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Gabriele Bertaccini on Food Network’s New Show and His Return Home

The cast and hosts of Ciao House

The celebrated Tuscan chef, entrepreneur and American TV personality returned to his native Tuscany as co-host of Ciao House, which has its season finale next weekend.

Gabriele Bertaccini joined his friend Alex Guarnaschelli as co-host of Ciao House, a new Food Network cooking competition series that premiered in April and wraps this coming Sunday, June 4. Here, Gabriele shares his story with Appetito.

What’s your backstory?

I grew up right to the city of Florence, in the Oltrarno area, in a family very much rooted in Florentine traditions. It was great living there because you just walk out of the door and life happens, and much of that life involves food. So I grew up mostly there, but we used to have a house in the Tuscan countryside, close to Mugello. My grandfather built it after the war. And so that was great for me because I love nature. I’m a country boy at heart. I really connected with the rolling hills, with the animals that we used to have. I loved the Muggelano cuisine. Very rustic. The nose-to-tail butchering kind of thing. That's where I spent the first 18 years of my life, between the city and the country.

Gabriele Bertaccini
Gabriele Bertaccini

When did you embrace cooking?

Cooking mostly for me was about bringing people together and to share memories and stories. This is something that many of us, especially when we are young, try to find different ways to do, to make yourself understood by the people around you. And so for me food was was the medium. I was always spending time in the kitchen with my family, with my grandmother, and then gathering with my family and friends all around the table. And that was kind of how I knew that food was so important. I was 13 when I knew that I wanted to go into food, and that’s when I enrolled in culinary school. I studied cooking for five years, and finished when I was 18. Then I packed my suitcase, took a couple of knives and headed to Paris.

And then what happened?

I worked for a few years in different restaurants, and then I returned to Italy to work for the Antinori family. They were opening a wine bar in Florence, and they asked me if I wanted to be part of the project. I did! At one point soon after, I took a trip to America, out west, and I fell  in love with the vastness of the nature, which was kind of my second passion. Being in contact with nature and being in front of such incredible expanses is magical for me. For example, standing in front of the Grand Canyon and just not seeing anything for miles and miles is very inspiring. So, I fell in love with the US and North America, and I decided that I needed to find a way to come here, so I actually moved to Arizona. I enrolled at Arizona State University to study PR and journalism. This was 19 years ago, and that's what got me here.

Were you cooking at this time as well?

During my time in college, even though I was studying, I knew it was always about food. And especially finding myself in a new place, in a new country at the time, as a young man, food was, once again, a way to connect to people. It was a way for me to describe who I was and where I came from, and kind of bring the essence of the Italian cuisine to the people that I was meeting in America. So I started a catering company, iL Tocco Food, and from this was born an underground dining series called Culinary Mischief.

That sounds like fun.

It was fun! The basic idea was a classic Sunday feast, with all the guests around one big table. Six courses. Six wines. Thirty people.What made it even more fun was that each person could only bring one guest, so the whole idea was to sit at a table and share food, to really connect and get to know the other people. It was a place for connection and community, of understanding and hearing each other. Food was just the glue to kind of keep the night going.

Where’s the mischief?

The mischief was in that the locations wouldn't be revealed until one hour before the event was to start. The concept really exploded, and we expanded to Los Angeles, and then San Francisco, London and beyond. This is where my culinary heritage, in terms of being in the US, comes from. It was about creating memories around the table, to create a sense of Italian family and community.

How did you transition from an underground dining series to television?

After expanding the business to Los Angeles, we did a dinner for an important client, and one of the guests said he had a friend who was actively casting for a show, which ended up being Say I Do, that required someone who knew how to plan the culinary aspect of a wedding but also showcase the celebratory components of food. I got the job, obviously, and was able to create these amazing weddings for people, and food was a way to tell the story of these couples. I am a storyteller, so it was a great pleasure to get to know the couples, to understanding who they are, what they are like and why they are there to be married. My job was to translate that into food, and that was something I especially loved doing.

And we can assume this lead to Ciao House…

Yes! My agent told me that Food Network was looking to shoot a show in Tuscany. We were put in touch, and they asked if I wanted to potentially go to Tuscany and co-host with Alex [Guarnascelli], and I was like, “Absolutely!”

How was the experience?

It was incredible, as you can imagine. I’m so passionate about the project. For me, it was like coming full circle. I left Tuscany 19 years ago to move to America, and now I'm back to host a cooking show there on Food Network. I also get to really showcase my land to chefs that have been dreaming about learning from the masters of this country. And that is really what excited me: the ability to tell a story about where I'm from, and while doing that create a very cool, new and exciting show.

What makes Ciao House different from other cooking competition shows?

I think it’s kind of just what we were talking about with regard to Tuscany. We are in the heart of Tuscany, about 35-40 minutes from Florence. We are surrounded by farmhouses and olive groves. We have cheese makers and wine makers nearby. Butcher shops that date back generations. So we are immersed in what makes those things special. We have taken these chefs to the birthplace of Tuscan cuisine, to spend time in Italy and realize that food is just not something we eat every day; it's part of who we are. To really learn this cuisine, you have to live it. You can read as many books as you want, but you really need to be with the cheese monger and the butcher. You need to walk down to the market to get your ingredients. Through these experience, you will learn that cooking is not just a skill in Italy, it’s who we are. It’s part of our identity, and to truly understand this, you have to be there.

Requisite drama aside for the genre, compared to most other cooking competition shows, there seems to be more empathy on display. Is that intentional?

A lot of our contestants gave up quite a bit in order to be with us. It’s important that they learn from the experience from a culinary standpoint. Also, more importantly, food is supposed to bring people together. It is supposed to be the common language. It is supposed to be something that is fun to be around. Food makes us laugh and makes us remember things. These are the celebrations and traditions in the center of our life. And all of that needs to be taken into consideration.

Was it particularly rewarding for you to share your home region with the contestants and the viewers?

It was incredibly rewarding but also nerve-wracking. There was a vulnerability.  It's kind of like opening up the junk drawer in your kitchen. Everybody is looking for what you have and  judging what they see. So this show is like me opening up a door into who I am and where I'm from. Cooking is vulnerable. Preparing food for people and putting it out there is probably the most intimate thing you can do.

At least on the Food Network.

Yes! Of course!

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