Never forget your roots — Many people think that they have to choose between one country or another when they immigrate. I am proud to have one foot firmly planted in both the US and Italy, and I am fortunate to be a citizen of both. My Italian roots gave me the qualities needed to succeed in this country, while the United States gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in Italy, so I am grateful to both.
As part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luigi Diotaiuti.
Award-winning Chef/Restaurateur Luigi Diotaiuti was dubbed “The Ambassador of Italian Cuisine” by the Federation of Italian Cooks in Florence, Italy in 2018. The owner of Washington DC’s Al Tiramisu (named one of “the 50 Top Italian Restaurants in the World 2019” by www.50topItaly.it) has been a celebrity favorite for decades. The certified Sommelier and television personality is also known for promoting culinary traditions on the verge of extinction in the United States, Italy, and around the globe. Born, raised, and educated in Basilicata, Italy, Chef Luigi trained at some of the world’s most prestigious locations before opening Washington DC’s “most authentic” Italian restaurant twenty-four years ago. His current culinary pursuits and consistent media presence in the United States and Italy enable him to enjoy notability and distinction in both countries. In 2017, he was named “Ambassador of Basilicata’s Cuisine in the World” by The Federation of Italian Cooks. Chef Luigi received the “La Toque” award by The National Area Concierge Association at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC in 2018.
Born on a farm near Lagonegro, Basilicata, Chef Luigi’s farm to table roots created the foundation for his current culinary philosophy. He is a distinguished alumnus at the culinary school in Maratea, where he often returns as a keynote speaker. Chef Luigi’s formal training includes working in renowned restaurants such as the Hotel Georges V in Paris, the Grand Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, Il Gourmet restaurant and Hotel Bellavista in Montecatini, Tuscany and Costa Smeralda and Forte Village in Sardinia. He opened Al Tiramisu restaurant in 1996, and was awarded the coveted Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, the seal of approval by the President of Italy as well as Gambero Rosso’s Top Italian Restaurants 2018 award, and Slow Food DC’s Snail of Approval award.
Chef Luigi is a member of the American Chefs Corps Network through the U.S. Department of State where he led culinary activities and attended programs at the Milan Expo on behalf of both the American Chefs Corps and on behalf of his native region of Basilicata. When he is not cooking for celebrities like Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Secretary of State John Kerry, and actor George Clooney, Chef Luigi makes frequent appearances on US and Italian television and has been featured in countless print media articles. Chef Luigi is a member of The James Beard Foundation, The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, Slow Food DC, The International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Culinary Historians of Washington, The Federation of Italian Cooks, and is affiliated with the National Concierge Association and Ciao Italia.
Holding dual citizenship, Chef Luigi is passionate about giving back to both communities which he considers home. He founded a non-profit organization called Basilicata: A Way of Living to maintain the local traditions of the region while creating jobs and tourism. A few years ago, he also founded Pasta Lab, an event which pairs professional chefs with female home cooks to uphold the artisan pasta making traditions of the past. In DC, Chef Luigi teaches the students in the culinary program at DC Central Kitchen to make the same time-honored recipes — creating a culinary bridge between the two cultures. He also spends the little free time he has attending and conducting demonstrations at farmer’s markets, participating in culinary competitions, hosting benefit events, and cooking with local school children.
Chef Luigi filmed a demo for a television series with Chef Amy Riolo. The duo also created a video documentary entitled The Beauty of Basilicata at the James Beard Foundation in honor of the dinner he served there in 2013. They led a culinary cruise from Istanbul to Athens on Oceania Cruises in 2014, and wrote Chef Luigi’s first cookbook, The Al Tiramisu Restaurant Cookbook: An Elevated Approach to Authentic Italian Cuisine (December 2013). Dubbed “The Next Big Thing in the Culinary World” by Elle Spain, they also create many successful culinary diplomacy events, cooking classes, and events together.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born on a farm near Lagonegro, in the mountains of the Southern Italian province of Basilicata, where we learned the relationship between people and food firsthand. We were practically completely self-sufficient in terms of culinary ingredients (with the exception of coffee and olive oil). I used to tend to the family’s goat herd, help my mother and father with cheese making and other activities, and help my grandmothers in the kitchen. Food production was our way of life. It was never a separate part of my existence, and it is still that way today. When I was 14, I had the opportunity to attend culinary school in the seaside resort of Maratea, and I knew from my first day of class that this was what I wanted to do. After school, my formal training includes working in renowned restaurants such as the Hotel Georges V in Paris, the Grand Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, Il Gourmet restaurant and Hotel Bellavista in Montecatini, Tuscany and Costa Smeralda and Forte Village in Sardinia.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
On the afternoon of April 1, 1990, I arrived at Washington’s National Airport, barely knowing enough English to give the cab driver the address of the Donna Adele restaurant at 21st and P Streets where I had been offered a job while working in Tuscany.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
With my suitcase in hand, I entered the restaurant and went to the maitre d’. I introduced myself as the new sous-chef and asked to speak to Miro. First he just stared at me incredulously, and then explained that Miro was out of town but that he had never mentioned hiring a sous-chef or that I would be arriving.
