The Chefs of Villa Lena
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
Chefs used to the typical working conditions of the kitchen - hot, cramped, hectic, and often without windows - may dream of running off to Italy to cook in sync with nature in a kitchen with a view. The Rome Sustainable Food Project kitchen at the highest peak of Rome is one of those kitchens, and I can assure you that Villa Lena in Tuscany is another.
Out of the City, nestled in the rolling Tuscan hills is an artist's residence and hotel, Villa Lena, an expansive agriturismo that has been popular for years with Milan's socialites looking for an escape from the City.
In addition to fashion journalists, celebrities, musicians, writers, and photographers, visiting families are just as welcome, with there being something for everyone to do and experience. The property even hosted an underground Boiler Room event in June of 2016, a notorious music festival featuring international DJ's and a mass of music lovers.
From Emilia-Romagna, my friend Sumaia Saiboub (IG: coveredinlayers) and I decided to leave the dry summer heat behind and head to the crystal pools, far-reaching gardens, and orange-y rose sunsets at Villa Lena in Tuscany.
Equipped with two pools, a yoga deck, a meditation room, a Yamaha piano, and an large vegetable garden, it is no surprise that Villa Lena is defined as an "artist's residence."
Some of the more permanent resident "artists", the chefs and kitchen staff, are the subtle driving force that will keep visitors coming, nourishing wanderers and creators that roam the enchanting grounds.
Managed by a Parisian hospitality group, the chefs at Villa Lena have clearly and justly been given rein to do as they see fit, and it shows.
Italian Head Chef Marco Baldeschi was in the kitchen with Chef Dominick Lee, originally from Louisiana in the United States, who is on a study program as a cook at Villa Lena, alongside Pastry Chef Beatrice Quadrio originally from Lombardia, and Chef Alex Lombardi, originally from Bologna.
Chef Dominick (Dom) Lee is a Chris Shepard Scholar and owner of Alligator Pear in Houston, Texas, a restaurant group dedicated to preserving the history and culture of Creole food. Despite the name he's made for himself in the US culinary scene, he, like many passionate chefs has taken a step back to wander, learn new things, and humbly continue to enrich his experience as a Chef.
A wise chef knows that life experience is crucial to a successful career (and lifestyle) in the industry. Beyond pea shoots, artistic plates, and sous vide, the fundamentals of cooking that make one successful are as simple as what you transmit through the food: what you feel is what your diners will taste.
Food is life: live it wisely, eat well.
Where someone learned to cook, how they were taught, and the experiences they've had surrounding a particular food are all formative. It affects not only a cook's technical skills but their perspective on life and fundamental beliefs about how food (and life) should be treated and served.
Food is sensitive. It's proven that food absorbs energy in how it's treated during the growing, preparation, and cooking process. It not just how one feels the day they're cooking or an abrupt toss of an unwitting carrot. How someone has lived (and are living) their life will be reflected in their food, whether they are satisfied, curious, angry, or at peace. If the food at Villa Lena says anything, it seems these chefs are happy.
Following a recipe may be a map of how a cook prepared a dish, but only by consuming the dish can we fully understand the cook. Eating at Villa Lena, you absorb the experience of the Chefs and kitchen staff, a balance of simplicity, tranquility, and quality of life.
Ready to wander through the gardens behind the grand palazzo, Chef Baldeschi prepared a special seasonal salad that had come from the Villa's gardens to take with me. Made with peaches, tomatoes, fresh basil and the Villa's own olive oil, it was a sweet and fresh reprise from the stuffy July heat.
Ordering for the kitchen.
Cooking in a restaurant with its own garden is #ChefGoals but most restaurants in the United States order from distributors, suppliers, and importers via "Food Representatives (Reps)". These reps, of which I was one, are essentially Account Managers who were either former Chefs themselves or have food industry experience and must know not only their products but the menu of the Chef who is standing in front of them. Some restaurants have established relationships directly with producers but nothing like how it works in Italy where Chefs and restauranteurs order directly from producers or go themselves to The Metro similar to the Restaurant Depot in the US.
At Villa Lena, I was curious how they get what's needed for the kitchen and chased down Chef Baldeschi who was doing orders for the morning. He showed me his order list and explained that even here in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, he orders directly from producers like the butcher, the farmer, and others, 7 in total, in addition to the produce they get directly from the their own garden on the premises.
The rhythm at Villa Lena is quiet and provoking and can't help but make me imagine that if there was such a job to rep for chefs in faraway chateaus and palazzos I would probably be dressed just as I was here, popping around the grounds and the kitchen with my camera in a long dress and Nikes. Alas, food repping may not be a reality here, but being a chef can be a reality anywhere.
If the Chefs at Villa Lena have taught me anything, it's that Chef life can be anything you want it to be. Choose wisely.