Artopia: Leonardo da Vinci, the maestro in the studio, chef in the kitchen

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was a chef before mastering the arts? The Italian Renaissance polymath, the genius, began his professional life not in a workshop but as a kitchen boy.

Da Vinci was born in Tuscany (now Italy), in 1452, near the town of Vinci which provided the surname we associate with him today. His father was a lawyer and notary who never married Leonardo’s peasant mother. Leonardo was an illegitimate child and the only child his parents had together. However, his parents had a total of 17 children from different partners who were Leonardo’s half-siblings.

Although Leonardo did not have a close relationship with his father, he was the first to discover his son’s artistic talent and culinary passion. Leonardo received little formal education beyond reading, writing and basic math, but when he was 15 his father enrolled him as an apprentice to the famous sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio de Florence. For about a decade da Vinci honed his painting and sculpting techniques and trained in the mechanical arts in Verrocchio’s studio.

Coinciding with his artistic career, the young Leonardo spent his time in the kitchens of restaurants because he was very interested in the culinary world and invented new dishes. The kitchen was just another area for him where he could satisfy his curiosity and his incessant desire to create.

At 20, Leonardo was hired as a waiter at the inn Le Tre Lumache (The Three Snails) in Florence and soon after was promoted to chef. Just like a contemporary great chef, he has created his own sophisticated plating and cooking techniques, serving small portions of food presented in an artistic way. The aesthetic details initially charmed the Florentines, but the small portions, unfamiliar flavors and level of sophistication were too extreme for them. The average consumer in the late Middle Ages was unable to comprehend the complexity of the dishes prepared for him by the young, multi-talented chef.

Leonardo was also tough on his kitchen staff, sometimes forcing them to create the impossible. However, when it came to himself, nothing was impossible. The high volume of complaints from customers and the kitchen team led to Leonardo being quickly sacked. After a short time, Leonardo and his artist friend Sandro Botticelli opened their own restaurant in the center of Florence, named Le Tre Rane (The Three Frogs). Leonardo and his business partner did their best to demonstrate their appetite and taste for the culinary arts, but society was still not ready to appreciate their unusual dishes. No matter how beautifully decorated they were and how delicious they were, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t avoid driving The Three Frogs out of business.

Leonardo then returned to the workshop of Maestro Verrocchio and immersed himself in the mastery of arts and inventions.

Despite his brief and unsuccessful career as a chef, his love for cooking and food was reflected in his artistic and scientific endeavors for the rest of his life. In one of his most famous notebooks, the Codex Atlanticus, we find drawings of truly innovative kitchen-related inventions, including the ancestors of the pepper mill, the egg slicer, the garlic press and the corkscrew.

Fun fact, Vinci the Great was also the inventor of spaghetti, which was not very well received by Italians at the time of its creation. Pasta, which is the national dish of Italians, has been around in Italy since before we can remember it, however, it was a hard, very large substance, like a large piece of lasagna. Leonardo changed the shape of pasta by making a machine that cut it into long thin strips which, after boiling, turned into spaghetti or, as the master himself called it, spago mangiabile (edible strings).

Another fun fact concerns the origins of the towel. Most art scholars claim that the towel first appeared in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous masterpiece “Ultima Cena” (The Last Supper). He included a small tablecloth in front of each diner to clean their mouths and hands in the painting which is recognized as the first napkin in the history of art.

Leonardo was also very particular about table manners and dress codes. His notebooks contain some basic rules of table etiquette: a list of suggestions on how to behave at the table, some of which are still valid in today’s modern world.

Here is the code of Leonardo da Vinci’s etiquette which aimed to bring sophistication and elegance to the joys of gastronomy of his time:

  • Don’t put your feet on the table.
  • Don’t sit too close to other diners or sit on the table; do not lean against the table.
  • Don’t put your head on your plate.
  • Don’t take food from the person next to you without first asking permission.
  • Do not put chewed food on the plate of the person next to you.
  • Do not clean your armor at the table.
  • Don’t hide food in your bag or boots so you can eat it later.
  • Do not scratch the table with your knife.
  • Do not put half-eaten fruit in the fruit basket.
  • Don’t lick the person next to you.
  • Don’t pick your nose.
  • Don’t pull your face.
  • Do not spit in front of or beside you.
  • Leave the table if you need to urinate or vomit.

Inevitably, Leonardo’s favorite food is an object of curiosity. Given his love for all beings, animals, humans and nature, and given his notes and shopping lists, he is accepted by historians as a vegetarian. When courting royalty and religious patrons in their castles and business, da Vinci dined on green salads, vegetables, bread, mushrooms, cereals and pasta. His favorite was chickpea soup which he liked to serve hot. Plus he would have plenty of delicious bread spreads with soft cheese, fresh butter and figs. He ate and used a lot of spinach, mushrooms and wine.

Michael White, historian and author of Da Vinci, in his book “The First Scientist” (2000) claims that Leonardo’s vegetarianism was influenced by Eastern cultures as well as his love for all living beings, “Indeed, Leonardo was greatly influenced by the travelers he met in Florence and Milan, and he was fascinated by all things Eastern culture. He probably learned vegetarianism from these sources and was almost certain to have come across recipes from the Far East that had been transmitted to him by itinerant painters and philosophers who had crossed his path.

It wouldn’t be strange to end my article with one of Leonardo’s recipes that some hotels and restaurants still put on their menu as “Leonardo’s special”.

My pick of the top chef’s recipes is “Refried Figs and Beans.”

If you want to know what it’s like to eat like the great chef and maestro Leonardo da Vinci, it’s worth trying.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup red kidney beans
  • 1 cup sun-dried figs
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • Wise
  • Garlic
  • Cooking herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

Instruction

Combine cooked beans, onions, figs, sage, garlic and other cooking herbs in a greased frying pan. Fry well in oil and serve with aromatic herbs.

Enjoy your lunch !

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