Vail Daily column: No longer a stranger in a strange land
Ryan Summerlin April 20, 2013
Mexican born chef Giullermo Field Melendez discovers his labor of love in Italy
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first story.
After six years of a “priceless experience” honing his skills at La Ciau Tornavento in Treiso, Italy, chef Giullermo “Memo” Field Melendez arrived at a turning point in his career. One direction was restaurant ownership in Piemonte’s epicurean big leagues. The other, return home to Ensenada, Mexico, to pursue his culinary profession there. Either way, he believed it was time to step into the culinary world beyond the renowned Michelin star restaurant.
As we discovered last week, the solution to Field Melendez’s conundrum was across the square from Tornavento. The restaurant space above the 69-year-old Lodali winery, perfumed by the earthy scent of nebbiolo, appeared to be the perfect spot. As a kid, Field Melendez loved baseball and dreamed of playing in the major leagues. Now, the classically trained young chef saw Piemonte as the culinary big leagues. On March 7, 2008, Profumo di Vino opened. Memo has never looked back.
Scent of wine
Profumo di Vino is not only a restaurant, but it is also a popular bar. Although the entrances are separate – the bar to the left, the restaurant to the right – they are joined through an interior hallway and share the terrace overlooking the piazza and the vineyards beyond. The pristine dining room comfortably seats 35. Its tile floors and minimalist tables and chairs give the room a sleek feel. Beautiful linens, dark wood trim and neutral colors on the walls and floor make it a serene dining environment. Field Melendez could easily fit more tables, but he prefers to give a quiet, confortable ambience to 35 happy guests than have “65 to 70 not so happy.”
Field Melendez is a tireless worker. Except on Tuesdays when the restaurant is closed, he works from 8 a.m. often until past midnight. To allow for staff to spend time with family, Christmas week is the only time he closes the restaurant. Field Melendez is a consummate restaurateur, involved in everything from picking up groceries, ordering product and keeping a close control on price and quality, designing the menu, managing the dining room or making espresso in the bar. For him, it’s a labor of love.
Paying homage to tradition
Given his dedication to using only the freshest, seasonal and local ingredients, one might think Field Melendez is a student of the fourth century Greek epicurean and philosopher Archestratus. In his poem “The Life of Luxury,” believed to be Europe’s oldest cookery “book” and written in the Sicilian colony of Gela, gave us a look at ancient methods of purchasing and preparing food. Like Archestratus, Field Melendez is well-traveled and intrigued by the abundance of culinary opportunities in a strange land. His passion and dedication to using top quality, seasonal ingredients reflect the cosmopolitan culinary philosophy and dedication to simplicity found in Archestratus’ ancient poem.
Piemonte is in the Shangri-La of top quality ingredients year-round. Field Melendez collaborates with his Breton sous chef Gwendall Pinon to create dishes from the region’s bounty, paying tribute to centuries of Piemontese traditions. Some of those traditions are a bit more unusual than others. Case in point, the culinary alchemy – thanks in no small part to Barolo and Barbaresco – that transforms animal innards into sought-after delicacies. Field Melendez includes at least two exotic Piemontese dishes on his menu each season “because it’s part of the culture and tells a lot [about] our people and history.”
One traditional dish Field Melendez proudly includes on his menu is finanziera, literally, “food for great financiers.” Many consider this winter dish, a favorite in the court of Charles Emanuel I, Duke of Savoy, in the 16th century, one of Piemonte’s culinary “crown jewels.” Today, unfortunately, it is usually found only in the finest Italian restaurants, almost exclusively in Piemonte.
The first time I tasted finanziera was in November 2008 at Profumo di Vino. Field Melendez convinced me it was the perfect dish for the cold, wet weather that is the Langhe’s late autumn hallmark. The sauce was delicious and full of flavors familiar and not. But despite being an incredibly adventurous eater, this was a hard dish to swallow, literally.
I love sweetbreads, but some of finanziera’s other ingredients such as veal spinal cords and brains, bull testicles and rooster crests (cockscombs) go beyond the pale of my culinary comfort zone. Perhaps next time I’ll take the advice a friend once gave Field Melendez, “close your eyes and just taste.” On that occasion it was fried veal brains he was urged to taste. He liked it. But even with my eyes closed, I doubt the cockscombs would pass through my mouth unnoticed.
What wine goes best with cockscombs?
So what to pair with the innards stew? The choices are abundant in Profumo di Vino’s cellar of over 300 different wines from 100 different producers, of which 98 percent are local. Field Melendez is constantly adding new producers, all of whom he meets to extract as much information as possible about the wines. In his opinion, without the stories behind the wines, he “just would be a wine vending machine.”
For the finanziera, Field Melendez insists it has to be nebbiolo, preferably Barolo. Some prefer Barbera d’Alba, some prefer Arneis if the sauce is made the old way with white wine rather than the richer Barolo or Barbaresco. Pressing him, I got a more specific choice of a wine, an elegant Massolino Vigna Rionda Riserva Barolo from Serrelunga. The wine’s high quality and elegance make it a perfect pairing for the dish rich in organ meats and woodsy porcini.
Shining stars by the sea
With all his knowledge and passion for his adopted home, it’s no surprise that the organizers of Festa a Vico invited Field Melendez to participate in 2009. The increasingly popular festival in Marina di Aequa on the Sorrento peninsula is the brainchild of chef Gennaro Esposito, of Ristorante La Torre del Saracino on the Amalfi coast.
Espisito’s vision to bring chefs together in friendship “to raise awareness of what is beautiful and good in the kitchen” grew into a popular fundraiser for the Santobono Hospital in nearby Naples. Now in its 10th year, Festa brings together more than 250 young, talented chefs whose stars are still rising and those who have achieved one of the most prestigious global benchmarks for restaurants, the Michelin Star.
Day 1 brings together 50 promising young chefs to prepare dishes a la minute – and without heat – for journalists and the Michelin star chefs. In 2012, organizers challenged the young chefs to prepare dishes the Mayans might have as their last meal before the forecast cataclysmic end of the world. Field Melendez considered what Mayans in Piemonte might eat. The result was a blend of Piemontese, South American and Breton ingredients to create his menu of Filetto di Fassone (Piemontese veal), homemade corn tortillas and guacamole garnished with Sorrento lemon zest and the precious fleur du sel de Guerande from Brittany.
Although many of the young chefs ultimately achieve a Michelin Star, Field Melendez revels in the joy of the event and the camaraderie of the chefs. After the event, it’s back to Treiso to continue his passion of creating unique dishes from simple flavors. No more a stranger in a strange land.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.