Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Gaetano Cannata, Sicilian Chef, Tells His Story

The 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico believed that as a civilization progressed, it lost touch with its creative origins. An ancient warrior would never declare “I’m angry”; he would wax metaphorically with “my blood boils.” I say this for a good reason. I believe an individual cannot truly master any cuisine or art of a certain culture unless the blood of that specific culture runs through that person’s veins. Not only that, but one needs to have a deep understanding of that culture as well.

I am Chef Gaetano Cannata and I am an artist, or that’s what I am told. I am the Chef and founder of Ortygia, a French-Sicilian fusion restaurant on the Gulf Coast in Bradenton, Florida.

I was raised up in a Sicilian family in New Jersey and after many years as an early childhood educator, I launched my own restaurant 10 years ago at age 50.

When you come from a typical Sicilian family, your whole life revolves around food. At breakfast, you're talking about what to have for dinner and at dinner, you're talking about dinner two days from then. My home is where I learned to love and respect food. The beginning of my journey started with my first meal.  Afterwards, I worked in restaurants with some really great chefs and not so great chefs and I learned from each one.”

I started working in kitchens when I was 14 years old, as I’ve always had a fascination with food and cooking. My father was a Sicilian-born chef and my mother learned all her fantastic cooking techniques from him and from her mother who was from the Abruzzi region of Italy. I would have to say that my passion for food started at home. I learned at a very early age to either grow your own food or to purchase it as fresh and local as possible. The only thing that came out of a can at my house were imported San Marzano tomatoes!  Food was always the major topic of conversation in my home. Where to buy it, how fresh it was and how to prepare it.  Most of my professional training came from a small chef-owned restaurant in my neighborhood, similar to the restaurant I now have. Most of these masters of their art were born in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal and most of them had the same food values as my parents. They all bought their food from the local farmers, fisherman, butchers, and bakers. I used to love to shop with them. The knowledge I gained from them was indispensable, but my love of food and cuisine, as well as the deep respect that I have for food, again was a gift given to me by my parents.

I pride myself on providing a unique dining experience.  We don’t just cook here, we create and build relationships. Ortygia is a warm and friendly place. I enjoy playing harmonica and I occasionally play with the musicians who perform here. Also, I endeavor to come out of the kitchen and check on every table when possible, and at times when the night is through, I may spend hours talking with clients about Sicilian food and culture, which is my passion.

I’ve been in the restaurant industry almost all my life, however, Ortygia is my first venture out on my own.  It’s been 10 years since I first opened my doors and it’s been a thrilling adventure, to say the least.

I can’t begin to express all the things I love about this business. I love the creative, artistic outlet it gives me, it allows me to expose people to a plethora of new tastes, and it also provides me the privilege of cultivating new friendships. To be a successful artist in this field, I believe I must set myself apart from other restaurants in the area. The first and most basic feature that does this is the cuisine. It is a forgotten cuisine that emerged out of Sicily and Naples over 200 years ago called the cuisine of the Monzu. It is a fusion of French and Sicilian cooking, which allows me poetic license, which inspires my creativity. One other thing that sets Ortygia apart is the atmosphere we create. When customers come for dinner they arrive as clients and leave as friends. I am told again and again by my clientele that they come to Ortygia not only for the food but also for the experience. 

You need to have passion and love for what you do. If you don’t believe in what you do, neither will anyone else. Shop fresh, locally, and wisely. Treat your clients as if no one else is as important as them, and treat your employees with the respect they deserve. This is something that can’t be feigned. You truly need to believe it and feel it.  My tagline, “The flavor of Sicily—The flavor of Civilization.” It’s a statement of what coming to the table is all about—being civilized.

My food is my art, although I may not have understood it that way at first. I was just a guy who loved to cook for my friends and family just for fun and for the love of it.  I was giving them a culinary, cultural, musical, and familiar experience without even realizing it. I was giving them my heart.

I succeeded against all odds. I opened as an unknown, in an economically-challenged neighborhood which has now grown into one of the largest artist communities in Florida. Ortygia has become a 4 1/2-star culinary destination. Based on this and other factors, and now in our 10th year of business, we are planning our 6th culinary tour through Sicily, expanding our cooking classes and I continue writing articles in various newspapers and periodicals educating the public on Sicilian food and culture. This is because I never gave up on my passion and followed my dream.

This is Week 43 of Artists Tell Their Stories. Thank you for reading and sharing Guy’s story today. To connect with him, please visit the following links:

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