Meet Chef Luigi Gandola, A Man Who Wears Many Hats
Tis Travels is spending three months in Italy, exploring it from the north to the south. The first stop was Bellagio, on Lake Como.
To say that one of the very best parts of my stay in Bellagio was the day spent with Chef Luigi Gandola at his restaurant, Salice Blu, is no small declaration. He is a fascinating chef, full of surprises.
During the pandemic, I watched many webinars produced/hosted by the Italian Tourism Board on the various regions of Italy. The very first one I watched introduced viewers to all that Lake Como has to offer. It featured a five-star hotel, picturesque bike tours, temptations of beautiful villas, and a cooking class with Chef Luigi Gandola.
Who is Chef Luigi Gandola?
Chef Luigi Gandola was just the kind of person you needed on a webinar pitching the best of your region of Italy in those pandemic days. Despite all the darkness back then, he seemed to still be finding a way to live his best life. He spoke with such energy about his restaurant and the garden out back where he grows many of the ingredients he uses. Immediately I wanted to push a magic button and be taken over to my beloved Italy to work in that garden and cook amazing meals in Bellagio.
Because I participated in the webinar and answered a survey correctly, I surprisingly won one of the gifts from the webinar hosts. While I was hoping for a private escape at the five-star hotel, the perfect antidote for the “Covid jail” I was in, I was delighted to learn I had won a cooking class with Chef Luigi. I was a bit skeptical that I’d ever make it out of pandemic NYC to take it.
In May of 2021, the world finally opened up a bit. I jumped at the chance to get out of NYC, re-booking my “coronaed” 2020 milestone birthday trip to Italy. My original trip was not to start in Bellagio, nor was it meant to last 3 months but hey, plans change.
When I contacted Chef Luigi to schedule the class, his abundant energy was easily conveyed through his emails, in which he enthusiastically encouraged me saying “Come! We are open and Covid free!”. We set the date. I just had to make it out of my Covid prison and across the pond.
Meeting Chef Luigi Gandola
The day finally arrived and I was in Bellagio, ready for my first full day in Italy. I waited for Luigi where we arranged. He arrived 15-minutes late and welcomed me into the front seat of the van beside him, announcing that I was to be his girlfriend for the day. As I settled into my seat, I met Sabrina and Dustin, a lovely couple from Idaho sitting in the back who were also taking the class.
His large personality showed itself immediately, as he spoke in a manner in which only Italians can effectively communicate, with a combination of hands, facial expressions and colorful phrases, all while driving the narrow and winding streets up to his family restaurant. He was particularly animated as the delay in our day was caused by a couple who failed to meet him at the agreed-upon time. He explained that this lack of simple courtesy had made us all late and there would be no time to have a coffee on the deck when we arrived.
Angry Chef or Intense Italian?
As we were explaining to Sabrina and Dustin how I won the class, he told me how frustrated he was that the Italian Tourism board would not let him go outside and show the garden during the webinar. At that time, Bellagio was “red” which meant residents were not allowed outside except for necessities. He exclaimed “I cannot bring the garden inside! The vegetables don’t grow in my desk! They grow in the ground!’
I worried this might be a long day if he was an angry chef. Most successful chefs have a reputation for being arrogant and a bit prickly. However, if he were more Italian than chef, there was hope. Italians get angry but most move on and can be as happy as they were angry in two minutes. I was hoping the Italian in Luigi would be more dominant than the chef.
Luigi started our experience at the restaurant by hurrying us into the garden out back where he explained in detail all the herbs, fruits and vegetables he grows there. Every bit of the relatively small space was carefully used to maximize the garden’s output. He instructed Sabrina to pick some zucchini flowers that we would use for the lunch.
Next, he pointed up to some construction above the garden. He was building suites to rent to people who wanted to experience the restaurant and the gardens and have a nice place to stay nearby. They could choose to have him stock wines in the suite or not. Is that really a choice I wondered?
Time to Make the Pasta
After exploring the garden, we went inside to get to work!
We walked into the kitchen and part of me wondered if this was all there was of the kitchen. When you see the workspace of a chef that has won as many awards as he has, you expect something large and fancy. Perhaps there was another part of the kitchen somewhere else with chefs working away, getting ready for the lunch rush and this was the area for the cooking classes. This area was small and pans were stacked one on top of another like in my small Manhattan kitchen instead of hanging on hooks as if on display.
We put on our aprons and readied ourselves for the work of preparing our lunch. We started by washing our hands which had to be done in the sink in the corner. The area was compact so only one person could fit at the double sink at a time.
