How did a French woman, cooking Italian food end up hosting dinner in a Greek restaurant in Australia? With a very full passport and a passion for food and travel, that’s how! I met Ms Annie Feolde, the first woman to achieve three Michelin stars, on the eve of a series of dinners in Melbourne for Vittoria Coffee. While Annie’s English was excellent, I left some cute little mistakes in there as they were so endearing! Bon Appetito!
I am interested in how a French woman came to Italy to cook Italian food and went to Tokyo? It doesn’t matter where you were born, what is important is to show your customers what you have in your environment and what you can present them. It is important because I’m still, of course, French and I love my country, we have very good habits and traditions, but since I spent time in Florence, after a few years, I understood that I had to integrate myself into the place that I was living.
When people visit they prefer to eat Italian food. I understood it very quickly when VIP lady in politics didn’t eat anything of my French cooking, even when I had already become quite known, because she wanted only something with Italian traditions and at that time I was not prepared. It was my own fantasy. So she didn’t eat and I was so upset but I understood that I had to change my style, it was a necessity.
How did you feel about having to change your style? A certain difficulty at the beginning. We have to understand where we are. This is my mentality. Some other people might want to stick to their own origins, I don’t. And so that’s it, I started to open some cooking books and at first it was quite strange for me but then I understood the mechanism, because there is always a mechanism in everything and then I fell in love with this kind of cooking. It’s endless!
Had food always been part of your childhood? Yes. My parents and grandparents had always had hotels. It’s in our blood. For me the business was really disgusting because you don’t have any private life. But there is something inside our blood that pushes us to this type of business. Because apart from the terrible hours there is also a nice way to meet people and you can learn something. It’s a window onto the world. I love creativity, independence. I want to move as I want, I don’t want to be in an office. I spent 3 years in an office in Paris and I couldn’t stand it.
After one year of studying English in London I went to Florence to improve my Italian. This was after my stay in the Post Office in Paris. It was very dull. At first I tried to find a job that could allow me to travel, because I have always been attracted by other countries and systems. So with the Post Office I was sure I would have been sent somewhere else. I had the good luck to be sent from my village to Paris. But when you don’t have enough money, friends or family Paris is very cold, very mysterious. It was not my cup of tea so I organised to leave.
In Florence I met my husband who had started this business of wine bar. He was so passionate and I thought this is the man for me, he loves quality and this was what I was looking for. We were noticed by journalists, this is how it worked back then. Then we reached the top of the Italian gastronomy and the very top of the wine cellar situation but this is never enough. Not that we are ambitious but we know we can do more…more and more and more. Sometimes we are a bit tired (laughs!).
How do you maintain the pace? I imagine there would be quite a bit of pressure to keep your 3 stars? Actually we are not that anxious during the year, we do our best because it’s inside of ourselves. The time the new Michelin guide arrives, then we start to be frightened like hell. They are really anonymous, good for them! They have to have a good, true idea of what we are doing. Some of the guides are easier to recognise but the Michelin can be really difficult. Sometimes when we see someone in the dining room behaving in a funny way we think, ‘ah this one smells of Michelin’ (laughs).
In Australia we have had this food revolution recently where everyone is more aware of food due to shows like Masterchef, do you find now your customers are more aware of what they are eating – taking notes, taking photographs? There has been a big evolution in the past 30 years. It has changed dramatically…for the best. More competition, more research for the good items and a window open on the other countries that before were completely on apart. Italian people are very conservative, nearly like French people! And so we talk always about the globalisation, it is true, it has impressed all of us and we can’t go back now. Before we could see the difference between one city and another, between one country and another and on the other part of the globe.
Australia produces very good wine. This confirms the global evolution on each field. It’s nice but it’s very difficult to keep on the pace. For instance with everything related to computers, you have news everyday. Before I couldn’t stand bloggers I couldn’t let anybody hold a telephone even in my restaurant. I felt like I wanted to put a barrier so the phones wouldn’t work, but then it is true that we need it. It’s a new world, that’s it. I used not to do it, photography, for me it was an offence, a kind of intrusion, but now I am changing.
Have you found your cooking has evolved into an Italian style? It’s Italian style from Italian traditions but of course I cannot forget about what I saw in France. It’s not hard to switch off the French part, if you find something is nice and new and better you try to complete, transform, interpret.
Do you find that people focus on the fact that you are a woman with 3 stars as opposed to a chef with 3 stars? Yes of course. Italian people are very macho. And so they were surprised because you can reach the two stars but the three stars! I was the first on the Michelin list and now there are five women in the world with three stars.
We are good friends and we have done many, many parties together, charity dinners and so on. We have a very good relationship. And before when we were the only 3 lady MS chef we used to call ourselves, La Tres Gracie (The three graces). You should have seen us, not only grace but graca (fat). Just a little bit, because this is our business.
Where do you find your inspiration? Seasons, market, books. Fantasy of course, sometimes on Saturday night at midnight or later I go to the kitchen with a little plastic bag and say ‘now I am going to do my shopping.’ So I open all the fridge and take a few things. So the next day I am in front of several things and say ‘what can I do with this’ and I try.
I’m not sure if you have television shows like this, a competitor get a basket with several things and has to cook. I do the same for myself and for my husband, sadly he is not a very good spectator – he doesn’t like garlic, onions and salt anymore. So in fact sometimes I invite friends during the week or when he is travelling and eat everything! And then when I am in France during august or Christmas then I have to show my friends, I cannot help myself, I invite, therefore I want to please them and at that moment I have to do my best for them.
There’s something about that striving for perfection, even when cooking for friends, it’s in you isn’t it? Yes, you cannot slap a plate on the table you have to do it as you are used to.
When you are at home on a day off what do you like to eat? I love using vegetables, in particular artichokes and leeks. I love everything that is vegetable. Of course I love cheese but it’s fattening. Both Italian and French cheese is very interesting. I don’t eat desserts easily anymore. I love foreign cooking – Thai cooking and Chinese cooking and especially Japanese cooking.
Do you have any advice for young chefs? Work hard, and never stay still. You have always to get informed about the evolution around the world and keep your identity at the same time.
Enoteca Pinchiorri is in Florence. You can learn more about the restaurant and Annie Feolde at www.enotecapinchiorri.com