Savoring the basics
On his first visit to Palisade, when the vineyards and orchards were only hinting at their lush summer green and harvest was just an inch or two out of the ground, Chef Marcelo Marino stood in Carol Zadrozny’s peach orchard and considered.
The spaces between rows were wide, there was shade and strings of clear party lights and a certain intangible something — a rising, earthy sense of plenty.
With a nod, he said, “I could do a dinner here.”
Onward several months, a recent Tuesday afternoon, and Marino stood once again in the orchard, considering the possibilities.
He could see the four rows of 25-seat tables, the previous seating arrangement at Feast in the Fields, but he wondered.
“If we have 25 in there,” he said, pointing at the row between peach trees to his right, “and 25 in there,” and he pointed to his left, “they will never, ever mingle.”
And he wanted the mingling. He envisioned friends just made, holding a glass of good wine, talking and laughing in the warm, twilight summer night, in the glow of party lights, under a canopy of laden branches dripping with ripe peaches.
“What if we do 10 tables?” he asked. “Ten people at each table.”
“So there’s more mixing,” said Mary Lou Wilson, chairwoman of the Palisade Peach Festival’s Aug. 16 Feast in the Fields, for which Marino will be the chef.
“That would be so cool,” Marino agreed. He leaned toward her as he said it, emphasizing with his hands — so cool, radiating kinetic energy.
People together, eating good food, while Earth laughs with abundance: This is the life to live.
“I believe food is fun,” he explained. “Life is good, you know? It’s good.”
Marino, 47, recently named executive chef and food and beverage director at Palisade’s Wine Country Inn, bases that belief not just on 27 years of experience in the culinary world and not just on a career that has ventured across the globe, but on eyes wide open.
He looks out and sees soil able to provide, and seeds sprouting, and hands coaxing them to grow, and the abiding sun. He sees simplicity and nourishment in the harvest, and tastes that are glorious because they are fresh and uncomplicated. There may be a bit of romanticism in his vision, “but what I can contribute is going back to a more pure system,” he explained. “You have a man here, a farmer, and maybe he wakes up at 3 a.m. and he works hard and he makes things grow and the result is a beautiful tomato. I have the ability to take that hard work, those hours of labor, and make something beautiful with that tomato, something simple and fresh, something nourishing.
“When we can understand the symbiosis from earth to table, this is my passion.”
Born in Argentina to an Italian father and a German mother, Marino grew up in Italy, Germany and Brazil and soaked up the culture and cuisine of each new place. He credits his father, a pilot and adventurer, with his ability to look at each new vista with fresh eyes.
“He passed to me the ability to appreciate every landscape for what it was and not compare it with any other,” he said.
Always, he said, he has felt his feet planted in the earth, and remembers a particular experience when he was 9 and visiting his grandparents in Sicily. He and his grandmother had the day together, which started early in her garden by picking ripe tomatoes and rosemary. Then, inside to the kitchen, where she washed and sliced the tomatoes, mixed them with balsamic honey and mustard and other fresh ingredients.
That night, Marino recalled, was a revelation as he ate a sauce with tomatoes he’d picked that very morning. Through his career, he has taken his grandmother’s recipe with him to every kitchen.
He graduated Le Cordon Bleu in Dover, N.H., and apprenticed throughout Europe; he cites the influence of Chef Michel Guerard, a founder of the nouvelle cuisine movement, as a great influence.
Building on his classical French training, Marino cooked in kitchens throughout Europe, South America, Africa and the Middle East, at restaurants, hotels, resorts and on cruise ships. Along the way, he honed his philosophy and practice of fusing classical preparations with back-to-the-earth simplicity.
“My focus is local, my focus is sustainability,” he explained. “I want to get to the source, to work with the farmers and growers. That’s been one of my priorities when I came here, right away establishing relationships with those who grow the food.”
“I have a phrase to discuss what Marcelo is doing,” said Jean Tally, Wine Country Inn owner. “I say it’s sort of like Alice Waters meets Paul Bocuse. He has the classical French training and he uses a lot of the methodology and he combines that with his focus on local, sustainable products.”
Before coming to Palisade last month, Marino was founder and executive chef at Green House Miami in North Miami Beach, Fla. He also started the first Spanish-language program at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami, where he taught for six years. He still serves as a Le Cordon Bleu ambassador.
In explaining his decision to leave the frantic pace of Miami for Palisade, he said it was a matter of returning to basics — to knowing the vintner who created the Reisling in his seafood matignon and the orchardist who grew the tomatoes in his caprese salad, to growing his own rosemary, to having time to take deep breaths and look around and cultivate relationships.
Already, in the groomed landscape around the swimming pool at Wine Country Inn, he has basil and tomatoes growing, and rosemary in tubs out front.
“Smell that,” he said on a recent afternoon, pinching a sprig of rosemary between his fingers. “Perfect. Beautiful.”
Not 10 minutes later, he dropped rosemary sprigs picked that morning into olive oil heating on a burner. Every few minutes, he bent over the sauce pot and waved the rising scent to his nose. It should smell good, he said, it should taste good and look good and feel good in the mouth. It should tell a story about where it grew.
“Marcelo is exceptionally well-versed in all aspects of cuisine,” said Joe Scanlon, general manager of Wine Country Inn. “We did a national search for our executive chef and the thing that impressed us about Marcelo was his enthusiasm and his passion for teaching. He has so many ideas about what he wants to create here.”
During winter, Scanlon said, Marino will teach Le Cordon Bleu-level cooking classes. And each week he teaches classes for the kitchen and catering staffs at Wine Country Inn, which includes Caroline’s and Tapestry Lounge.
“He teaches as he cooks,” said Jesse Wilson, chef de cuisine at Wine Country Inn. “I learn just by watching him.”
And watching him in action is to see perpetual motion — he talks fast and rarely stops moving and punctuates with “Beautiful!” and “Perfect!” and a conspiratorial wink. There’s so much to say and so much to teach and so many lovely foods to present on a plate.
He regularly makes rounds among restaurant customers, taking the time to explain a coulis or what he can do for them in regard to vegetables.
“I can make you squashes, zucchinis, eggplants…,” he told a couple dining at Caroline’s recently.
“I was thinking of the sal- mon,” the woman said. “There’s no breading?”
“No breading anywhere,” he assured her. “I tell you, it’s a beautiful dish.”
It’s a beautiful dish and life, as he often says, is good.