Getting Instructions from the Chef
Luigi carefully explained as he gave us instructions, why he took each step and why he chose each ingredient. In order to keep us from eating at dinner instead of lunch, at times he jumped in to help. Suddenly, he grabbed a long plastic cutting board from seemingly out of nowhere and laid it down across the space between two pieces of equipment, and started cutting up onions. This effectively blocked access to the sink so anyone needing it had to go around the other side. I could not imagine any chefs I know making things work like that. They would have built a massive kitchen with all the comforts. Luigi and his staff just got on with it and made it work with a wry smile on his face as he joked with us.
As he chopped away, I noticed the knife he was using was engraved with his name. I imagined a thoughtful friend gave it to him or maybe it was part of one of the many awards he had won. When I asked its origin, he said nonchalantly, “Oh this? I developed a line of knives”.
It is About More than Just Cooking
Next, he pulled out a bottle and put a label on it. He explained that he had taken berries and a recipe he wrote to a partner that turned them into juice. For now, he was just experimenting and these bottles would not be sold or added to the menu. However, they must be labeled as they are kept in his restaurant. He mixed a quick champagne cocktail from them and we made a toast. As we toasted, he experimented with another bottled juice in the champagne. He tasted it and declared was not good enough to be served.
While we were going about the business of getting lunch ready, Luigi got a call. Some “important” people wanted to come for lunch he explained. Chef Luigi jumped in his truck to pick those customers up. A sous chef took over and instructed us on making the gnocchi. The gnocchi is shaped in a non-traditional form so customers know it is handmade. Soon, Luigi appeared with the “important” people. He had not sent someone for them but personally went and picked them up himself.
We were getting a glimpse into the real Luigi, and the Intense Italian in him was definitely winning over the chef.
Time to Eat the Pasta!
When we finished cooking, we took our seats on the terrace outside. This was the loveliest setting to enjoy what was coming. We had:
1-Risotto with zucchini flowers and truffles
3-Ravioli stuffed with some heavenly cheese and made of pesto, beetroot and egg pastas giving us a tasty bite in the colors of the Italian flag
4-A to-die-for tagliatelle with veal and pork ragù.
My taste buds died and went to heaven during that lunch. We all tried very hard to choose a favorite but it was simply not possible. Everything we tasted was paired with amazing wines and was simple perfection.
Time for Goodbyes
After we finished, Luigi sat with us and told us about the book he had published that gave a history of the family restaurant and included some of his recipes. I told him it would be difficult for me to take the book around for three months and he offered to ship it to my last location. I have no doubt he would have been at the post office himself, mailing it to me to arrive precisely on time at my last stop.
When it was time to leave, Sabrina, Dustin, and I decided to walk down the hill to Bellagio. It was a beautiful day and we were enjoying the lovely views. Suddenly, we heard a horn blowing and made sure we were off as far as possible on the side of the road. The horn continued until a van appeared beside us with the Salice Blu logo and Luigi in his street clothes, yelling and motioning “Get in!!!”.
The crazy Italian was trying to catch a ferry to deliver the next berries and recipe for more juice. We all jumped in and as we headed down the hill, Luigi reminded us that we did not take a photo together. We tried to take a selfie as he drove rapidly trying to make the ferry, which when we arrived, had no more room for vehicles. He was frustrated that he was wasting time but settled in to wait for the next one.
Luigi, A Man Of Many Talents
After spending only a few hours with Luigi, I am sure that I missed many of his current entrepreneurial efforts. However, let’s try for a moment to sum them up.
1-He bottles his own juice, using his own berries and his recipes.
2-He designed a line of chef’s knives.
3-He is a chauffeur, driving his van around Bellagio picking up customers.
4-He is an instructor, teaching the fine arts of his cooking.
5-In his spare time, he is an internationally award-winning chef.
Throughout the day, we learned much about this man I’d first come to know on a videoconferencing call. While his large personality came through on the call, I could never have predicted all the facets of this man. He does not have any attitude about any part of his work. Instead, he takes it all on with passion and just gets on with it, finding a way around any challenges. He is kind, hard-working, and incredibly humble. When Dustin told him he admired his work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, he seemed not to give the compliment much thought.
If you are ever in the Lake Como area, book a cooking class or better yet, a cooking class and a truffle hunt.
Oh, I didn’t mention the truffle hunts? Yeah, he does that too.
Follow along with Tis Travels as Lisa explores Italy for three months!