T Magazine: Villa Lena

While many Parisians travel to Tuscany in August to enjoy their requisite monthlong holiday, chef Guillaume Rouxel, the former head chef at Inaki Aizpitarte’s smart 11th Arrondissement bistro Le Dauphin, has packed up his cooking knives and traveled to Italy to work. Rouxel has taken on a chef residency at the hip hotel and artist retreat Villa Lena, a sprawling 500-hectare estate perched high up in the hills, just a 50-minute drive from Pisa.

The hotel — opened in 2013 by Lena Evstafieva, the former head of exhibitions for the Moscow art gallery Garage, and her husband Jerome Hadey, a musician — is popular among young families, fashion types and artists, who stay in spare, apartment-style abodes dotted about the grounds. And in the summer, artists fill the 10 bedrooms of the central Villa, an impressive neoclassical building.

Since its opening, the likes of Lola Schnabel, the musician Devendra Banhart, the painter Sam Falls and the photographer Mark Borthwick have passed through, leaving their mark on the hotel in some way. Residents create artworks, furniture or pottery for the guest rooms, or assist with the guest programming. Last week, there were drawing classes for kids with the artist Claudio Cassano and meditation sessions with a visiting yogi.

The chef residency program, introduced this season, extends this community spirit further and embraces the authentic Italian version of farm-to-table eating. Villa Lena produces its own organic wines and olive oil annually, from the 15,000 olive trees on the property, and grows two expansive organic vegetable gardens. Six nights a week, Rouxel develops a three-course menu for hotel guests and artists (he has Sundays off, and the hotel recruits a local chef for pizza night).

“This is every chef’s dream: to be able to walk just a few meters for their produce. It’s such a luxury. I’m also always thinking about health benefits and the idea of eating produce that is still living makes a lot of sense,” he says while perusing one of the kitchen gardens — a world away from the bustling Parisian kitchens he used to preside over.

In preparation for his new post, Rouxel has been exploring the region in search of local suppliers, and is very impressed with his findings: “Agriturismo in Italy is very interesting,” he says of the farm-to-table way. “Here, most of the farms are biodynamic and you can stay on the place and they will cook for you. In France, we still have a long way to go.”

While his focus is on using only local products, he hasn’t abandoned his French repertoire altogether. “We do pasta and risotto, of course, because people come here to eat Italian food, but I’ll keep a bit of French on the menu for inspiration.” A recent menu featured a main course of homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli with a sage butter sauce, followed by a creamy chocolate ganache for dessert.

Come fall, white truffles found on the property — a well-known specialty of the area — will be a menu highlight. “I cooked with truffles from Villa Lena last year at Le Dauphin,” says Rouxel, who’ll be hosting cooking classes and cooking a truffle-infused degustation menu at the villa once the season officially starts. For now he’s focused on the star produce of the high summer season, and here he shares his recipe for a refreshing summer salad. “It’s a starter, not a dessert, and I like how refreshing this is on a hot summer day,” he says. While strawberry season officially starts in May, the ever-bearing variety will produce fruit a second time around August. “I think they’re even juicier and more flavorsome now,” says Rouxel.

Strawberries and Ricotta Summer Salad

Yield: 6 servings

3 new onions, finely diced
Olive oil
11 ounces of ricotta
12 red strawberries, cut in four pieces lengthwise
6 white (unripe) strawberries, sliced finely with a mandolin1 tablespoon of purslane leaves
1 tablespoon of oxalis leaves
1 tablespoon of lemon thyme leaves
1 pinch of Maldon salt
1 pinch of pepper
Aged balsamic vinegar

1. Lightly caramelize the onions in a pan using olive oil.

2. To assemble the dish, spoon the ricotta into the center of the plate and add the red and white strawberries on top.

3. Garnish with the herbs, and season with the salt and pepper. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.

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