still in Italy, running all around, from the South to the North. Then, by 23 or 24, I decided to go out of Italy to learn more, to learn a different language, so I went to London and started at the Four Seasons there in Canary Wharf.
EOW: Tell me the progression at the Four Seasons.
MF: So I started there in 2000 as an entry-level position. It was an Italian restaurant, but I only had basic English, so they started me as a breakfast cook. I would start my shift at 4:30 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and then in the afternoon I would go to English school. I went to English school for six months, and then I moved up to chef de partie. I stayed there for 18 months. Then one day, the chef came in the kitchen and said, "Who wants to go to California?" And I raised my hand, and three months later I left and went to the Four Seasons in San Diego.
EOW: Oh, nice!
MF: Tell me about it! I stayed there for three years. I didn't want to leave. I stayed there for three years, then they told me, "You gotta move."
EOW: They wouldn't let you stay?
MF: I was the restaurant chef in San Diego. I was in charge of the restaurant. We had three restaurants, it was a resort, Aviara. It was a big oceanside resort with over 400 rooms. I was there for almost three years, and then I wanted to learn more in my career, so I moved to Chicago, which was a big banquet operation. I learned banquet, I was overseeing the restaurant and the room service. I met my wife there, then we moved to Hawaii. I stayed there for over a year, but we decided to move back to Europe because my dad wasn't very well. I was waiting for the Four Seasons in Florence and did a stint in Budapest for six months before going back to Florence to be a part of that team.
EOW: What made you leave Florence, your own country, to come to Houston?
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MF: Well, my wife is American. I loved America when I was here.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Maurizio Ferrarese.