We live in a time where many professions that were previously hidden from public view are being put on display.
We’ve seen programming about lumber truckers, intervention professionals, and even cat wranglers.
But culinary professionals have gained a special kind of attention in the public eye over the last 15 years. We’ve seen countless cooking shows, ranging from how-tos to outright reality show-style competitions.
The result has been an increased interest in the culinary arts and the creation of “foodie” culture as we understand it today.
To learn more about what life is really like in a professional kitchen, we interviewed Stefano Chiarugi, an executive chef with a deep passion for the culinary arts and the act of sharing food with others.
Chiarugi was born on a farm in Tuscany, Italy, where his grandmother introduced him to a rich culinary tradition hundreds of years in the making.
Chiarugi’s culinary career has been marked by positions as a sous chef, then soon after as an executive chef, leading to his role as executive sous chef for banquets at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, as well as running the kitchens of Bellagio’s Osteria del Circo and D.O.C.G. Enoteca.
Most recently, Chiarugi has moved to Sacramento, where he will serve as executive chef at the brand new Ecce-llente! restaurant at the Exchange Hotel.
Below you’ll find Chiarugi’s take on food culture, creativity, and his connection to time-honored culinary traditions.
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The early years
What were the biggest influences on your decision to enter a career in the culinary arts?
Chiarugi: Being born in the countryside certainly influenced my decision to be a chef by being in contact with fresh products every day and helping my grandmother in the kitchen. I also found my passion for eating, both out of need and out of curiosity, and thinking that at the table you only eat with friends. Today we are passionate about seeing chefs on television, but in my time, the chefs were in the kitchen.
Do you feel there’s a lot of competition right now in the culinary field? How did that competition affect your journey?
Chiarugi: The competition in our world of catering is certainly at a high level and increases with each passing year. Should we be afraid of competition? Yes and no. If you work in a group of people who work to keep up with the times without fooling customers, offering new or classic things by researching products and offering optimal service in a fresh environment, the answer is no.
What was the first job that felt like a serious step forward in your career?
Chiarugi: When I arrived in Las Vegas in the Bellagio Hotel and joined the kitchen brigade of the Il Circo restaurant, under the direction of Sirio Maccioni one of the greatest restaurateurs in the world.
So was there a steep learning curve when you first started working in a professional kitchen?
Chiarugi: The first years in the kitchens were beautiful but also hard. Things were different at the time, especially in Europe where there were no rules in the kitchen. The chefs were dictators, but they taught us well and we had to thank them even if we suffered had tough days.
Technique and focus
Within the culinary arts, have you had a consistent focus in terms of style and technique, or does your focus shift depending on the job?
Chiarugi: My cooking style is classic and modern Italian with the constant influence of French cuisine. I also have a deep love for oriental cuisine.
But it’s also important to note that the place where you work and customer requests lead you to a combination of techniques and flavors.
Now that you’ve found success in your field, do you think your perspective on the culinary arts has changed, as compared to when you were beginning your career?
Chiarugi: My perspective on my work has not changed or evolved, but in my opinion, new cooking techniques cannot exist if you don’t know the basics of the past. You cannot open a new, futuristic restaurant if you don’t know how to prepare a great pasta with tomato sauce because everything is connected. I have a special appreciation for innovation that respects the past.
Do you have any thoughts on the direction of the culinary arts in America? Is there more room now for highly specialized and niche restaurants?
Chiarugi: For ten years I’ve lived in Las Vegas, where I have seen an increase in restaurants every year that went by with an increased demand for professionalism and an increasingly high level of quality.
The American customer is always looking for new places, giving us professionals in the sector a very large area in which to work. This is why I think the more high-end restaurants open up possibilities for everyone, in the long run.
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