Top Chef, Old Master

Michelle Legro

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They called him “fat boy,” this seventeen-year old apprentice in the studio of Florentine painter Verrocchio who would receive care packages from his step-father, a pastry chef. The bastard son of a Florentine notary and a lady of Vinci, the boy’s doting step-father gave him a taste for marzipans and sugars from a very young age. The apprentice would receive the packages and devour them so quickly—crapulando, it was called, or guzzling—that the master felt the need to punish him, instructing the boy to paint an angel in the corner of a baptism of Christ, a mediocre painting which hangs in the Uffizi because it includes the first work of Leonardo da Vinci.

After three years as an apprentice, twenty-year old Leonardo took a job as a cook at the Tavern of the Three Snails near the Ponte Vecchio, working during the day on the few commissions his master sent his way and slinging polenta in the evenings. Polenta was the restaurant’s signature dish, a tasteless hash of meats and corn porridge. The other cooks at the Three Snails cared little about the quality of the food they served, and when in the spring of 1473, a poisoning sickened and killed the majority of the cooking staff of the tavern, Leonardo was put in charge of the kitchen. He changed the menu completely, serving up delicate portions of carved polenta arranged beautifully on the plate. However, like most tavern clientele, the patrons preferred their meals in huge messy portions. Upset with the change in management, they ran Leonardo out of a job.

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He should not place his head upon his plate to eat.
Neither should he sit beneath the table for any length of time.
He should not place unpleasing or half-chewed pieces of his own food upon his neighbor’s plate without first asking him.
He should not wipe his knife upon his neighbor’s clothing.
Nor use his knife to carve upon the table…
He should not set loose birds upon the table.
Not snakes nor beetles…
And if he is to vomit then he leaves the table.
Likewise if he is to urinate.

 

If there is an assassination planned for the meal, then it is seemliest that the assassin should be seated next to he who is to become the subject of his craft…as this will cause less interruption to the conversation if the action of the event is confined to one small area…After the corpse (and bloodstains if any) are removed by the serving persons, it is customary for the assassin also to withdraw from the table as this presence may sometimes be disturbing to the digestions of the persons who now find themselves seated next to him, and to this end a good host will always have a fresh guest, who has waited without, ready to join the table at this juncture.

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