Food for Thought

Marika Contaldo Seguso’s passion for food and entertainment has been with her forever. It became a business when she began working in New York for Chantarelle Restaurant in 1998 and then Cantinori Restaurant. Later, she joined Buitoni & Garretti, the Italian Gourmet Food Boutique.

After graduating as a Chef from the Institute of Culinary Education of New York, she co-founded Acquolina Catering in New York in 2001, which quickly became a reference for authentic Italian cuisine, much called upon by the likes of Nicola Bulgari, Massimo e Chiara Ferragamo, The Rothschilds or Hillary Clinton, just to name a few.

After moving back to Venice with her family, the Italian branch of Acquolina Catering was born, based in her own Villa Ines in Venice Lido. From there Marika went on to developing a flourishing catering business, planning and organizing memorable events ranging from celebrities’ weddings to exclusive events for the likes of Cartier, Piaget, Dior or Giorgio Armani, from unique dinners through to celebrations with as many as six-hundred guests in attendance.Today Marika maintains a passion for her first love, sharing her art and her secrets through the organization of bespoke events following all the details from A to Z through to more intimate, private culinary classes at Villa Ines.

Marika Contaldo Seguso’s works have been featured in many prestigious publications including Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Case & Country, A Tavola and The New Yorker. She lives in Venice Lido with her husband Gianluca and their four children.

 

DAVID: Thank you Marika Contaldo Seguso for receiving us in your beautiful Villa Ines in Venice Italy!

SEGUSO: Thank you Florian this is my pleasure.

DAVID: Can you tell us a little bit about the location?

SEGUSO: We are at Villa Ines where I live with my beautiful family, four children and my husband. This is also where I organize and live my passion for cooking, and where we host guests in some of our rooms upstairs. So we also have a cooking school here, where we organize cooking lessons for up to eight to ten guests every day, teaching them a little bit about the very rich and varied authentic Italian cuisine. Finally here are also the offices of my catering company, Acquolina, and so from this office we plan a lot of events, mostly for the Italian fashion industry.

DAVID: What are we cooking today? [smiles]

SEGUSO: [laughs] Today we are cooking very traditional dishes, the typical Italian spaghettis with seafood using clams and mussels and scampi and shrimps - tiger shrimps, which are the typical Venetian shrimps - and then we are going to do some big scallops wrapped in lardo di colonata black truffle. We will also prepare some tuna sashimi with an Italian twist, using some rosemary, some extra virgin olive oil and some garlic; then we will prepare a scorpio fish in a bath stock using old Mediterranean flavours like cappers, olives, fresh herbs and grape tomatoes. Then we will serve a home made Tiramisu with sponge cake, mascarpone cream and shaved dark chocolate!

DAVID: Wow. And all these ingredients that you are mentioning are all fresh food from the market, there is nothing from the supermarket! [smiles]

SEGUSO : No, I like to pick all the best ingredients, fresh from the best providers and vendors, I select personally all the ingredients that we cook. It does not matter if it is for a big cattering event or a cooking class. I like to do this personally, based on season, freshness, and I actually teach my students how to do that when I do the full day class; some people want to spend an entire day with me to understand the Venetian cuisine and lifestyle, and to understand the life in Venice nothing is better than immersing yourself into the Venice Rialto Market which I think is one of the most vibrant and colourful markets in the world. And so we go from vendor to vendor to see what they have and I explain to my students why I pick one type of artichoke rather than another or why I avoid an ingredient if it is not the right season - an ingredient grown in a greenhouse does not have the same taste as an ingredient grown in the land with the sunlight. In particular I like to go visit a man called Nerio who is growing everything on his own terrace in Sant-Erasmo, cut fresh from the morning and available at the market. I always stop by him to see what is in season, I know that I can trust this old man! [smile] Then I usually go from stand to stand to look for fruits and vegetables, in particular artichokes to cook their bottoms, this is typical Venetian and this is one of the dishes we are going to cook today. And then we stop by the fish sections, again to hunt for some wild fish and not farmed ones, it does cost more but the flavour is so superior! I usually decide what we are going to cook with my client while we are shopping, depending on what I see that is available that day.

DAVID: How would you define the Ventian Lifestyle? It looks like it is very convivial, people like to feel each others’ warmth.

