Italian born Chef Rino Baglio is part of the first group of chefs in the world to receive the inaugural Master Chef F.I.C.certification awarded by the World Association of Chefs Society (WACS). Equivalent to the likes of a culinary Oscar, the award kicks Chef Baglio’s already superstar status into an elite stratosphere. He is the only Chef in the North and South American continents to have made it – all the other recipients were from Europe.
A total of only 35 chefs were hand selected for candidacy which required classroom study in Milan, Italy last November followed by a fully staged cooking challenge last March. Known for his mastery of Italian cuisine, Chef Rino says he went through the program “not for the acknowledgment, but as a personal challenge to be my best and see how far I could go.”
The Milan coursework honed in on chemistry, the moleculation of food, allergies and things like, pairing the right wines with the right foods. Scoring less than a point off a perfect score, Baglio says the dinner presentation was “challenging”.
We had to do a small wedding for 100 people – contact the client, create the menu, testing etc. Once the menus were approved, we did custom recipes and presentations with pictures. Clients would then say things like, ‘By the way, I have two guests that have [“X”] allergies’. Then you’d have to adjust the menu for them.
What was the “mystery box” you had to contend with?
You don’t know what’s inside beforehand and you have to use to every ingredient inside, or you’ll be disqualified. Mine was sturgeon and sea urchin.
Did you have any help?
You have two hours to do everything from scratch – no prep beforehand. You also get one student for help, but they can’t touch any food – they can get pans, help clean up – you have to do all the washing [of food], and so forth.
The two hour window is tough. In a typical day, you can do 300 people in two hours when you have staff and lots of prep done beforehand.
I cooked for Sinatra three times; the first time in Italy and the second time was in Phoenix. I had just finished for the day, it was 11 at night when I closed the kitchen. My boss called and told me the cast of New York, New York had just called him and would like ‘some food’. I went back to the kitchen and cooked by myself that night – Sinatra was there.
At that time, I was also [in the process of] moving to L.A. He called me shortly thereafter to do his 65th birthday party at his villa near Palm Dessert. ‘I want you to be in charge of everything’, he said, ‘flowers, food, everything – whatever you need.’ I had to ask my boss for the week off to do Sinatra’s party, which he gave me. The party was around his pool, there was an orchestra, he sang a couple of songs at the end of the night and he was even on the grill, cooking too! …he was a really generous person.
Because of Stefano [Caroline’s second husband], we grew up in the same town and went to high school together. He called and said, ‘I had to come work for them’.
This is one of the hardest jobs for a chef. You get up in the morning and hear things like, ‘By the way, we leave for New York today and tomorrow we’re going to the palace…’ – that’s how I met Princess Diana. I received a telegram from the Queen’s mother [after that], ‘Would I want to be part of the team for the wedding?’ She [Princess Di] was so beautiful outside and inside.
My best memory is Pope John Paul II. That [opportunity] was offered to me in Canada, where the Pope would be visiting while I was working for Weston’s Hospitality Group by John Arena there. There were special diets and security. I had to try all the food first before the Pope ate, (I also did that for [President] Reagan) and the wine too – they search you for everything. I actually got to talk to him for 10 minutes when he came into the kitchen, to thank the team afterwards.
The Pope actually came into the kitchen?
Did that kind of thing happen a lot?
It was my great grandmother, she was a baker. She had the only bake shop for miles around in a town of 8,000 in Italy. She would get 2-3 hours of sleep a night; they hand delivered the bread in the mountains back then. I learned how to make all those recipes from my mom and my grandmother.
I got a call from an agency contact in Chicago; ‘Do you know of a chef who’d be interested in a new hotel?’ I told them I was. At the time, I was the corporate chef for a hospitality firm doing large events, like the Republican National Convention (for 6,000), and grand openings for resorts.
I interviewed and did a staging – they gave me a mystery card to work off of. Two weeks later, I was offered the job as Executive Chef for Osteria Pronto at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. This was a new trend for them; Osteria is the first Italian restaurant inside a Marriott. They’re building a new hotel in Austin due to open in 2015 and I hope to be part of the team to open the next Osteria Pronto there. I am extremely happy with the move I made. White Lodging is one of the best companies I’ve ever worked with.
They’re very important, in order to be recognized in the work. It would be extraordinarily difficult to do so without them, unless you spent a lot of time and money self-marketing yourself – it’s hard to put yourself up and out there.
I really like these organizations because they have classes and courses to keep chefs up to date. There are so many new things coming out, you need to be up on it all. I still go back twice a year to see what’s going on in Italy – especially in Italy it’s a continual evolution – like gluten – we are most attached to that. Ten years ago we didn’t know about it, now, at least 4-5 people tell me daily they are intolerant to gluten. People got sick, but we didn’t know it was gluten.
Isn’t it tough to do gluten free with Italian cuisine?
Gluten free is not so hard. They’re making pasta and bread with corn flour and rice flour. Working with the different flours, chefs need to come up with new recipes. It’s all about the right combo, once you got it, keep it. I make a great gluten free pizza; it’s just the ingredients you use and the combo.
In Italy, it’s easier than you think because there are so many different types of risotto. Cookies and desserts are made with potato flour and rice flour. The U.S. is on the same path with these trends following the European nations.
What tips, would you offer people shopping for gluten free products and ingredients?
Read the labels of every ingredient you buy. (BFree Foods has one of the best gluten free product lines I’ve seen.) If you can’t get to a specialty store, you need to pay attention to the label. You have to be careful with everything. For example, even frozen French fries; sometimes premade fries are coated with flour [that has wheat or gluten] to make them brown during cooking.
That’s a Wrap
Having had so many wondrous experiences and such great professional success, what do you love to do the most now?
Cooking… still. I’m 59, and I still have the passion for cooking. When I come out with new dishes, I still have the passion for that. After that, it would be helping with new openings and sharing my knowledge with my team.
It used to be that chefs would never tell you secrets, or about their spices, or whatever because they wanted job security. I don’t have to look for jobs anymore, jobs look for me.