The Art of Deep Respect: From Nature to the fine dining table

Marco Invernizzi reveals to us the value of being respectful of nature and the environment and how, in light of his experience as bonsai master, he applies that principle to the gourmet world.

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Bonsai Trees represent a deep respect of nature and of life. As a Bonsai Master, Marco has learned the art of creating realistic representations of nature in the form of the miniature Bonsai tree. For him, the pleasure of dining is entwined with a mindset that is respectful of nature, one which he has learned as a Bonsai Master. Here, he shares with us the parallels of these two worlds.

You are known as a global diner and a bonsai master. Which passion came first?

I started in bonsai when I was fifteen years old. I remember I was watching TV right next to my mother. In Karate Kid 3, there was a scene where Miyagi Sensei explains to his pupil, Daniel San, that the sense of life can be explained through the life of a bonsai. And I don’t know what happened but, in that moment, it was like a bullet stuck in my head and I said: “This is what I want to do in my life.”

I fell in love with bonsai because I realised that it is not just an art form, but it is an art form that uses time as a tool. A bonsai artist has four dimensions: the three dimensions of culture, plus time. And what I love about gastronomy is that chefs use four dimensions too: they use time. The timing of when they pick up an ingredient, how long they cook it for, or when they serve the dish they’ve made; it’s very important, is essential.

Let’s return to Milan, when you were fifteen years old and falling in love with bonsai: How did you start on your path to become a bonsai master?

I started as a hobbyist; I enrolled in a course held by a guy that then became my Italian bonsai master. I studied with him for five years. In the mean time, I finished high school and then enrolled in the design academy. I finished it pretty fast. I squeezed a four year course into three. I wanted to finish as soon as possible in order to get, year by year, closer to my dream that was to move to Japan and study with the best bonsai master.

As soon as I got my degree I moved to Japan and knocked at the door of this guy who was known to be the Ferran Adrià of bonsai. Even though at the beginning he was very reluctant to accept me, because I was his first non-Japanese disciple, I eventually got in and I spent four years of my life there (from ‘97-01). After ten years of study (though I never truly stop studying), I became a Master myself and came back to Europe to start working.

You were twenty-one years old and didn’t speak Japanese. How did you approach your teacher?

My Italian bonsai master knew him and wrote him a little letter and asked him to receive me.

I think in any relation between humans, whatever is your first step, it’s how you carry on that matters. It’s the same in bonsai: we can start making trees in a very beautiful way with a lot of love and passion, but you have to be very consistent. And the same thing in a kitchen. It doesn’t matter how good your first dish is, you have to deliver all the way to the dessert... and after.

How were the first years of being a bonsai student? How did you adapt to that new way of life?

It took a long, long time to adapt because there isn’t anything more incongruous than a Japanese old master working with a young Italian, especially back in the ‘90’s!

I think the common thread was passion.

I was really passionate and he was God to me! So whatever effort I had to make to impress him and to convince him, I did it. For me, it was much easier at the beginning than it was at the end, because at the end I had the responsibility of carrying on a lot of the work. No excuses. In the first year I didn’t know anything, so I made a lot of mistakes and I had the right to make excuses, but at the end you have no more excuses...

What is a typical day like in the life of a bonsai disciple?

You get in the place at 8 in the morning and you start cleaning. You clean absolutely everything and it takes probably an hour and a half. Then the master comes to the garden and tells you the task of the day, unless he has briefed you the day before. Everything has to be done as quickly as possible. There is no room for mistakes because the trees are alive. Every tree is extremely important and the master also works on trees that belong to other masters or other clients.

You work all the way till noon, take an hour break, work from 1 until 7 and here’s the trick: you have a break and then at 20:30 you go back to the garden and work till 23:00-00:00.

You do this every day, for at least 30 days a month; maybe, if you’re lucky, you have one day off a month.

It’s not that you have to work absolutely flat out, every single minute, but you always have to be there. You have to really put in the hours. Taking care of a living creature requires your full attention, all the time. My master wanted us to be there as long as possible; we really didn’t have any other life.

