Simone Martinelli is not your ordinary chef. He is a man with a palette second to none, a light hand and wide variety of culinary tricks up his sleeve. When it comes to five-star cooking, Simone is on top of his game, he leaves even the most demanding of diners wanting more. His carefully curated menus, his meticulous approach to sourcing ingredients and his modest manner is what makes him stand out. Each dish is presented with utmost precision. It is not surprising that the career of this remarkable chef took him around the globe, cooking for the likes of the most prominent individuals. Having spent some time with him in an open chat myself I realized that Simone is a humble man who is fully aware of his magnificent talent.
Simone Martinelli is not your ordinary chef
Firstly, I would like to say thank you for agreeing to this interview. It is very exciting for me to finally speak to you openly.
Can you start by telling us, when was your first culinary experience? Successful or not.
Well, I was actually 12 years old. I used to spend a lot of time with my nonna, so one day after she picked me up from school, I decided I wanted to give it a try and cook something for her for a change. So, my first dish was a pasta Carbonara, and in fact it was an utter disaster. The eggs were sticking to the pan, the pasta was overcooked and glued together. It was disgusting. My granny had a laugh of course.
Did this put you off cooking?
On the contrary. Somehow even this doomed attempt left me feeling like this is what I want to do. I can’t explain it, it was just a feeling that came over me. This was the moment I decided that I wanted to attend culinary school.
That is very interesting, normally most kids would be put off something they didn’t succeed in.
Where did you attend culinary school?
It was of course in Tuscany, Italy. Which is where I am from. In a town called Marina di Massa, it was 20km from Forte Dei Marmi. I was enrolled in a 5-year program with yearly internships. Every summer, while other kids were enjoying the sea and water sports, I was working at the local hotels. I was only 13 years old, but I was assisting the chefs, my basic duties included chopping and peeling produce.
When did you realize that you stand out as a chef? Was it from the start while still in school or not till later in your career?
You have such a distinctive touch.
Even as a little boy, I knew that I can be successful in this path, although my first dish was an epic failure, it came naturally to me. Perhaps it was because I grew up watching my father and grandmother cook, I wouldn’t know. To tell the truth, I am yet to believe I am better than others, there are so many successful chefs in the world and many different approaches to cooking. Funnily enough a friend I was in culinary school with, who was working at a Michelin star restaurant was actively trying to convince me to apply to work there, but personally even with offers at prominent Michelin guide restaurants, I preferred to stay more localized at that time. I believe that in such environments chefs can lose their personal touch and become more routine. I believe this is an art and it must be unrestricted in order to be beautiful.
Passing up on such an opportunity is quite a confident but even a risky move. What did you do instead?
How did you embark on this fantastic journey and career? Tell us how it all began.
For a young chef just out of culinary school, of course my main objective was to experience a World outside of what I was used to. And for my career choice if your leaving Italy, where else to go but Paris.
An obvious choice.
It was 1998 when I relocated there, I was very young and very ambitious, from the moment I arrived I very easily found a job at a local restaurant, called ‘A la Table’ which is in fact where I obtained my knowledge of French cuisine, which was obviously very handy in my future endeavors. It was fantastic to be in such a magical city like Paris, and be doing what I love most, and we had an amazing team at the restaurant I worked in. Unfortunately, though, it was not meant to last. After a few months I was called back to Italy for military service, as back then it was mandatory. As you can imagine I was devastated. I loved it so much, I am still nostalgic about those times. Picturing the Champs Elysée covered in snow that winter, without a car in sight walking to work. It was captivating.
That must have been very difficult for you. Specially being so young and talented and things going for you.
Did you continue cooking while serving in the military?
Oh, did I… it was probably the only cooking experienced of my life that I detested. I was in the army for 10 months and I cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for 1200 people every day.
What was your next move? After you completed your service? It is a long break in a career path.
I was lucky. I completed my service in April, which was just in time for seasonal job applications. Since I didn’t know any better, I took a job at a hotel for that summer. It was the end of the season when a friend of mines father contacted me about a job on a yacht. It was a short one month contract. On a 30m Benetti.
Wow! That is very impressive for a first yacht job. Specially for your age at the time. 30m is a prestigious size.
Yes, it was. I was very lucky. It was called ‘The Spirit of Argentina’ chartered by a Middle Eastern family at the time I got the offer. I jumped at the opportunity, even though I had no idea what to expect. It was very new to me. I was invited back on the ‘The Spirit of Argentina’ the following season for a 6-month contract.
So, was this how you got your foot in the door of yachting?
It was definitely the start. The yachting offers started pouring in. I was offered a job on a 41m yacht, which at that time was considered a mega yacht. It was uncommon to be employed to such a vessel at only 22 years old as a chef, I was in as much shock as anyone. It was a long-term contract for three years followed by a 2-year extension when the boat was sold. The new owners asked me to stay. In total I spent 5 years on the ‘Blue Ice, 41m’.
When did you realize it was time for a change? You basically spent a large chunk of your 20’s on this boat.