I had left everything dear to me — my wonderful position at Il Gourmet, friends, family, my country, and traveled to another continent for this? Is this an April Fools’ joke? I thought.
Donna Adele was owned by Corrado Bruzzo, a very wealthy man who lived on an estate in Virginia horse country. He also owned a yacht and villas in Genoa, Sardinia, and St. John. Although Bruzzo had no clue that Miro had hired me, he didn’t hold it against me. He even had his son Corradino set me up in their Virginia mansion.
Shortly after my arrival Miro reappeared briefly and then disappeared permanently. Bruzzo entrusted me with the kitchen and things improved. That began my American adventure.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
When I arrived the person who helped me was Giampiero Gastone — Maitre d’ of Donna Adele …I didn’t know the language and he understood my situation. He brought me to his house and tried to make me feel welcomed and comfortable. There was a busboy who was also named Luigi who helped me get my driver’s license, a social security card, and helped me open a bank account.
So how are things going today?
Today, looking back, I will do it all again if it is necessary. I have no regrets, and I’m glad that I came because if I was in Italy, I couldn’t have achieved this much. Here, I was able to achieve much more than I ever dreamed of. Last year, restaurant was named one of the top 50 Italian restaurants in the world. When I came here, I was able to open a restaurant which garnered international recognition. At a personal level, I was able to become the Ambassador of Italian Cuisine as well as the cuisine of my region of Basilicata to the world. I also earned several awards and recognition for the restaurant. I was a part of the State Dept’s Diplomatic Culinary Corps and was able to cook Thanksgiving dinner at the American Ambassador in Rome’s house and appear on several television shows.
It was extremely hard to establish myself, build my restaurant clientele and notoriety, but all of the difficulties that I encountered in the last thirty-one years added flavor to my life in the way that salt adds flavor to a dish.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This international fame gave me the power to go back to Italy and start my non-profit organization called Basilicata: A Way of Living which helps to promote the region’s traditions for future generations. It also helped to gain UNESCO status for the ritual of the transumanza which is the age-old tradition of bringing cattle to cooler pastures in the mountains for the summer. In Washington, DC, I have been able to give back to the community by offering training classes to students at DC Central Kitchen based on these events. I also created #ChefLuigiCares to feed front-liners and those who need it most during the pandemic in our Nation’s Capital.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
- When someone is a good, law-abiding person who works and pays taxes, I believe they should have the right to be considered legal residents.
- I would shorten the time that it takes to process green cards because it prevents them from working, paying taxes, and giving back to the community
- I would make everyone have equal access to immigration regardless of where they come from.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Set a goal — When I first arrived I made a goal that I would have my own restaurant in 5 years, and I did. I am proud that Al Tiramisu later became named one of the Top 50 Italian Restaurants in the World.
- Educate yourself — I took as many classes as I could to study English. My strong culinary education in Italy helped me a lot. I also became a Certified Italian Sommelier and took continuing education classes as much as possible.
- Gain experience — I worked long, hard hours in restaurants before having my own so that I could become familiar with both the front and back of house as well as all of the business aspects.
- Build relationships with community members — This was an important part of my upbringing that helped my business a great deal. Believing that “we are all in it together” is the best. We all support one another. Even though my restaurant has garnered international fame, it is the patronage and support of community members that has helped us to continue going in the lean times. For this reason, I have always given back to the community in terms of volunteering, donating, and providing food and services whenever possible.
- Never forget your roots — Many people think that they have to choose between one country or another when they immigrate. I am proud to have one foot firmly planted in both the US and Italy, and I am fortunate to be a citizen of both. My Italian roots gave me the qualities needed to succeed in this country, while the United States gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in Italy, so I am grateful to both.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
After being here for 31 years, I never thought that we would live such dramatic times. January 6, 2021 was the worst day in American history — but it gave us the opportunity to unite together as a population once again.
1. Americans will unite together despite their differing viewpoints.
2. Democracy will prevail.
3. As a chef, I see a growing respect for culinary products, for independent farmers and for organic food.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Yes. Steve Case. He always celebrates his birthday at Al Tiramisu, and I never discuss anything with him because I want to respect his privacy, but I would love to have lunch with him. He is an amazing entrepreneur.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Twitter: @luigidiotaiuti @altiramisu
Facebook: @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @Basilicatawayofliving
Instagram: @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @Basilicatawayofliving
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you very much for the opportunity.