The same as a chef ?

Yes, there are a lot of things we have in common!

It’s very important to learn, to pace yourself. Whatever commitment you have towards your art form, it’s going to be a long term one and you are there for life. And also the master will never teach you. You have to learn, because you have to steal with your eyes, with your passion, with your sensibility. Whatever technique you witness, you have to be ready to learn. Very often, you’ve got to start to think ahead of your master; you know that, at any given time, you are going to need that tool, or need to know how to make that step. You need to have everything ready to serve him.

A bonsai master is not called Sensei, he is called Oyakata. Oyakata means ‘The one that carries you on his shoulder.’ So he takes responsibility to make you, first, a man or a woman and, secondly, a bonsai master. Unless he’s able to make you a good man, he won’t be able to make you a good bonsai master. That’s how it works.

Who recognises you as a Bonsai Master?

The community.

I am the only non-Japanese person to be member of the Japanese bonsai Professional Association, and it was very difficult to get me in.

Of course you have to prove yourself, not only in Italy, but all over the world, particularly in Japan. I’ve been working with many Japanese bonsai masters for the last twenty years and they know what kind of work I do. I established relations with a lot of them, bought trees and performed in front of them. Some of these masters travel the world and they recognise my work, or visit the collections of my customers. The trees that I created won a lot of awards and this has also been a way for me to get recognised.

Your dream was to become a bonsai master. What’s your dream now?

On one hand, it’s important to carry on the work I’ve done for my customers. Trees can always go to the bad, so it’s very important to maintain and improve the trees. At the same time, I’m trying to bring bonsai outside this small, enclosed world.

And that’s why I’m always intrigued when someone comes from another field – it could be gastronomy, it could be movies, it could be any form of art. When they become interested in bonsai, it shows what we do to a wider audience.

Now that I have established myself as a bonsai master with a great career and people knows me around the world, I want to push this a little further. I want to get more people involved.

So let’s talk about your other passion: gastronomy. How did this come about?

More than 10 years ago I was talking to a Mexican friend, he said that his father, a man with a long vision, told them one day: we’re gonna move to Paris, you guys need to learn how to eat.

So he moved the entire family and the entire business for one year. And when the kids were there and started eating around they realised what he was talking about.

So I thought, You know what: I’ve been travelling around the world and of course I ate in a lot of restaurants but I never truly thought about what I was eating and what was happening around me.

More than ten years ago I’ve been travelling around the world and of course I ate in a lot of restaurants but I never truly thought about what I was eating and what was happening around me.

One day I followed the advice of my friend who named Paris as a city where “You will learn how to eat” , so there I have started, from the bottom like easy bistros, to the fine fine dining establishments.

Often I was alone. When visiting a new place, I always got informed about the restaurant before.

I’m very curious and I admire chefs and people working in the restaurants, I never heisted talking to them, asking questions.

In particular I was attracted by the porcelain pots used in fine dining restaurants, because these pots were very similar to the bonsai ones.

Gradually I became part of the community, I started to travel more, return to places and became a regular guest. Most of all, my was developing palate. It’s like a muscle, the more you eat, the more you define your palate and so you learn.

It’s so incredible how this hunger for learning grows bigger and bigger every day. I can do 150 restaurants a year, but still I get butterflies in my stomach when I sit down and I open a menu, even when I book a restaurant and read everything about the it.

This is good sometimes because you get a good idea of what to order and some time this is terrible because whatever expectations you might have, they get broken down by reality. So I entered the community, it’s not that big of a community, and people started to ask my opinion about one restaurant or another and I got from there.

And then you started writing about restaurants

I did write about restaurants at one point, because I didn’t find many interesting reviews, except from the food critic Ruth Reichl, I’ve read all her books. The reason why I like her so much is that she can describe the emotion of being in a certain environment and interactions with humans, what kind of memories they left on her, instead of describing just the ingredients that most people that read the review have no idea about and that would never cook the recipe. Ruth Reichl was famous because the people that were reading her reviews were not the people who were going to the restaurants. It’s like reading someone telling you a tale, a story. So I wrote few reviews but I crashed my interpretations of what a good reviews should be in front of certain magazines.