Exactly. I was 27 years old, and I wanted something new, something more challenging. Working on this yacht, was one of the best experiences of my life and I was very fortunate, but since it was privately owned, it lacked the challenge I thrive off of.
It is really refreshing to speak to someone who isn’t afraid and looks forward to challenges.
And takes risks! what was your next move? I’m so curious…
Since I was already well established in yachting I applied for another job within the industry. This time it was a 51meter charter vessel. As you know in this business, the bigger the boat the more prestigious the chef, and at that time 51meter yachts, were basically the equivalent of an 80meter nowadays. Regardless, it was a long reach. But I got the job within an hour after my interview.
I would expect nothing less. I am surprised that this type of success at such a young age, didn’t give what you call ‘a big head’. A deserved one, but nevertheless can get in the way of progress.
As I said earlier, there are many great chefs in the World. I believe in keeping to myself and doing my job, which I love. I do what I enjoy. Why would that give me ’a big head’.
I spent four years of my life on the Tommy, 51m. It was a massive yacht with a helipad. I could probably say this was the best experience working on a yacht. The large galley, the professional team/crew, we never had a single negative comment or feedback from the guests during or after charter.
Even still, I imagine it is difficult to spend so many years on a boat. You have also established yourself as a restaurant owner. Could you shed some light on that? How did you make the jump from mega-yacht chef to restaurateur?
I was 31 when I left Tommy, 51m. I wanted something closer to home. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, in fact, was not enjoying the distance either. I made the difficult decision to switch and work on land for a while. Given the level of experience I obtained during my years in yachting, I knew I was not going to work at any hotels or restaurants. I had enough knowledge, experience and capital to start my own business, so I focused on opening my restaurant. The thought of opening my own place came to me a few years ago in Nice, France when I visited a charming little family style restaurant focused on using local produce, it was then that I was inspired to open something similar in my hometown. A restaurant that provided locals with fresh delicious food made with locally sourced produce.
So you opened “the name”. was it successful?
Yes. Very. In fact for 2 years it was working perfectly, but it was a little on the outskirts of our town, and I wanted to get a more centralized location. I started looking for a new space, before terminating my rent agreement, and I found the perfect location, or so I thought at the time.
What happened? Did the restaurant not do well, in the new location? I find that hard to believe.
It never opened at the new location. The landlord backed out of the deal in favor of another tenant last minute. Unfortunately, it was already too late to stay where I was, as I had started moving out. I had to store all my restaurant equipment and inventory for 2 months, after which the landlord contacted me asking to take back the space, as the other tenants were not paying the rent. It was truly comical. I was not interested, as during the time I was closing down my restaurant, several captains had already contacted me with permanent job offers.
That is unbelievable. Regardless of the offers, it must have been a difficult time for you.
Definitely, it was not easy. But life goes on.
So, you made a triumphant return to yachting? (giggled)
Actually yes, because one of the offers was from my old captain, inviting me back to Tommy, 51m. which I told you before I loved. It was my happy place, but even so I decided to leave after a year, as the captain had changed, and we didn’t see eye to eye.
You really are a risk taker.
I joined the Givi, 62m almost immediately. I worked there for 8 months, before being asked back to Tommy, 51m. Obviously, with a significant raise I accepted the offer. In fact, every time I have been asked back, my fee increased.
That is to be expected from someone of your caliber. Having cooked for many affluent individuals, I know you have also had the experience of working closely with Hollywood movie star Johnny Depp. I assume the stewardesses were excited! Ha ha! But what about you?
The stress was really high. Mainly it was due to the stars schedule, which I am not at liberty to discuss.
Of course! You don’t become a chef such as yourself by violating non-disclosure contracts.
The excitement was unreal. Depp was definitely a clean eater, so cooking for him was pretty straight forward and simple. He was a very easy going and down to earth person, so in fact he was easy to work for. He would sometime come into the galley and crack a joke. Very pleasant man. As with many of my famous clients, whether celebrities or just prominent individuals I am used to a lot of paperwork forbidding me from disclosing anything private about them. So that is really as much as I can say about my experience with Depp.
So how long did you stay on MY Tommy, 51M?
Just before the Depp charter, Tommy was participating in the Cannes boat show, where I met captain Mario Allara, who offered me an interview, for a 60M yacht, called the Sara Star. As the yacht was being built, I was invited to work for the sister yacht Nameless and simultaneously curate the galley of that magnificent vessel. It was very exciting, it was the first time I was offered to choose the floorplan, and equipment of a yacht galley to work in.
You must have been awfully wanted if the owner of the yacht trusted you to build your own galley on his boat!
Did you ever make the jump?
No. during the time I was on Nameless, which I wasn’t even working on, it was never my plan to work on a 41m yacht again. It was basically a temporary position under the captain who offered me the job on the Sara Star. Regardless, the yacht was on the market. We had a prominent family interested to buy the boat. Whose name once again I am not at liberty to disclose. When they came onboard to test drive the boat, I had created a tasting menu… This was the beginning of my next chapter. On the spot their representatives offered me a position of a private chef.
