Vail Daily column: Behind the Scenes: Planting Mexican culinary roots in Italy
April 14, 2013
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series. Check back next week for the final installment.
Chefs are nomadic souls. Our little Shangri-La known as Vail Valley is home to many who’ve pulled up roots in their home countries and replanted them in the loamy soil of the Rockies. Perhaps it’s because their artistic palettes include foods from the global culinary landscape or that it’s just part of their epicurean DNA. Whatever the reason, we are the beneficiaries of their wanderlust because even the best culinary cultures profit from the infusion of know-how from distant shores. Case in point, Giullermo Field Melendez, Memo (MAY-mo) to his friends, who began life in Ensenada, Mexico, now calls Piemonte wine country home.
The tiny town of Treiso, population 820, nestled in the vineyards just east of Alba, lies along the Strada Romantica delle Langhe e del Roero – literally Romantic Road. The main street runs about one city block through the town and is home to four dining establishments: one osteria, one trattoria, one Michelin star restaurant and, since 2008, Field Melendez’s Profumo di Vino. There is a little something for everyone.
I’ve known Field Melendez since late 2008 and thought that readers would find it fascinating how a Baja Californian ended up owning a restaurant in the foothills of the Alps after studying in Paris. He is a true case study of an epicurean nomad. Over a very special bottle of 2007 Barbaresco “Lorens” from Lodali, a wine that’s a son’s tribute to his father, Field Melendez retraced his intriguing culinary footsteps with me.
The child of a prominent physician, Field Melendez always thought he’d study physics or economics at college. But after working the summer of 1998 at a celebrated French restaurant, Sol Rey, Field Melendez’s culinary curiosity emerged. He enrolled at Mesa College in San Diego and completed its three-year culinary program.
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I believe it’s a fair assumption to say nearly all culinary students outside of France, at one point in their lives, aspire to experience the Parisian gastronomic scene. Field Melendez was no different. It was now onto Paris and Le Cordon Bleu for a further 18 months of study and work. Although he wanted to remain in France when his studies ended, getting a work visa proved problematic.
Field Melendez then did another thing most chefs love to do: take a culinary tour of Europe. His ever-supportive family joined him for what ostensibly was his “farewell” tour of Europe before returning to Mexico. On their drive back from Rome to Paris, they stopped in Piemonte so Field Melendez could experience the renowned food and wine of the Langhe.
It seems all culinary roads lead to Paris, but for Field Melendez, Langhe would prove to be the end of the road, at least for now. His search for the best restaurant in the region took him to La Ciau del Tornavento in Treiso, where he met Chef Patron Maurilio Garola. Although the two men didn’t share a common spoken language, they were both fluent in the language of food. Somehow the two communicated; Field Melendez with his French and Garola in his Piemontese dialect so similar to French. The result of the chance meeting was a job offer in the renowned restaurant for six months.
Unbeknownst to Field Melendez, a job offer at the Eiffel Tower’s Jules Verne restaurant awaited him in Paris. But how could he miss a chance to work in Italy where something as simple as salumi stirred passions? Piemonte was singing a culinary siren’s song. The budding chef rolled the dice and asked chef Michel Roux for a six-month extension on the offer. He would be back.
Planting roots in Piemonte
Six months later, Field Melendez did return, but not to accept Roux’s offer. Instead, he brought back a white truffle, wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a jar. It’s hard to imagine saying to a French chef like Roux that a village in Piemonte held more interest than the heady atmosphere of Jules Verne. When the puzzled Roux asked him why he wasn’t coming back, Field Melendez opened the jar and said, “Smell this. That is why.”
That was late 2002. Six months turned into a year. In 2003, the growing interest in Piemonte brought more Americans and Brits to the region. Field Melendez’s English language skills were needed in the front of house for lunch and dinner service. His days began at 9 a.m. prepping in the kitchen. If more people than expected came in for lunch, the he would be called to change clothes and serve. When the last luncheon diners left around 4 p.m. – this is Piemonte after all where four-hour lunches are not unusual – he took a short break before returning to the kitchen at 6 p.m.
As with lunch, if guests appeared without reservations, then Field Melendez once again changed to help co-owner and restaurant director NadiaBenech and one other server in the dining room. Although he loved the kitchen, it was the dining room where Field Melendez began his love affair with the vinous offerings that accompanied the kitchen’s creations.
As the conversation shifted to wine, Field Melendez poured more of the Lodali Barbaresco in my glass. I looked down to confirm my recorder was still on. The delicious wine and Field Melendez’s Latin-Italian way of telling his story made it hard to keep up with my notes at times.
Kitchen to wine cellar
In 2004, Garola asked Field Melendez to take over the restaurant’s 50,000 bottle wine cellar. As sommelier of Tornavento, he was able to recommend pairings, taste multiple vintages of great wines in a single day and visit local wineries for pre-release tastings. Opening a bottle and tasting the wine for a client was sufficient gratuity for him. This “priceless experience” of daily exposure to the region’s top winemakers was, in Field Melendez’s words, the “cherry on the cream.”
At age 27, Field Melendez’s parents came to visit him. It was August 2007 and they wanted to know his future plans, pointing out the six-month “temporary” job had grown into nearly six years. Field Melendez realized it was time either to return to Mexico or establish his own restaurant in Piemonte. Hard work and dedication were about to yield returns on the emotional and physical investment of his six years at Tornavento when opportunity finally knocked.
He didn’t have to go far. Just steps from Tornavento lay an empty restaurant space above the 69-year-old Lodali winery. The owner, Rita Ghione, needed a tenant. In March 2008, Field Melendez opened Profumo di Vino, filling the empty place.
Today, the Baja Californian chef runs the restaurant with his girlfriend, Sara Ghione, and French chef de cuisine Gwendall Pinon, who shares not only Field Melendez’s passion, but also his respect for the food they prepare together.
Next week, we’ll visit more with Field Melendez and learn how the culinary passion of his adopted home shaped his career and helped make Profumo di Vino a popular dining spot for locals and visitors alike.
In the meantime, take a virtual trip along the proposed UNESCO World Heritage site, the Strada Romantica delle Langhe e del Roero, at http://www.torr