SEGUSO: Yes, well, first this is part of being Italian, we like warmth. People are friendly, we love to eat and to drink! [laughs]. We usually start to drink ‘a umbra’, meaning at eleven o’ clock in the morning, a nice way to relax with a friend, to eat some Italian tappas accompanied by a glass of wine. Usually this is a way to pause on your way to lunch.


DAVID: What do you love most about Venice?

SEGUSO: Really the first thing I love about Venice is that there is no traffic! [laughs] Vaporetti are slow but always perfectly on time and so you can really plan. If you need to be at a certain place at a specific time you can really plan, because there is no traffic on the laguna. At the same time if you miss that vaporetto there is no way to make up for the lost time, you will be delayed ten minutes! [laughs]. But just this gives you a chance to slow down. There is no way to make up for a missed train or a missed vaporetto. You just need to sit and give yourself an extra ten minute break: you open your book and wait for the next vaporetto, it is kind of zen, you do not have to run and try catch a taxi, you just have to wait for the next ride, that’s it! [smiles]

DAVID: Where were you born Marika?

 

'I WAS BORN IN MILANO, I AM A PERSON FULL OF ENERGY, I GREW UP IN A CITY FULL OF ENERGY!'

 

SEGUSO: I was born in Milano, I am a person full of energy, I grew up in a city full of energy! [laughs] I then moved to another very energetic city, New York, when I was just twenty-three, a city where I stayed ten years, so you know my dna is not really that of the relaxed Venetian lifestyle [laughs]. Deeply in my blood I am a Milanese person, but I really enjoy to be forced to slow down even when I do not want! [Laughs]

DAVID: Have you always had that energy?

SEGUSO: When I was a child? Not as much. I have built this energy on my way through life [laughs]. I guess this is because there are so many things that I would love to do and I do not have enough time so I start running! [laughs]. I enjoy my life, my job, I love the work I do, being with people, with my family, and this is challenging too!

DAVID: Yes, you have four kids!

SEGUSO: Yes four kids, Gianmatteo, who is fourteen, Allegra thirteen, Nicolo ten and Giacopo nine, hands full! [laughs]

DAVID: What is keeping you up at night, what is the most challenging thing with the kids?

SEGUSO: With the kids?

DAVID: Yes.

SEGUSO: When I arrive home from a very long day of work and get here and everyone wants their own, dedicated, exclusive time with me! [laughs] At the same time they need to do their homework, then they are hungry and they need to have dinner. In the morning I am able to do ten things at the same time but then in the evening it gets tougher because I am tired! [laughs]. It is tough to remain patient and smiling [laughs].

DAVID: Let’s talk about you a bit Marika. When did you start getting interested in cooking?

SEGUSO: Very early, I have memories of being in the kitchen with my two grandmothers during the week-end, or during the holidays away from school, I was about eight years old. I was the only child, I did not have neither brothers nor sisters or cousins to play with, so my way to entertain myself was to be with my Grandmothers and to give them a hand which I did with joy also because I love to eat! [laughs] The first question I always asked in the morning was ‘what are we going to have for lunch?’ and at lunch time I was asking ‘what are we going to have for dinner?’ [laughs]

I remember that when as a game people asked me what I was going to do when I grow up, my dream as a child was to become a Chef, and to have my own restaurant. That was very unusual at that time! Now kids are being exposed to cooking shows all the time but in my time there were no cooking shows and being a Chef was not a glamourous profession. But I felt so good in the kitchen to clean and cook tortellonis with my grandmothers that I started to do it more and more. As a teenager, as soon as I had any problems I was stepping inside the kitchen, starting to cook and forgetting about any problems I might have had! And that’s when I started to realize that this was really my part on this earth; It was not any longer just the dream of a child but really my way onwards to be happy in my life.

DAVID: And you are not just a Chef, you really are an entrepreneur, you have founded a flourishing catering business organizing exclusive parties for many luxury brands as well as private individuals. You are also organizing a lot of beautiful weddings. What excites you about this adventure?

SEGUSO: I like what is new, and every client, every event is a different story. People often are asking me why I have not opened a restaurant yet and this is because I really like to do something different every time. Sometimes for a wedding you have to start planning things a year in advance and so you become very close to the people you work with, even if they are people that sometimes you will not see any more in your life, you are sharing some very special moments with them.

