A Tuscan Heart & Soul: A Conversation with Culinary Artist & Legend Umberto Menghi

Culinary legend Umberto Menghi sits behind his desk seasoned and sure. Though a world-class connoisseur of authentic Italian cuisine, Vancouver is where Menghi has shaped more than a legacy; along with his birthplace of Tuscany, it is the city he calls home.

In his clean-lined office, with blueprints for his upcoming restaurant Il Giardino spread across his desk, Menghi discusses food, travel and business all the while reliving achievements that have surpassed his wildest dreams. Touching on culinary inspiration, he shares stories from his childhood, noting that his mother was a very good cook. "Lunch was always at one o'clock and dinner at eight," he says. "Like it or not, the food was on the table. It was a sign of respect and peace, a place where you could sit down and express yourself, Menghi remembers. "We weren't rich and we weren't poor, we had food and we had family," he explains. "I was born after the war of course, and there was a new life in Europe," he says of his early days in Pontedera, Tuscany. "Families were restarting their lives and along with change came food."

Ubiquitous and always at the center of great stories, it was food that lit the path towards Menghi's fascination with cuisine and culture and later inspired high-reaching dreams.

At sixteen, he enrolled into a culinary hotel school where he was trained in all divisions of the culinary world. Unaware of how successful he would become, Menghi found himself at the top of his class and with endless job offers. A whirlwind of opportunity presented itself, just as he had always dreamt.

Menghi proceeded to cook his way around Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa before relocating to London as a chef at the Hilton Hotel.

Revisiting past accomplishments, Menghi grips a pen from his desk and sketches a small map on a monogrammed notepad. Outlining the places that he has traveled and worked, he connects the dots and shares a proud moment. "In 1967 I was sent to the Expo in Montreal," he says of his journey across the Atlantic to Canada. Over the next two years, Menghi continued to work long and hard, later realizing that he wanted to experience what the great West had to offer. In 1969, he moved to the West Coast and settled in Vancouver, where his successes became unparalleled.

While on the topic of success, Menghi browses through the pages of his latest best-selling cookbook, Toscana Mia, taking a moment to reminisce on his dream of 1973. "I wanted to open my own restaurant," Menghi says, and that he did. "I opened a little yellow house and named it Umberto's and I never looked back.

The first to offer authentic Italian cuisine based on fresh, local ingredients in Vancouver, Umberto's became an overnight legend. Menghi created more than just food - he created atmosphere. "I provided a home for them and they provided a home for me," he says of his staff and customers. "It was a feeling of going somewhere and not having to impress anybody.

Menghi continues to talk about life and how much it has changed since his coming to Vancouver. "The city grew up with me and I grew up with the city," he says. "And that is something I am very proud to say." Menghi explains how he built his empire around trust. "I'm a giver. I give first and I receive last," he says. "When people couldn't afford to pay, I would say give me what you can." Though a different society at the time, word caught wind throughout Vancouver, making Menghi a household name. "I had nothing to lose," he says, "and all to gain."

Twenty-three restaurants worldwide, five best-selling cookbooks and his own cooking show have made Umberto Menghi nothing short of a culinary icon. His love for food is as great as the love that he has for his city. "It's important to recognize the strong quality of chefs in Vancouver that are cooking with their heart," says Menghi. "It's a likeable city."

As Vancouver revolves in conversation, details of the re-launch for Il Giardino's -one of Menghi's many renowned restaurants in the city- resurface. He points next door where the renovations are taking place and reveals finalizations. "That is where my new restaurant is going to be," he says.

Vancouverites - expect to be making reservations early next year as Il Giardino's once again opens its doors.

Source Credit:     Text by Amber-Lea Nielsen

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