So I left that behind me, now I’m just focused on exchanging opinions with people and most of all on learning.

How is it like to visit 150 restaurants a year?

Well, it changes your life in a way that every other time that you feed yourself you have to keep in mind that at one point of the week you get your maximum amount of calories so I started skipping a lot of other meals which proved to be good but I think it’s extremely important to keep the muscle of palate always trained and at the beginning I was just going everywhere, now I read and prepare myself more, so I go and eat in certain restaurants when social media feeds or information I gather tell me that that chef has changed dramatically a certain menu or that other chef, for one reason or another, is under the spotlight or there is a new restaurant open.

So it’s a mission, it almost became like a job.

But the good thing is that there are more and more people involved in restaurants, so now I’m the kind of guy that books for a large group, I bring friends along, I’m like a host and I like that, people might go to the same restaurants by themselves.

Many chefs became your clients. How did it happen?

It’s not everyday you meet a bonsai master. When they ask me what I do for living I say I’m a bonsai master. So instead of me asking questions to them, it’s totally viceversa. Last time I was sitting next to a pastry chef, we barely talked about food, but about the bonsai.

So at one point they say: I want a bonsai! And I say: ok! Tell me about you, tell me what you like. Tell me where you want to put it, tell me why you want a bonsai.

I’m a match maker. I wanna read the personality and find the best bonsai for them.

And then of course there are some people that prefer a little bonsai, other that wanna have a big piece.

Who is the chef who has a big piece?

Mimmo di Costanzo from Danì Maison in Ischia, which is a great restaurant, has a garden that is a mix of Alice in Wonderland and a Japanese Garden, he has a beautiful bonsai olive. And now for his daughter’s birth asked me another bonsai olive to celebrate her.

Than I created a tree that is right here and it’s called Mugo Norbert because it’s a mugo pine that I created thinking about Norbert Niederkofler, who I admire the most. It’s been published in many magazines around the world. The tree is here but it’s his tree.

Recently I was talking with Davide Oldani, he has a big elm in front of his restaurant and all chair and tables of his restaurant are made of elm wood and now we are trying to prune this big tree and make it a little bit more bonsai.

So I’m really trying to help these chefs to bring their vision to reality.

Is there a signature style of a bonsai master, something that proves that a certain tree belongs to you?

I believe that the school which I belong to is quite recognisable, but at the bottom line when you look at the tree you want the hand of a bonsai master to get lost, you just want to be taken by the beauty of the tree and you don’t wanna recognise the style of a guy so much because the ultimate point of the bonsai art is to create a tree that looks like the ancient tree.

So Nature is what we aspire to copy. I don’t want my trees to look like Marco’s trees, I want my trees to look very natural.

So there’s no ego involved.

There is a lot of ego involved, every time someone puts a lot of heart and soul in their art, but I believe it’s easier in the gastronomy world to put your signature in a dish. There is a lot of dishes that you can recognise not only by the ingredients, by the way they are plated, also by the vessels. Like for example Dabiz at Diverxo or Eneko at Azurmendi, you see a picture of the menu and you recognize it all the way. But in bonsai it’s a little less, I cannot use an orange part in a pine just to make people feel that they’re looking at a Marco’s tree because it would be too much.

As a global diner can you share some tricks on how to enter the most exclusive restaurants or tips on how to visit so many restaurants, some advice on the gastronomy world.

What really cares when someone wants to learn more about gastronomy, is simply commit to it.No matter everybody’s finances, no matter where they live, the idea is to say: Ok, I have this budget for every week or every month.

Now there is no excuse for arriving in a restaurant knowing nothing about it, so first of all you get you Michelin online guide and start from the bottom, with the best bistro or the best one star, and you read about each restaurant and try to figure out what suits you best.
When you arrive there and you show you’re very knowledgeable and you made your homework a lot of chefs, if you ask for an extra dish and they understand you brought there your heart, probably you’ll get it for free.