DAVID: Yes, it is also very enriching culturally and openening your eyes to many other parts ofthe world. You are working with a lot of Americans, but also with Asians…

SEGUSO: Yes, a lot of Americans, Americans love Venice. Also Europeans, Austrians, Germans, British, and I must say people who love food usually are good people! [laughs]

DAVID: Yes, food can be really like art, food can be one great universal language, a great way to build bridges and get along with everyone, everyone likes good food! [smiles]

SEGUSO: Yes, food makes everybody agree, it is a form of art that blends people, food and wine. [Smile]. Think about how many important things happen around around a table. I do consider it a form of art and a way to bring joy in life.

DAVID: Are you proud of being Italian?

 

'I LIKE TO TRAVEL A LOT AND TAKE A LITTLE PAGE FROM WHAT IS GOOD IN EVERY COUNTRY,

THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO LEARN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES'

 

SEGUSO: Oh yes! [smiles] Sometimes it makes me feel sad that as a country we are not living up to our potential, our politics are miserable, but appart from politics I think Italians are very gifted, in terms of artistic vision, flexibility, good energy, openness, friendliness, I am very proud of my Italian roots. At the same time I like to travel a lot and take a little page from what is good in every country, there is always something to learn from other countries. And this is something I encourage my kids to do, to travel, to learn, to get the best from every place and this completes yourself.

DAVID: I’d like to know what you have learned from your time in New York?

SEGUSO: This is a place where even after a short time people make you feel that everything is possible and can happen, which is not something that you feel here. It is really a country of opportunity, where if you work seriously it does not matter where you are from. You get what you give, in proportion of what you give.

DAVID: You have made a lot of important friends and encounters in New York right.

SEGUSO: Yes, I did! Americans too are very friendly, very direct, very enthusiastic, open, and that is why they get along so well with Italians. Americans also have a way to express their happiness that is also comparable to that of a child, and this is amazing. Another thing that I learned in that country is to be together, to be a team, and how that can make a huge difference to accomplish great things.

DAVID: That is true, teamwork is at the heart of the American way of working. They are also very future-oriented, focused on their goals. We are always very interested by the concept of time and how people relate to the passing of time. You live a very fast paced life with the cooking school, the catering business, four kids! What is your relationship with time would you say that you live most often in the past, in the present, in the future?

 

'I KNOW THAT WHEN I LOOK BACK I DO CONNECT THE DOTS AND EVERYTHINK MAKES SENSE TO ME,

EVEN THE MOST PAINFUL MOMENTS OF MY LIFE BROUGHT ME TO WHAT I AM TODAY,

AND SO I ACCEPT EVERYTHING, THE LOSSES AND THE MISTAKES (...)'

 

SEGUSO: Definitely in the present. I do not have great regrets, I do not think about the past. I know that when I look back I do connect the dots and everything makes sense to me, even the most painful moments of my life brought me to what I am today, and so I accept everything, the losses, the mistakes, I am ok with my past. I am definitely ok with my future. I know that everything can happen, because things have already happened to me - I lost my father in a car accident - so I know that things can change all of a sudden very fast, but from what happened in my life in the past I know also that everything that is happening to you happens for a reason, sometimes for a good reason even if it is difficult to believe, and is manageable; sometimes the way you react to bad situations is an opportunity to get better, to become a better person. I also have good faith in god - some will call this destiny - and I believe that if anything happened to me it did because I am able to manage it. And so I take any difficulty in life as an opportunity to just work it out for the best towards a positive outcome. And so I am not afraid of the future, I am ok with the past and I just enjoy the present, and I really try to do my best in the present.

DAVID: You mentioned faith, is that where you turn to so as to overcome challenging moments?

SEGUSO: You mean to find comfort, to feel better?

DAVID: Yes.

SEGUSO: For sure. I pray. And I am an active person. I am not someone who stays still. I just do practical things to keep myself busy and I do my best to solve practical problems and I get through things one step after the other. Like for the loss of my father. I have great memories of him, he taught me so much, and so he is always with me. Also the fact that I believe in another life after this life helps to get through, because you know that what we live now is not all that there is, we have other opportunities, to do things better, to see again the people that we love. I have always been like this, even my husband Gianluca often tells me that he can not believe how strong I was, I was so young.

