We recently had the pleasure of being invited to an evening of food, fun and frivolity at chef Gabriele Bertaccini‘s roving international pop-up dining experience – the delightfully named CULINARY MISCHiEF. Hosted by the Marriott’s County Hall Hotel in Westminster, London, Gabriele and his team turned the stunning and imposing location into a familiar setting for a remarkable seven course Italian meal. Inventive, gregarious and charming, the head chef managed to conjure an evening in the image of himself – some feat considering that the meal was attended by a group of total strangers. Brought together by a mutual appreciation for good food, however, this evening did not disappoint any of the guests. Indeed, the Spring themed menu was a triumph, balanced beautifully by a wonderful ebb and flow to conversation and accompanied by exceptional individual wine pairings and introductions from Gabriele to each course.
We caught up with head chef Gabriele to discuss his approach to creating a cultural dining experience, rather than just another pop-up restaurant:
Gabriele – first of all, congratulations for organising such a spectacular event (CULINARY MISCHiEF: Primavera) in London this April! I understand that this was only the second time you had organised an evening of ‘CULINARY MISCHiEF’ here in the UK – what took you so long?!
Gabriele: Well, thank you guys! The pleasure was truly all mine as the evening is only as good as our guests, so YOU really ended up making the evening, not me.
To go back to your question, CULINARY MISCHiEF has been the premier roving underground dining event in the United States for the last five years now and we were ready to expand oversea. London especially has been going through a change when it comes to food and beverage offerings including a more underground food scene -which is the category into which CULINARY MISCHiEF falls. People are hungry for more experiences where food and wine is, yes the center of the attention, BUT it is also – and most importantly – a tool for new and old friends to connect, to create memories together, to go back to a simpler and more experiential life. London has been amazing and the welcome we received is exciting and inspirational.
All the guests were raving about your menu that night – six courses including a superlative pea soufflé, specially made hand-rolled gnocchi that looked and tasted out of this world and an incredible meaty main course of veal. All were cooked to absolute perfection. Perhaps you could talk us through your process for deciding upon your menu for each event?
Thank you for your kind words. The menu was indeed a good one and like everything else in life it becomes even better when you know you will not be able to enjoy again and anywhere. That is also why all our menus are a one-time-only culinary creations. We never repeat a dish once. Never a menu one. Each experience is truly unique to its location, inspiration, time of the year and overall theme.
How do you replicate this concept all over the world to such a high standard when using a different team each time?
I take a lot of joy and pride in teaching and sharing my culinary and entertaining skills with the different people I have the pleasure to work with. For me, it is all about passion. You can teach skills, you can’t teach passion. I can sit with you and walk you through a recipe, but the love you put in it IS in fact perceived by your guests – and that I cannot control. It takes a lot of preparation, and it is important for me to make them (my team) understand that the success of the evening is mostly due to them.
At the Primavera meal, the wine was selected by the head of F&B at the Westminster Marriott Hotel, your location partner for the evening. How involved are you with choosing the wine pairings for the meal?
Very involved indeed! We usually select the wines after I craft the menus and we go through a tasting to make sure that the ones we selected are going to work and if not, what we can change. The relationship food and wine have together is comparable to being married. It is important that both elements are in harmony and that they know when to balance each other. The sum is greater than its parts.
Do you have any go-to sources for your ingredients? Or does this change depending on location, time of year, the type of menu etc?
It absolutely changes as the location and availability of ingredients change as well. One thing is always the same though: we outsource and look for only the BEST ingredients available, when possible locally sourced so that there is a story behind it. It is important for each ingredient to have its own reason to exist.
When did you first learn to cook, where did you train as a chef and are the two events directly linked?
I have always been fascinated by food and what food represents for me, for my family and for our society. The power that food and wine have in creating memories is quite inspirational to me. Of course, my nationality has a lot to do with it. We (Italians) define ourselves based on what we eat and what we cook. The dinner table is the place where everything happens, where our dreams are discussed, where our life happens. It is a metaphor for something much more important like relationships and personal growth. This understanding led me to enrolled into culinary school at the age of 13. For five years I studied the basics of Italian cooking and the art of hospitality. It is important to note that nobody trains as a Chef. Although the word is nowadays is loosely used we all start as cooks. A chef is and has been a cook. A cook may become a Chef if enough leadership skills, passion and understanding of the industry is present.
Tell us about your inspiration for starting CULINARY MISCHiEF. There are obviously a lot of people organising similar pop-up dining events at the moment; was CULINARY MISCHiEF a way of capitalising on that trend or designed to be something a bit different?
