Local Italian chef Gabe Bertaccini, 27, has made his mark on the Phoenix culinary scene by creating one-of-a-kind dining experiences. He features new menus for each event, including his underground six-course meals, Culinary Mischief, and wine tastings, Bacchus Mischief. The Phoenix resident, originally from Florence, Italy, also does private in-home events everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, under his private dining experience company Il Tocco. Bertaccini started culinary school when he was only 13 and now has dual Bachelor’s degrees in supply chain management and journalism, as well as a Master’s in mass communication. Get excited, because Bertaccini will be opening a new restaurant this year, a small Italian eatery in Central Phoenix, where he’ll be the executive chef. Bertaccini talked about where his passion for the dining experience comes from, as well as five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came here eight years ago on vacation on a tour of national parks with my family. We did about 13 or 14 national parks in 20 days, so it was nice to come to Phoenix and see a city. I loved it, and I decided to apply to Arizona State University, thinking they wouldn’t get me in anyway. I was working at a restaurant in Florence at the time, and ASU accepted me.
What stood out to you about Arizona?
It was October, so the weather was absolutely great. You can’t find the desert landscape in Italy or in Europe, so I think that was the main attraction.
What is your first memory of wanting to be a chef?
I was very young, around 12, and I was always looking forward after school to go home and watch Italian cooking shows. I was racing from class to catch the 1:30 p.m. show. I remember my mother telling me to stop watching TV, because she didn’t pick up my passion for food. Food and wine always identified me, so when it came to choosing what I wanted to do when I grew up, I had no doubt I wanted to be in the restaurant business. That’s why I decided to start culinary school.
How common is it for 13-year-olds to enter culinary school?
It’s fairly common. The culinary school I went to, Buontalenti Institute of Culinary Arts, which is one of the best culinary schools in the country, had a program where you could do high school at the same time you were doing culinary school. After five years, I graduated with a degree in kitchen management and regional cooking. During school, I started working at restaurants and hotels, and as soon as I graduated, I went to Paris to stay with a friend of mine. I stayed there for a year and a half after I found a restaurant job. Then I moved to Munich, Germany, then back to Florence, and then I came to Arizona.
What do you think piqued your interest in those cooking shows?
Food is so much more than something you eat and get energy from. It’s really a convivial way of getting your friends and families together and sharing these memories and experiences. I always say I’m not in the business of cooking, I’m in the business of creating memories. A lot of our memories are connected to food. Taste and smell are some of the most powerful senses we have. I’m sure it happens to everyone, when you drink or eat something, it takes you right away back to a certain moment in life. I think my passion for food helped me develop my sense of self-awareness: Who was I? Who did I want to be? In a very selfish way, I cook for myself and not for other people, but I only find pleasure in my cooking if I can share my expertise and my passion and talent with my guests.
What has food taught you about yourself?
To take it slow and to savor each bite. A lot of times, especially in the U.S., food is almost seen as something you just do at a 30-minute lunch break — you don’t enjoy it that much. Sometimes, I think we have to stop and smell the roses and really taste what you have in front of you. That applies to life in general. In a certain way, never be satisfied. There must be a sense in you of discovery, a way of wanting to experience life fully. I think food and wine really help with that.
What is your most vivid memory pertaining to food?
It’s probably the Sunday’s growing up and waking up to the smell of my mother’s cooking. Although she’s a really great cook, she’s not someone who enjoys it a lot because to her, it’s very stressful. She has a couple staple dishes, like lasagna. Waking up with the smell of the rague cooking even now brings me back right away, as well as the smell of burning wood. We have a home in the countryside, and every meal we had was cooked on fire, so the smell of burning wood takes me immediately back to my childhood in Tuscany and the countryside. The sense of smell is so powerful, I can’t help but be transported back to that moment in life I experienced that.
Has all your professional cooking been Italian food?
Yes. I do enjoy fusion and Mediterranean cuisine, but when we think about Italian food, in reality, there is not such a thing. Italy is a country that has been founded and ran by multiple different cultures, and so what you have in front of you as what you know as Italian cooking is not really Italian cooking — it’s a fusion of different cultures, groups and societies throughout the years. There is not such a thing as a chef of Italian food. Italy has 21 regions, and each region has its own foods and wines and ways of doing things. I’m a Tuscan chef cooking Tuscan food.
What is your opinion of Americanized Italian food?