DAVID: How old were you?

SEGUSO: I was twenty-two. So not little, but I was still young, living with my parents with no work life yet. And all I had as a family was really my father and my mother. Not my boyfriend or friends.

In a family of three when when one is missing you do not have a family anymore. Also while my mother was very beautiful and joyful she was not the leader of the family, it was my father, and so after my father passed away I had to become the strong person in the family. So sometimes I felt that I had stopped being a daughter I became all at once the head of the family. It was not easy, but I am not the type of person who would cry on herself, I am more of a fighter. I just got through this by doing my best and people who saw me in this situation always tell me now how impressed they were that I looked so weak but showed so much strength. So much so that sometimes I think that I could not have achieved what I do now without this having happened in my life. We are what we are because of what we go through. This is our life, we give our best, we manage the situations, we try to get the best out of everything. Gianluca and I became very close because we went through that terrible moment together. We shared the terrible experience of losing my father and he really stood by me and I grew up very fast over one week-end. I would  probably never have moved away to the United States, so far away from my family if not because of this. So I look at the positives. Then my son Matteo too was born with a very rare genetic disease - epidermolysis bullosa - one in every 60,000 people are born with this disease - and in the worst cases the life expectancy is ten years old; we were lucky enough not to face the worst case scenario, but at the time we did not know. We had no experience with kids at all. Before mine I had not seen kids in my life, not even in my close family. Amongst our friends we were the first ones to marry and have a child. It was difficult in the midst of my busy life and my catering company in New York. And we thought, ok, if GianMatteo is in our lives it is because we can manage! And we managed pretty well and GianMatteo today is a fantastic young man full of energy and no one could guess what he has or what he is facing day by day, because he is managing this very well. So that was an other proof that we could manage. And I know that there will be other tough moments in our lives but that we will overcome. In some way god helps you. You do not how much you can do up until your a facing a challenge and you need to face it. You do not know how to swim, you are in the open sea, you fall in the water, and once you fall into the sea you need to swim and you discover that you can swim. This happens, it happens in everyone’s lives. I consider myself lucky even very lucky, I am grateful for my family, my husband, my work, but I think that luck is something that you build every day buy seizing the right opportunities, making the righ choices, being honest, loyal, making the right decisions. Little by little luck arrives

DAVID: I was going to ask you what qualities you value in your friends. We met a few of your friends who value this friendship very much.

 

'I APPRECIATE LOYALTY, PEOPLE WHO ARE SIMPLE, DIRECT, LOYAL, AND LOOK UP TO THE REAL,

SIMPLE VALUES LIKE FAMILY, HONESTY, HARD WORK, SACRIFICE, SINCERITY'.

 

SEGUSO: I appreciate loyalty, people who are simple, direct, loyal, and look up to the real, simple values like family, honesty, hard work, sacrifice, sincerity. People that I get along with have very simple lives. I work with some famous and wealthy people yet my close circle of friends with whom I spend the little free time that I have are still the friends that I had when I was at elementary school. They are my best friends. My best friend is Valeria with whom I was in high school. I do not care about glamour, or about people’s careers or who their friends are. I look inside their hearts and really this is all I care about. For me my family are the people with whom I work. I have managed to create my work space here so as to stay close to my family. In New York the office was sixty blocks away from my home and I had GianMatteo my first child and it was very difficult to manage both. I remember that I was carrying this baby GianMatteo to my events just a week after he was born! Then I had to keep him inside a clean and safe environment because of his condition and so I was split in two, because I had to work and I was used to working fifteen hours a day but Matteo required my attention and care more and more every day, he needed medication every four or five hours. So I was going back and forth with a great baby sitter, but Gianluca also had to travel for work. This kid did not ask to come to life and I had to really care about him.

DAVID: Did this situation make you feel guilty?

