Antonello Sardi (left) with Davide Rizzi in the culinary garden.
One farm, two Michelin-starred restaurants and two very talented chefs: the tale of Andrea Mattei of Meo Modo and Antonello Sardi of La Bottega del Buon Caffè sounds like a fable, particularly when that farm is our award-winning boutique hotel estate Relais Borgo Santo Pietro. Immersed in the hills near Chiusdino in Siena, its biodynamic harvest supplies both the inspiration and ingredients for on-site restaurant Meo Modo and urban sibling La Bottega, located in Florence beneath the tower of San Niccolò.
Executive chefs Mattei and Sardi work closely with the estate’s farmers and kitchen gardeners, taking different creative approaches to the same ‘farm to plate’ philosophy. This is now reaching a new level of specialisation through their collaboration with newly returned culinary gardeners Davide Rizzi and Lorena Turrini, whose finely tuned understanding of biodynamic cultivation means that Mattei and Sardi are now able to craft signature dishes using tailor-made ingredients, such as vegetables grown to a certain size or harvested when their flavour reaches a specific point. With plans already in the works to expand the current kitchen garden from 4000 square metres to a hectare, Mattei and Sardi’s vision is limited only by their imaginations.
Requiring more than just a green thumb, Rizzi and Turrini’s biodynamic method takes a holistic approach to farming, utilising such ancient techniques as lunar planting together with the principles of Rudolf Steiner, which include burying a cow horn full of manure and leaving it for six months as an energetic ‘antenna’ that transforms the soil into rich humus, which is subsequently sprayed over the garden. Rizzi is also a ‘seed saver’ who collects and cultivates ancient seed species. He is currently building a seed bank of sought-after varieties from around the world, and has already developed several kinds, including a variety of ancient peach. The pair have just returned to Borgo Santo Pietro after an absence of four years, bringing fresh ideas gathered over the course of their travels and personal projects, which include the use of music and art in the garden to enhance subtle and visual harmony, drawn from Rizzi’s expertise as a classically trained concert guitarist and Turrini’s experience as an arts and events organiser.
“What we cultivate is food for both the body and soul, grown using biodynamic means and therefore highly nutritious, which also provides beauty that nourishes”, says Turrini. “We’d like to create the image, especially for young people, of the kitchen garden as not only a place of hard work but also of peace and serenity, as a way for people to rediscover its essential importance to human life.”
Mattei’s Michelin star was reconfirmed in December 2015 at Meo Modo in recognition of his virtuoso touch with simple, seasonal ingredients firmly rooted in his native Tuscan soil. His approach extends not just to the flavours of the territory but also to its tactile, olfactory and visual landscape: various courses are served on stones dug up from the nearby River Merse or wedges of local cork; a dish of suckling pig and acorns is accompanied by a smouldering fire of sweet-scented hay; while visitors approaching the Borgo Santo Pietro estate along the striking cypress-lined drive find their hand-made chocolate dusted with the very same cypress needles at the close of the meal.
In contrast, Sardi’s Michelin-starred kitchen in Florence incorporates wider Italian rather than strictly Tuscan produce, in keeping with its more cosmopolitan location and Sardi’s own travels and experience. Although Florentine by birth, he spent his earliest years in the kitchen at the knee of a Romagnol nonna, therefore it’s of little surprise that his menu features fresh tortellini hand-made by staff on site. Like Mattei, Sardi’s dedication to sourcing his produce means tracing it back to its origins; his direct relationship with producers means that when a fisherman from Elba recently pulled a 20-kilogram sea bass out of the water, he rang Sardi and offered it to him immediately. This level of transparency and sense of direct engagement extends to La Bottega’s interior design, where the entirely open-plan kitchen invites diners to be casual spectators to the creation of their meal.
Both aged 36, the pair have been lauded as two of Tuscany’s most talented young chefs, a success they credit wholeheartedly to their teams. Indeed, Meo Modo sees a group of four longstanding friends at the helm, from Mattei as executive chef to sous chef Andrea Ferrari, pastry chef Diego Poli and restaurant manager Andrea Salvatori, who have been friends since they attended the prestigious Giuseppe Minuto hotel school at Marina di Massa in Tuscany 15 years ago.
“There’s a palpable sense of teamwork and friendship here; we all share the desire to do something together”, says Mattei. This feeling is keenly perceived by staff and diners alike, who regularly note that for all its Michelin-starred elegance, Meo Modo exudes a warm, effortless familiarity that sees diners return time and again.
Sardi likewise acknowledges the fundamental presence of his sous chef Erez Ohayon, with whom he has such a stimulating creative dynamic that even upon returning home after a gruelling 15-hour shift the pair regularly text each other with new ideas. “You would think that we’d get tired of talking about food but we don’t,” he says. “Our wives can’t believe it”.
Sardi recently sat down as Mattei’s lunch guest to talk shop over a degustation menu, after meeting Rizzi in the kitchen gardens to discuss the latest plant growth. Both chefs are positive about the 2016 season and where it will take them from here. With Borgo’s sheep, chickens and bees already providing pecorino, fresh eggs and raw honey, and a newly arrived drove of pigs, gourmet foodies and wellness lovers alike are keen to see what it has in store next.
Antonello Sardi with Andrea Mattei (right) at Meo Modo.