Many of the dishes here came from Italian immigrants who came here in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. It’s definitely a type of food here that’s adapted throughout the years. It’s definitely an authentic type of cooking I wouldn’t qualify as Italian food — it’s American Italian, but you can’t expect a dish is going to be made the same way for hundreds of years. It’s normal that things change based on the availability of products over time, and it comes from trying to recreate a memory of Italy.
Do you miss Italy?
I do miss home and go back in summers. What I miss more than anything is the lifestyle, the live and let live. We are going through problems with the economy and politics, and you travel to Italy, and everyone is out happy and smiling and eating and drinking. There must be something to learn from that. It’s about living in the moment. I miss the relaxed part of it, and I try to do that here. It’s my culture. I’ll never be a workaholic, though I work a lot, because I think it comes down to creating memories and experiences and relationships in our lives, and these are the moments you really have to pay attention to. Stop, and smell the roses.
How did Il Tocco start?
It was 5 years ago, and I came back from a trip in California, where I had attended this beautiful dinner with people I didn’t know, in a location I didn’t know. I thought, “Ohmigod, what a cool idea. It’s an underground dining event.” I checked around Phoenix, and there was nothing like it, so I decided to start Arizona’s first underground event, which was Culinary Mischief. The idea behind it was to recreate the Sunday suppers at my house with friends share a beautiful multi-course meal with different wines, with people you don’t know.
Food for me is about connecting people together, and that’s what I had in mind when I created Culinary Mischief about 4 and a half years ago. The event itself was extremely successful. I had intended to finish school and open a restaurant, but I came back and asked a friend of mine who had a beautiful three-story building in downtown Phoenix to lend me his art gallery to host the event. I set it up within a month and a half and invited friends I had. For the first event, we had about 50 people, which was a huge number. It went very well, and at that point, I started creating Culinary Mischief’s every two or three months, and it was so big, I had to change the business plan and do it on a monthly basis on Friday and Saturday, with the same concept — 30 people, six courses, six wines. We never repeat a location or a dish. It’s really fun to scout locations and see what we can work with.
How did the other aspect of your business, the private food experience side, come about?
People started to request private dining experiences. Il Tocco is a private dining experience company. We don’t do catering. We organize and create a full 360-degree dining experience for you and your guests, whether it’s two people or 350. We can do different numbers of courses and wine pairings and can make it upscale or rustic. It’s one-on-one interaction with the client, and we help to create their vision and create the menu based on the occasion. We bring everything, including the flowers and centerpieces. We now have 12 people on staff. People don’t call us to eat, although I do make wonderful food. They call us because they want a memorable experience that guests and the host will remember alike for a very long time.
What does Il Tocco mean?
Il tocco in Italian means “artistic touch.” In Tuscany, in slang, it also means “1 p.m.,” which is when people went to eat lunch. It connects to the one touch of the church bell, signaling to people when it’s time to eat.
What inspires your menus and recipes?
Creating a menu is challenging. It’s very much like painting something. Most of the times, I stare at a blank piece of paper and think about what this menu or dishes can be. For me, when I do multi-course dinners, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to cook until three or four days before. I use local ingredients, so I see what’s around me, and we source a lot from Italy. It comes down to the season, the theme of the dinner and the formality of it. I like to open up a bottle of wine, which helps a lot. I like to look through the foods I like and the experiences, and try to recreate the experience for my clients. Many people think menu creation is easy, but there must be a flow. There are times when for three days, I look at a menu and know something is wrong with it.
When it comes to recipes, I look to my childhood and what I enjoy. My experiences have an impact on what I cook, and all my travels, culinary school and my mother’s recipes all have an impact.
Are you happy you went to culinary school?
I’m very, very happy. In this business, anybody can be successful. When people tell me they’re not good at cooking, I think, “What does that mean?” It’s like living or breathing. Cooking is something that everybody is good at. You have to put effort into it. I think culinary school is good, but there’s a difference between a cook and a chef. A chef is a leader who creates a vision for not only your guests but also the people who work with you. I say I’m only as good as the people I surround myself with, and that applies to my guests and to my employees. I want to have around me people who are passionate, who want to become leaders, who want to try new things and travel and see things and experience new ways of life. I think it’s a personal journey, but everyone could become a cook and work in a kitchen. Culinary school definitely helped me do that, and there is a big gap between that and mastering your profession.
What are your goals?
There is a lot in the works right now. Culinary Mischief is going to go ahead and be in the Valley a long time. Bacchus Mischief is our Sunday wine event every two weeks. We partnered with the Arizona Opera for Culinary Mischief on the Sunday matinee for a six-course meal and a performance by the artist you just saw at the Opera. It’s quite remarkable when you have someone singing in your face — you get goosebumps.