Even if you don’t drink any wine or you got two glasses of an expensive wine they will be happy to cook for you and to make you happy

When they come to the table, be extremely polite, one thing that nobody does, when a chef come to my table I stand up all the time, I am at their house.

Be extremely kind, look into their eyes, introduce yourself, try to make their life as easy as possible, that’s extremely important.

That’s why I recommend everybody to go themselves, so first of all they are very focused only on you and you can be focused only on them and the food.

The other at the end of a meal, when you really appreciate a dish, say so, because most times they would go back to the kitchen and express your good feelings and your gratitude to the chef.

I’ve been in kitchens where this kind of notes came in and they said oh Yes!, that’s great!

What if the dish was not good?

Only if the dish is totally unhealthy to eat, you say: there’s is something wrong with this ingredient, might be my mistake, would you mind inspecting it and if I’m wrong I’ll be happy to pay for an extra dish, if I’m right I’ll get you do it for me again. And very often I go to the restaurant and say “I don’t get it!” But it’s me I don’t get it, maybe it’s not my cup of tea, it’s music that doesn’t sound with me. And there are restaurants that I loved the first time, didn’t really enjoy the second time, I was amazed the third time. Or maybe in the menu there are two dishes that blew my mind and other that I didn’t get.

If some is very nice to meet and I can afford it, I always leave a small tip, you shake the hands of whom has been so nice to serve you, thank you so much and looking forward to coming back to you soon.

And you remember their names or some details when you see them again?

Of course, and they are always happy.

I’m a little unusual gourmet, I don’t share my experience in the restaurants on social media, first of all because I did it much in the past, now I prefer to walk in, introduce myself and talk to them. That’s how I established relations with many chefs, people that I admire, sometimes they may make dishes that are not particularly fancy but it doesn’t matter. Some time they ask my opinion and I always say what I think it was the best and what I think it was the worst. It’s like when you pay a compliment or make a criticism about a tree, you always can point something good in it. So throughout the menu for sure there is something that is absolutely amazing or inspiring, maybe a small detail.

So in a menu with 10-12 positions where 2 or 3 dishes are absolutely wrong to your palate, for you that’s ok.

Yes. Recently I went to a 3 star restaurant, they served a dish that is very typical, very specific of their land, that I had already many times and I think that dish is included to make those who are not very familiar with that area more aware of how precious that ingredient is, but personally I had that dish many many times, for me there was no need to have it again, but because I understand what’s behind that dish, for me it’s great, it makes sense. I might not be in love with that dish but for me is ok.

Maybe there is a menu that you love and there’s just one detail that you don’t like that much, and I hate when, among gourmet, people talk about the negative first.

Considering the effort they have put to make that dish, of course there is something that is worth looking, something deserves your attention.

And then very often the company is the best ingredient. At the beginning it can be distracting so if you want to learn a lot it’s very important at the beginning to dine alone, also because the room becomes a stage, you start to look at other tables, overhear conversations, see how people react to the same dish that you had, and you follow the rhythm, it’s so interesting. I always try to sit in a corner where I can have the best view of the entire room and even when I talk with someone I always pay attention on whatever is going on, how they react to one think or another.

Where did you eat the most memorable egg ? How it was cooked ?

Second amuse-bouche at Azurmendi, you walk in the kitchen, you get greeted in Euskari, and you have this truffle egg cooked from the inside.

The egg yolk is on a spoon, with a syringe they suck up half of the egg yolk and suck in a beautiful warm emulsion with summer black truffle.

The egg is completely raw so they inject this warm sauce with black truffle and they make you wait and by the time you enjoy few other bites, basically the temperature of this truffle juice has partially cooked the egg and the film around the egg yolk is intact, so it’s almost like the chicken ate the truffle the day before and comes out with a truffled egg.

It’s so simple, so ingenious.

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