Do you still work for said family?
I am not at liberty to disclose that information. But I have changed a few positions, since then. I am happy where I am now. I am used to being offered different positions and unusual contracts. My clients have been happy to amend my work spaces to meet my requirements in order to deliver the best possible outcome. In all these years it has never affected my performance, in fact I have only improved it and will always be grateful. One thing I can say is I do not stay where I am not happy.
We have noticed. Being such an exceptional chef, the curiosity is killing me. What is YOUR favorite meal?
I don’t have a favorite dish to eat Per say. But definitely I must say that pasta is likely to be what I would put in that category. It may seem like nothing special, but it is the first dish I created, the first culinary experience, even though I botched it, it will always be special to me.
You mean Pasta Carbonara or…?
Just a Trenette pasta with ragout, ricotta cheese and spinach and of course a sprinkle of parmesan on top. This was a recipe you were likely to find in my nonnas kitchen, almost anytime you entered, as she knew I loved it. My nonna and I were very close.
What is your most hated ingredient to cook with?
That’s easy. Animal insides. And strong cheeses, such as: Stilton or Roquefort.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Fish. I love it. Perhaps because I come from a sea town.
Because of the various dishes you can create with it. Pretty much any flavour: sweet, sour, spicy can complement it.
What can make or break a dish?
To create the right dish, you need to connect the right elements together. You need to find the right level of cooking temperature; of the raw materials you are using in your plate. And of, course the dressing, it cannot overpower the main ingredients.
What in your professional, culinary opinion should our readers be weary of on a plate?
Like what should put them off a meal immediately?
Well, these are pretty obvious. First of all, the smell. The view of the plate, for example the color of the meat. The consistency. Acidity in certain food, mainly in dairy foods. Anything else is up to taste really.
Do you have a signature dish? What is it?
I don’t exactly. I am client oriented, so of course my suggestions are always based on client preferences. If I am asked for my best dish I would say Risotto with Chanterelle mushrooms and Monkfish and Bacon roll, with asparagus and saffron.
Do you taste recipes? How do you achieve symbiosis on your plates with a strange marriage of ingredients?
Always. For this you must be creative and have inspiration. My first go-to is to imagine the dish. Then I sketch the dish on a paper, write down the ingredients and only after I would make it in order to taste it. For example, my mackerel, apple and rucola salad I imagined something sour, and something smoked. So, of course where there is something smoked, something sweet can also exist. For textures the crunchiness from the apple, and tanginess from the rucola and softness from the mackerel.
What is your opinion on farm produce? Is it really that different from store bought? And why?
100% yes. It’s a simple answer, it is just tastier. As an example, store bought tomatoes can look great but you have to season it. A farm tomato will have flavor straight off the ground.
On top of cooking for A-listers, you have a vast experience cooking within a budget for crew members, staff, the army. What are your suggestions for cooking on a budget?
Avoid wasting produce. Reduce raw materials. Use lesser-known/cheaper raw materials. Instead of buying a seabass buy a mackerel or instead of a beef fillet buy a beef shank. Instead of chicken drumsticks buy the whole chicken. Markets always sell first choice and second and some even third choices, this does not mean that it is worse quality, but it may be grown in cheaper conditions. Or is riper than usual so it must be used soon. It can also simply be local produce. This of course is connected to seasonal availability. Always buy seasonal product as it will be cheaper due to being more accessible. Check for offers. For example when you enter a market there will be deduction offers on certain meats, or chicken, so just buy what is on discount. This helps give a variety.
You are always cooking for others. What do you cook for yourself?
Absolutely nothing. I eat junk food. Fast food is a common choice. When I am home I don’t like to spend time in the galley. It is quite rare and has to be something very special that I found, in order for me to cook it. Or something very simple like a tomato salad or pasta which will take no more than 10 minutes to prepare. Besides, if I start cooking at home my kids won’t eat their mothers cooking anymore after I leave… (giggled) My daughter already said this to my wife once.
Speaking of kids. You have two lovely children would you want them to follow this career path?
I would be glad if they do so themselves. But I would never push them to do this. It is a stressful job and career path.
Last but not least: what is the most exciting and the most disappointing in a chefs’ career?
The most exciting moment for me is the recognition of my food and satisfaction from it. There was a charter I was working, where at the end of it a Swiss family, were trying to convince me to leave to work for them. The kids were crying actual tears, that I wasn’t leaving with them. It was very emotional for me. When I realize that I am making my client that happy, there is no better gratification for me. I always give a 100% to my job, so it is important when I see it is recognized. The most disappointing – simple, as probably for any chef, is when that one plate is coming back.
The most disappointing – simple, as probably for any chef, is when that one plate is coming back.
Thank you, Simone. This really was a most interesting three hours. You truly have an interesting story.
I am very excited to now try your Chanterelle Risotto!