Innovative chef and the first to return his Michelin stars

Born: March 19, 1930;

Died: December 26, 2017

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GUALTIERO Marchesi, who has died aged 87, was an innovative Italian chef in a country which had hitherto regarded innovation in cookery as heresy; he was the first non-French chef to receive three Michelin stars, and the first person ever to return his stars and denounce the scoring system of the guide, and others like it.

Marchesi’s first restaurant, on Via Bonvesin de la Riva in Milan, was influenced by the French techniques of nouvelle cuisine, the culinary revolution begun in the 1970s by chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé that abandoned heavy classical sauces in favour of lighter stocks and an emphasis on fresh produce and novel combinations of flavours.

At that time, Italian restaurant cooking was essentially unchanged from the tavern tradition which had become established during the 19th century; Marchesi’s innovations, which included a saffron risotto topped with a square of gold leaf, and an “open ravioli” in which the filling was used as a pasta sauce, were regarded with suspicion, but brought him a devoted following. They also won the approval of the Michelin inspectors; within a year of the restaurant opening in 1977, he had his first star, and a second followed the next year. It was another seven years before he secured the final star, but he did so in time for the 1986 Guide. He was the first Italian to obtain the rating.

During the period when he was building his reputation, Marchesi trained many of today’s leading Italian chefs. But, as is the case with many great chefs, Marchesi, having earned his stripes, then became as much entrepreneur as cook. He opened bistros and cafés in Italy and abroad, and lent his name and menu to restaurants on cruise ships; he founded a cookery academy and a foundation to promote learning through taste, and was a regular on television shows.

In 1993 he closed his restaurant and moved to Franciacorta to open a combined restaurant and luxury hotel, where he argued for what he called cucina nuova totale, a philosophy of restaurant eating which encompassed every aspect of the décor and service as well as the food. In 2008 he returned to Milan to run Marchesini, the restaurant in La Scala; recently, he worked on setting up a retirement home for chefs, which is due to open next year.

In 2011 he became the first celebrity chef to design a burger for McDonald’s; in fact, he produced two, for a limited run. The first, the Vivace, was based on the flavours of Lombardy and included sautéed spinach, bacon and whole-grain mustard; the other, the Adagio, drew its inspiration from Sicily, with an aubergine mousse, ricotta, tomato and almonds.

Gualtiero Marchesi was born on March 19, 1930 in Milan, where his parents were restaurateurs. He grew up in and around the Albergo del Mercata in the Via Bezzecca and was greatly influenced by its chefs, including Luigi Guisoni (who had worked at the Ritz on Madeira) and Domenico Bergamaschi. At 17, after an abortive attempt to become a motor mechanic, he went to work in a hotel kitchen in St Moritz and then trained at a hotel school in Lucerne.

He returned to work for a while in his parents' restaurant, where he prepared traditional meals at lunchtime, but was permitted to experiment with the evening menu. At the age of 40, determined to become a great cook, he went to France to work in leading restaurants in Paris, notably Ledoyen, and then Le Chapeau Rouge in Dijon and chez Troisgros in Roanne, before opening his first restaurant of his own in 1977.

Marchesi believed that the beauty of a dish’s appearance was as significant as its taste for the customer’s enjoyment, and summarised his culinary philosophy in the words: “Form is matter.” Though he based his cooking on traditional Italian flavours, his chief instinct was to pare back, and concentrate on quality ingredients. “Simplicity is a point of arrival, not a point of departure,” he told one food writer, while he told another that “Italian cooking is basically domestic … too vulgar, too common”.

He was especially keen on art, and produced a fish and squid dish inspired by Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings; Quattro Pasta, four types of pasta served on a mirror, was a tribute to Andy Warhol. As well as his saffron and gold risotto (“It’s perfect, a masterpiece,” he claimed modestly) he produced Zen Garden, a black squid ink risotto, with one single grain of white rice in the centre.

Though he renounced his Michelin stars in 2008 – he had lost one in 1997, and had begun to lose faith in the idea of scoring in Michelin and other guides, such as the Gault-Milau (though it had identified him as one of the world’s greatest chefs) – Marchesi received numerous other awards.

He was made Cavaliere of the Republic in 1986 and Commendatore in 1991; the previous year France made him a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was awarded the Golden Apron, the Grand Prix of the International Academy of Gastronomy and an honorary degree from Parma University and was president of Euro-Toques, an organisation for the world’s top 3,000 chefs which he had helped to found.

A keen music lover and talented musician, Marchesi was a semi-professional pianist during his twenties, until he met his wife, Antonietta Cassisa, a concert pianist. “I left the piano and married the girl,” he said. “She kept up the music and I became a cook.” They had two daughters.

Though he controversially banned pasta from his menu in 1983, in old age, Marchesi expressed a preference above all for spaghetti “dressed with the bare minimum”, and chicken cassouela with cabbage.

ANDREW MCKIE