What’s in the works is a brick-and-mortar that will be announced very soon. It will have opened by the end of the year in Central Phoenix, an Italian place. It will be something the Valley has not seen. There is nothing like it, and I’m very excited to bring this kind of eating to the Valley. It’s going to be a very small restaurant, 50 seats. It’s going to be something that in Italy, we’ve had for a long time. It’s a place for lunch, to have a beautiful glass of wine. It’s going to be a small menu changing weekly. You can come for dinner or to have a nice Italian cocktail and then move on to the next occasion. It’s going to be for everybody, a very relaxed, hip environment that’s rustic and upscale, understated elegance.
I love sharing my passion I have for cooking, so I’m getting ready to film a show. We’re still working on the number of episodes. It’s a travel, cooking, life show about discovering the beautiful products of America from an Italian stand-point. It already has distribution. It’s local with an option for national coverage.
Do you see yourself staying in Arizona?
I love Arizona, which has given me so much. I think it’s a very exciting time for Arizona. Compare Phoenix to what it was eight or nine years ago, and it’s a big change. It’s a beautiful place where you can have your own business and really create what your mind and heart want and make your passions a reality. I love to travel, and you cannot be a good chef unless you are a good traveler, and you are not a good traveler unless you try the foods and wines of the places you travel to. But I don’t see myself moving any time soon.
How will you balance being an executive chef with Il Tocco?
I’m the type of person that the more work I have on my desk or in my kitchen, the more motivated I am. I am not afraid by the load of work I will be facing soon. That is a way for me to strive to do better and really see how much I can do. I would like to say it’s all about me, but you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have one of the best teams a chef could have and some of the best clients and family. Support means everything. The moment is now, and it comes down to taking that opportunity and turning it into a reality.
Why is now the right moment?
My brand got to a point where what I’m doing with Culinary Mischief and Il Tocco, I’m not able to satisfy all the requests I have. I want to be able to have a place where people can come and relax and experience the Chef Gabe dining experience style in a very formal, relaxed environment in a very authentic way. The moment is now. People have asked me for many years, “When are you going to have your own place?”, and I would be totally fine not having it, but it comes down to being able to provide this experience to as many people as I can, because I know that people would love to have the opportunity, and why not? The same goes with the TV show.
What are your favorite and least favorite foods?
My favorite is steak. I come from Tuscany, a place where you have red meat and have classic Bistecca alla Florentina, where we cook over charcoal cows coming from the oldest breed of the world, and the only places you can find them are Tuscany or Argentina.
My least favorite food is sushi. It’s more of a type of cooking. I appreciate it, but it doesn’t satisfy me.
What are your favorite Arizona restaurant and bar?
I absolutely love FnB, mainly because they do a lot of what my philosophy is about. They use fresh ingredients, and they’re creating this experience where you walk in, and (manager) Pavle (Milic) greets you and knows your name and gives you the wine you had last time. It’s about feeling at home and walking into a place and feeling like it’s your kitchen.
As far as bars, I love rooftop bars. Sunsets are my absolute favorite thing in the world besides food and wine. I love the Rokerij, the fireplace and how dark it is. I like SideBar a lot and Hanny’s.
How would you characterize the Arizona culinary scene, and what do you think we need to make it stronger?
I would say the restaurant industry and cooking culture here is fast-changing. Guests are learning there are more choices, chefs are starting their own chains and doing their own things, which is always remarkable, and creating these experiences and products. We need collaboration. Chefs and the restaurant industry in general need to learn how to collaborate and understand we are in this all together and providing our customers that very special experience.
Why should people come to your restaurant or one of your events?
It comes down to the passion and experience you put into the food. The passion and experience you have will end up in the food you make. Do I believe I’m revolutionary in terms of making Italian food? Do I believe I’m the only one cooking pasta in the Valley? Am I the only one who thinks I can make a killer steak? No. What makes this different is the experience and the passion I have for what I’m doing is unmatchable. It’s not about eating a dish, it’s about eating and understanding the story behind that dish. it’s about explaining. It’s about touching you. Why a wine is so amazing. It’s about creating a story. I see my industry and what I do as a cook, you have to make it interesting for the guests, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m creating a story you can’t find anywhere else.
Where do you source your local ingredients from?
Maya’s Farm, it really depends. To me, it’s important to locally source, but more importantly to use ingredients that are top-notch. Do I prefer a tomato that is so-so from Arizona compared to one that is absolutely amazing from California? No.