CULINARY MISCHiEF was one of the first pop-ups in the U.S.A. When I started, there weren’t many chefs doing what I did and, I do have to say, there still aren’t. For me it was important to create an experience that was so unique that it couldn’t be replicated, and that came with the understanding that location, theme, wine pairings, music, set up of the dining room and invitations [the guests] were as important as the food we were presenting our clients. Many of our guests have never experienced anything like it before. It is very decadent yet comfortable, not stuffy and fairly informal. My ultimate goal was to create an event that replicated the same feeling of me inviting friends and family over for dinner. Some of the best dinners are created spontaneously and although these events are very well planned, once the dining room is open and the candles are lit the atmosphere is friendly, engaging and you do not want to leave the table…sometimes for hours and hours!
We love the name CULINARY MISCHiEF – it captures the sense of theatre in what you do. The events are about more than just food, they are about social interactions with like-minded people, and, primarily, an evening of entertainment. Do you think that, with a growing number of themed restaurants and pop-ups appearing (particularly in London!) that people have come to expect this level of entertainment in addition to a purely gastronomic experience when eating out?
Everything I have done and I do is about much more than food. It is experience-driven. And so is CULINARY MISCHiEF, which marries the art of entertaining with the one of cooking, and guests have come to expect that from their ‘nights-out’. They want to be entertained, they want to be surprised, and they want to feel special. It is the host’s job (whether is the Chef or not) to do so, to make their experience unique.
How do you pick the themes and menus for each CULINARY MISCHiEF event?
The inspiration comes from many different elements but location has to be #1 on my list. The place where the event is held often dictates the type of menu, set up and overall feel the dining experience is going to have. Seasonality is my second most important inspiration as food has to adapt to its surroundings.
Your company, Il Tocco Food, offers what appears to be a combination of catering and event management services. Do you specialise in catering for private dinners, then, or do you ever do events on a larger scale for private clients?
iL TOCCO FOOD was born with the idea of replicate the same feel of a CULINARY MISCHiEF in the comfort of our client’s residences and other locations. My team and I specialize in creating private dining experiences that focus on relationship building rather than just plain catering services. We meet with our clients and over a glass of wine understand their needs, what they are looking for, what they occasion is and how we can assist. We craft personalized menus that are unique to our guests’ tastes and expectations, paired the wines and take care of the overall theme when needed or asked, and then we execute the whole dining experience start to finish for them and their guests on site. No food is prepared ahead of time and we have to accommodate to the logistic of the location. We do events from 2 to 500 people, but because we are very detailed oriented each event takes a much longer time to organize and execute thus we can only accommodate a small number of private dining events each month. I am very proud to say that nobody does what we do and that private dining events like those ones often lead to become friends with our clients for life.
Understandably you have a penchant for exciting, creative Italian food but have you ever considered offering different culture’s cuisines or mixing up your approach with different national cooking techniques or styles?
I have not and I know I will never do that. I believe it is important for a Chef to have an emotional connection to the food he/she cooks so that there is a story behind it. It is all about sharing with the guests your journey (professional and private alike as they often cross paths) and make them part of it.
What has been your most memorable event so far?
Each event is memorable in its own. Every event unique to its location, guests, foods and wines. Each dinner a one-in-a-lifetime-experience. I carry with me many memories from each event we have shared with our guests and clients and that is the most precious part of what I do.
You have already grown CULINARY MISCHiEF internationally to Phoenix, LA, NY in America, Florence in Italy and London in the UK. Any plans to expand further? Either way, what lies in store for you and Il Tocco – what can we expect to see next from you?
As a Chef I am always on the hunt for new and exciting ways of sharing my passion and love for food and wine with the greatest number of guests possible. Of course, iL TOCCO FOOD & CULINARY MISCHiEF will keep going and going strong in the USA, UK and ITALY. I am however, working on creating a different and more permanent experience both in the USA and UK. You may want to get your calendar open, as it will be my pleasure to soon host you at our first brick and mortar concept….!
Thanks Gabe – we’re looking forward to it already!
The Primavera dinner menu included:
Light pea souffle with carrot juice vinaigrette and salsa verde;
Silky asparagus soup with quail egg yoke and parsley infused croutons;
Cloud-like squash gnocchi dressed with brown Italian butter and Treviso Radicchio;
Grilled veal chops marinated in fresh thyme and served with a ‘Sicilian caponatina’;
Sharp tasting palate cleanser with notes of Campari and Lemon
…and a Lavender cannolo with lemon thyme sauce.