This article initially appeared on Advocate.com. Read the original here.
Chef Gabriele Bertaccini inspired millions and took a huge swipe at stigma when he recently disclosed his HIV-positive status on the first episode of wedding reality series Say I Do. But before he won audiences over with his authenticity and charm on the popular Netflix series, Bertaccini was busy traveling the world, studying his craft, and eventually launching successful catering and event planning businesses.
Born in Florence, Italy, Bertaccini trained at the Buontalenti Institute of Culinary Arts and Management and worked in restaurants across Italy before relocating to the U.S. He first spent time in Arizona, where he earned degrees in journalism and public relations from Arizona State University. In 2008, he started his first catering business, iL Tocco Food. Known for its authentic, multicourse Italian-style meals, iL Tocco has enjoyed enormous success across the American Southwest.
Still, when the conversation returns to “Firenze” (Florence in Italian), it’s apparent that Bertaccini still holds his homeland close to his heart.
“It’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” he says, admitting he didn’t fully appreciate it as a boy. “It’s only really when I left [at 19 to study abroad]…that I really felt it in the heart. I was like, Oh, my God, I’m missing it so much. Why?”
“I realized how magical that place is, how it’s basically an open-air museum that’s inspiring everywhere you look,” Bertaccini continues. “It could be a corner of a street or…an older grandmother peeking through the window. It could be the smell, the sound of the church bells going off every 30 minutes. Every little thing that you hear, you taste, and you smell, it’s part of that magic. It’s a movie that happens every single day.… I try to go back as much as I can.”
Still, coming to the U.S. had always been his goal.
“I always had this American dream in mind,” Bertaccini says. “I grew up with a father who was very supportive of that — my family, my mom too — but my father especially. One of his earlier dreams as a teenager was to live in America, come here and immigrate, and he couldn’t do it because…his father died in the war, so he had to take care of the family.… He didn’t have the funds to come…. I think he lived his own dream in me. It felt [like] such an even greater gift to be able not only to live this for myself, but also to live this for him. It was very beautiful.”
Before the pandemic, Bertaccini split his time globetrotting between Arizona, New York, California, London, and Italy, but when The Advocate caught up with him, he was sheltering in place in the Los Angeles area. The self-described “doggy daddy” and avid surfer said he had big plans to catch some waves later that day.
“I’m lucky. I’m fortunate that I live in Venice, right on the ocean, on the sand. I’m looking out as I’m speaking to you, a nd the waves look quite beautiful…. I’m a master in doing a little bit of everything,” Bertaccini says of his very Italian way of life. “So I’ll jump in the ocean, then come back to a little bit of work, then take a little nap. It’s the yin and the yang.”
The fact that he holds to this philosophy is no accident. Bertaccini says he works to stay conscious of this balance and not get sucked into the Western workaholic way of life — which can be especially challenging, he says, in the entertainment industry.
“It’s actually important to take mini-retirements in your life. It’s a little bit of everything. In Italy, we do that often. You do a month and a half of vacation every year,” he says.
Say I Do is a feel-good show from the creators of Queer Eye that helps a diverse array of couples create their ideal wedding experience. Bertaccini, interior design expert Jeremiah Brent, and fashion designer Thai Nguyen oversee inspirational ceremonies that are less about showing off and more about celebrating love, friendship, community, and commitment. Bertaccini admits that before signing on to the series, he didn’t have big plans to join the ranks of celebrity TV chefs — but doing this project just felt right.
“I had the chance of doing TV before,” he says. “It was never really a fit for…my philosophy in food and wine, or what I do in life and what I think about life…. It felt very disingenuous, anyway, not authentic…. And then, Say I Do came along and it felt right…. If I can use my skills of being a crazy chef through something like that — and help other people to not only really enjoy a beautiful meal but understand a little bit more about what makes life precious, then why not? It was a beautiful project.”
As for what his future holds in this uncertain world, Bertaccini remains characteristically optimistic, despite challenging times.
“I try to live in the present as much as I can,” he says. “I think it’s very easy, especially in the Western world, always to achieve something and then be like, All right, moving on. What’s the next thing? And not be even able to savor it. It’s like if I gave you a beautiful plate of pasta that you have been craving all your life. Now you’re like, OK…what’s the main course? What’s next? I’m trying to enjoy this as much as I can and pay respect to the process and to the people that really work hard behind [Say I Do].”
After further reflection, Bertaccini concludes, “Hopefully, [the future] will hold amazing food! Hopefully, it will hold the ability to create spaces all around the world for people to come together and not only experience amazing food and wines, but just basking in the beauty of life and the understanding that there is so much more than just working, working, working all the time — that we should fall down sometimes, and we should just really connect on a deeper level.”