SEGUSO: Yes, I felt a lot of guilt, towards my business partner, towards my clients and towards my kid. For my clients, because they place a lot of faith in you, their lives become your life, you have no time for personal excuses. Everything I needed to do I felt was to the detriment of someone. So at a certain point I was pregnant with my second child Allegra, and I realized that I could not go on living like this and feel always guilty. So I decided that I had to step back from the company and without also damaging my company. This is why I came back to Italy - temporarily I thought - with the intention to raise my kids for a while and later go back to the United-States. Then my US partner started calling me to organize things here and I realized how easier it had become, since everything here had been built around my family. My house, my office, my own kitchen, the hospitaliy in my own villa. In New York we used to be managing up to six or ten events a day, here I was easily able to manage up to six events a month and I was able to enjoy my life as an event planner and caterer! [laughs]. Sharing my space with all my employees is very special, they come in my life every day and leave in the evening. I chose them all because they have a good heart, I like them being around me in my private space, and so they are my friends as well. We respect each other, they respect me, we have a very informal relationship, they love my kids and the crazy life that we lead every day! [laughs]. I have found a balance that I could never have dreamed of in New York, I manage to make everyone happy without feeling guilty anymore! [laughs].

I am really lucky to be working with fantastic people who love my family!

DAVID: What I see are good things happening to you because of some of your character’s traits. The importance you grant to friendship and loyalty for instance. I find extraordinary that a business partner and a company you left in New York would still reach out to you afterwards to keep working with you, that is truly quite extraordinary. Then your gratitude towards life.

SEGUSO: Yes! [smiles]. Absolutely. Sometimes there are bad things that depending on how you manage can turn into very good things. Had I stayed in New York with the frantic life I was living it would never have been possible to bring Nicolo and Jacopo to the world! So sometimes life take tortuous ways but still lead you to a good place [smiles]

DAVID: We are always interested in spirituality. Clearly you believe in god. After all these years here on planet earth, what do you think is the meaning of life, have you forged a personal opinion on the reason why we are here? I know this is a very open and wide question that many people do not have a response to! [smile]

 

'I THINK THAT WE ALL HAVE OUR CARDS TO PLAY BUT THEN AGAIN,

YOU CAN GET LOST IN LIFE, OR YOU CAN PLAY YOUR CARDS'

 

SEGUSO: I think that we are left very free to act. We are given a chance. We arrive in life. There is a point of beginning and one where life ends - probably that are fixed, that are not in our hands, yet I dont think that there is any predestination for all that happens in the middle. You see incredible stories of people born in very miserable conditions and who achieve great, great things. So I think that we all have our cards to play but then again, you can get lost in life, or you can play your cards. I think that anyone can have a great mission and do something good. At least in their little garden. If each and every single one of us does something good in our little communities or just in our families, with our nighbours, colleagues, if everyone thrives to be a good person, there will already be a huge wave of change don’t you think? If we all take good care first of our own little garden and include our immediate neighbours into it. Just look around you, there is no need to be a saint or a missionary [laughs], if we simply look around us more and first over our own little garden we can all immediately make a huge difference!

DAVID: It would make a nice motto, ‘Look Around’ [smiles]

SEGUSO: Yes. I wish I had more time to do it more. I grew up in a family where my father was good friend with all the people who worked for him. I remember that he was always bringing home even the problems of his employees, asking himself what he could do to help them. I remember a person called Pepino whose family was very poor and my father was always trying to help him. I also remember another employee who had had a very bad bike accident and went into a coma for a long time. My father was going to visit him every single day, and we were all praying together for him, and at a certain point he woke up. Even though he was no longer able to work, my father brought him back into the company, not with the same responsibilities but he was coming every day to work and my father was paying him the same salary so that man would keep his dignity feeling useful. See, just in our own little circle how we can make a difference in the life of a lot of people. And hopefully the people who receive will also learn to give to others - not expecting anything in return. It can become a virtuous cycle.

DAVID: You are very right. Mostly the default mode is indifference. The first step towards a nicer world is the contribution you can bring to these people, strangers at times, starting with all those you meet throughout your day.

SEGUSO: Yes that would be a great starting point! What my father and mother taught me I am trying to pass it on to my kids. And I know that Gianluca my husband does the same, as he does with his employees. We care. They are all human beings with their own problems. We care about the people around us. [Smiles]

DAVID: We saw that. [smiles] Thank you Marika.

SEGUSO: Thank you!

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