Inside a Tuscan Kitchen: A Conversation with Chef Francesco Lagi

The Villas of Distinction team had the pleasure of speaking (and dining!) with Villa Machiavelli's Chef Francesco Lagi. Read on for his tips and insight on Tuscan cuisine!

The Villas of Distinction team was treated to a taste of Chef Francesco Lagi’s cuisine on our very first evening in Tuscany on our latest trip, when we had the pleasure of dining in Villa Machiavelli’s candlelit wine cellar. After a long international flight, Chef Francesco’s impeccable food and Machiavelli’s signature wine worked like elixirs to nourish our souls and brighten our travel-weary spirits.

On the menu that evening: Pecorino flan; handmade pasta cooked in wine with olives, tomatoes, pancetta, and parmesan; T-bone steak served with fried zucchini flowers and buttery mushrooms; and mascarpone ice cream with honey, grapes, and orange rinds, all served with Machiavelli’s own 100% merlot, produced in the estate’s winery just steps away.

Now that your mouth is watering, we’ll let Chef Francesco take it away.  

Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a chef? 

I was born in Tuscany and decided to be a chef when I was just 12 years old. Chef school started two years later, when I was 14.

Wow, that’s so young! How did you know at 12 years old?

I loved to eat. I thought that if I went to cooking school, I could eat all the time. That was the first reason.

And it was also important to me to travel, because that’s something I love to do. I get to live and work here in Tuscany, but at the same time I’m able to travel the world and see other kitchens, talk to other chefs, exchange experiences. I knew I wanted to be able to do that.

Were you allowed to work in kitchens at that age?

Yes, you used to be able to work starting at 14 years old, so I worked in a kitchen of a restaurant in downtown Florence, at a hotel not far from the Duomo, while I was attending school.

After chef school, when I was 19 years old, I started working in a castle in Greve that had a hotel, restaurant, and held functions. That was my first real chef experience, and I worked there for about nine years.

During that time, I also started teaching Tuscan cooking in colleges in Canada. Usually I teach students in the second year of the college, when they have some experience and want to focus on very traditional Italian regional cooking. I started 20 years ago, and every year I still go back and teach. Teaching is a very important part of my career and something that I really love.  

After working in the castle, I worked in Florence for a Hilton company, and then in a couple of hotels and restaurants, including two Michelin-starred restaurants.

And then I came back to do my favorite kind of cooking, traditional Tuscan cooking, here at Villa Machiavelli. I’ve been here for two years.

How has it been working with villa guests? Any memorable experiences?

Last year a film producer from the U.S. stayed here with his family for 15 days. The weather was amazing, the swimming pool was perfect, and the seaside – which is only 45 minutes from Machiavelli – was beautiful. But he probably spent 90% of his time in the kitchen with me. As soon as I came into the kitchen, he’d come join me and stay all day long. In the morning we would go to the market, talk about how to choose the produce and what to buy, and then we would spend the day cooking. He told me that he wanted to work in my kitchen.

One day he asked me if we could hunt wild boar, so I found a good place, arranged a guide, and we spent the day hunting. We came back with a wild boar, marinated the meat, and the day after, we cooked and ate it. It was a very special experience for me, especially because it was very unexpected.

Guests will smell the bread in the wood-burning oven and wander downstairs to investigate, come to the market with me to pick out produce, help in the kitchen…that happens a lot.

What is it about Tuscan cooking that makes it so special?

The quality of the ingredients. Every two weeks, something is changing in the garden. The tomatoes are not the same. The herbs are different. The fruit changes. Everything is very local and very seasonal, and that’s the big surprise. I think most people just see things in the supermarket all year long in North America, and they don’t realize when it is actually the right moment to eat that kind of fruit or vegetable. But when they do, it’s like a whole new world.

It’s not easy to know what’s seasonal, but if you live in Tuscany, you can learn very quickly. When you’re here, you start to see. You know when is the right moment to plant the tomatoes or the beans – it’s just part of a tradition. By watching my parents or my grandparents since I was a baby, I just learned without thinking – just watching.

What dish or ingredient should every visitor to Tuscany try?   

Try all the herbs that we have here, like sage, rosemary, and fennel. Also the zucchini flower, which I love to fry or use in risotto. The zucchini flowers in the hot season right now are growing very big and soft – it’s wonderful.

Basically, try all the ingredients you can find here in Tuscany that are the best, best quality – and other regions in Italy each have their own, too. For example, Calabria has the best pepperoncino that you can find in Europe – small and very spicy. The peppers can be red, black, or yellow, but the color doesn’t change the power. It’s the size. Small is the spiciest, while the bigger ones are for salads, things like that.

Are you an expert on wine as well?

Yes, I have to be, to know what wine to pair with what food. It’s not easy, because wine is very acidic, so you have to balance it with other ingredients in the food.

In Tuscany we also have noceno, which is walnut alcohol made with unripe walnuts, when the nut is still green. It’s basically the same process as limoncello on the coast, but replace lemons with walnuts: just walnuts, sugar, and pure alcohol. Serve it cold. People make it at home here, and it’s so good. You would see it if you went to someone’s house, but I don’t think you can buy it. It’s quite a local thing.

Wine or beer with pizza?

I like beer with pizza. I think it’s the best.

Me, too. Thanks so much for chatting with me! Are you preparing for dinner now?

Yes, and also a cooking class tonight, with your group. 

Really? We’ll get to cook with you?

Yes, we’ll cook and eat together. We’ll make some handmade pasta, a traditional bread and tomato soup called pappa al pomodoro, and we’ll finish it off with some almond biscuits.

I’m so excited! I love food. I love Italy.  

Travel and food, the great pleasures of life.

Oh, yes. Travel and food, all the way.

For more from Chef Francesco Lagi, be on the lookout for his cookbook in Summer 2015, featuring classic Tuscan recipes inspired from his own kitchen. Or escape to Villa Machiavelli to experience his cuisine and cooking classes for yourself!