In the Kitchen: Superstar chef concocts at Sale e Pepe

Chef Alberto Varetto at Sale e Pepe on Marco Island.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY, Special to the Eagle // Buy this photo

Chef Alberto Varetto at Sale e Pepe on Marco Island.

Sale e Pepe

480 South Collier Blvd., Marco

George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish dramatist wrote, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” That kind of reasoning is what an Italian schoolboy named Alberto Varetto may have used when he decided to cook his own meals.

“The real reason is, when I went to elementary school the food was terrible. I started my career because I didn’t like what they were making, so I cooked and ate my meals after I got home from school,” Chef Alberto Varetto explained.

Precocious? Exactly, but not because he cooked so he could choose what he ate. Rather, he had an appreciation for good food as a youngster and cooking supplied the means to indulge.

“Europe has a lot of culinary history, so the teachers are very strict and they expect more from you. I was 14 when I started culinary school,” Chef Varetto stated. “I was very confident at 15. I won a culinary prize representing Italy in a French culinary competition restricted to one representative from (culinary) schools in Europe.”

When Chef Varetto arrived for the competition, there were questions regarding his ability.

“Most of the competitors were 25 or older. You cooked your own cuisine — a first course, a main course and dessert,” he explained, noting that in addition to making a meal for the judges, the same meal had to be prepared for the journalists and food writers from prestigious international publications.

“I prepared the same courses for each one of them — they really liked my cooking — it made me feel like a superstar!” he related. “It made me realize that’s what I wanted to do.”

“Now I’m 34 and still I love what I do every day for the past eight years that I’ve been executive chef.

“Incidentally, I finished (school) at 19 — university and culinary school lasts five years in Torino. The first part of the day is academic (subjects) and in the afternoon it’s culinary classes. During summer season they sent me to different resorts on the Cote d’Azur. I started to travel — Valencia, Nice and Rome, in winter the Alps — I love to ski.

“You know, the 2006 Winter Olympics was held in my town — Torino — unfortunately I couldn’t attend.”

Your reporter resourcefully remarked that Chef Varetto’s apprenticeship seemed as simple as skiing downhill on Alpine slopes.

He responded smoothly, “After all, it really doesn’t matter if the experience is good or bad. You can always learn in my profession — there’s always room to learn.”

That having been said, on to the casually elegant environs of Washington, D.C.

“Roberto Donna asked me to come to Washington. He’s from the same town (Torino) as me, and we attended culinary school together although he’s 15 years older,” Varetto began.

Chef Varetto explained that Roberto Donna was one of the first Italians to come to D.C. in the 1980s to open a restaurant. He opened Galileo, and in 1987 he asked Chef Varetto to come and off he went.

“Together, we opened — a restaurant within a restaurant — a little glass room with five tables and an open kitchen. The chef would be cooking 12 courses — a blind tasting at the chef’s pleasure (discretion) that he created expressly for the diners.

“It was very intense — at six in the morning you would go to market, even sometimes farms in Pennsylvania — one time I almost got electrocuted when I leaned on a fence around an animal pen.

“It was really wonderful because you were cooking with the same really fresh ingredients that you fed to people that same day at the restaurant!”

Chef Varetto added that he and Chef Donna would then sit down together and write the menu. They continued to worked in a partnership for five years. The other part of the Galileo Restaurant was like a regular restaurant, he explained, you could order anything you liked on the menu.

“Sale e Pepe — I came as an executive recruit. Alberto Donna came (to Sale e Pepe) to check the place, cook traditional Italian food there for a friend. He recommended me.”

Chef Varetto agreed that Sale e Pepe was, indeed, a perfect fit for him when we asked how he liked working in a resort reminiscent of a Medici palace.

“This is done very well — it really reminds me of Italy. From the very beginning I’ve wanted to make people understand that food and wine go together, just like it’s done in Europe. I created our very popular wine and food pairing menus.”

He recalled the many times he’s (representing Sale e Pepe) been invited to cook for and been recognized, by the prestigious James Beard Institute in New York.

“There was a six-course dinner around Christmas — I didn’t want to ship the ingredients by plane so we rented a truck and drove three days to get there.”

He served six different canapés at the reception and six courses for the sit-down dinner, including a pasta course, of course. The main dish was lamb. For dessert, a chocolate mousse with raspberry sorbet and tiramisu served in a champagne flute.

“Because every day is very challenging — it makes me very proud,” he declared.

“If your clientele has high expectations and you meet that expectation, then they will communicate that to you — no matter that it’s an ordinary breakfast place. Yet, you make a nice omelet, it’s still 50-50. In Italy we say there’s not always the sun in the sky.”

‘Nuff said!

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