Alberto Farinelli is a lifelong pastry chef and chocolate maker; he is also the maestro of the Perugina® School of Chocolate in Umbria, Italy. He gives us here the flavor of a day of his life lived through chocolate.
My first alarm clock rings at 6:30, but it’s the second 10 minutes later that wakes me up. Like everyone else, I’m already thinking about the 100 things I need to do that day, pick 10 and start mentally ranking them in order of importance.
Breakfast is white coffee and French toast with marmalade – I try to avoid chocolate for breakfast, but, because I’m so crazy about pastry, I’m going to bake chocolate from Umbria maritozzi for my family once or twice a week, which my wife doesn’t always like because she can’t resist them and is worried about her physical condition.
I am a pastry chef 24 hours a day, even at home.
I’ve been in this business for over 40 years, a passion born of watching and helping my mother make custard as a child. When I was 17, I started working in a pastry shop, in addition to taking many specialized courses. With some colleagues, I founded the Pastry Association of Umbria about 30 years ago. We created our own private lab and once a month or so we experimented with recipes, compared notes and invited chefs to learn and keep up to date with new and current techniques. We started collaborating with Eurochocolate in Perugia where I met executives from Perugina. Over the years we have grown from small collaborations to working together, and the rest is history. I have been in Perugina for 20 years now.
I leave for the Scuola del Cioccolato Perugina around 8am and spend the morning taking care of the administration of the courses with my colleagues from the school. The school is a bit like a small business, in that there are a lot of things to manage, from shopping to paying bills.
Lunch is in the school canteen, where I go to have dinner with my colleagues and continue our conversations. We eat well, after all, we are all gourmets!
The afternoon is usually devoted to teaching classes at school. I’m the face or “maestro” of the school, so it’s important that I’m there. The school offers a variety of simple and thematic courses, from the creation of famous Baci to chocolate Christmas nativity scenes, all aimed at beginners, adults or children. Each student is given a single workstation complete with an oven and all the necessary equipment ready to complete the sweet task.
We could pass students who have never put on an apron or worked with chocolate to students of the hotel school, but regardless of the results or their ability, all students win a bag of goodies! Yesterday’s children were buzzing with the huge amount of chocolate they had put away.
It’s a great work environment because people come to have fun and create something – which means I’m always in contact with happy people. People come from all over Italy but also from all over the world, from the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia – anyone who comes to this part of Italy, comes to the city of chocolate and stays a half -day, takes a course, visits the factory and the museum. The Perugina Museum is one of the most visited corporate museums in Italy, with 80-90,000 visitors per year.
The first and most important thing to becoming a master pastry chef is a passion for the craft. If someone is already gifted, they will already have the manual dexterity to handle a piping bag and decorate in chocolate, but you can also learn. It’s very rewarding to help guys who are struggling and support them to reach their potential. If I see a youngster from the hotel school with a natural talent, I will report it to his teacher.
To work with chocolate, whether you are a beginner or a pastry chef, there are rules to respect, such as the temperature, but apart from that, it is a great malleable product and you can do a lot of things with it. When it is solid you can create sculptures, if you melt it you can create molds and shapes, which is why young people like to work with it. In Umbria more guys are doing things with chocolate. Also in pastries, chocolate used to be a niche product, now I’ve noticed that it’s becoming one of the most important products, it’s really gaining momentum. Over the years, interest has also grown in the most intense and pure chocolates. Products such as 70%, 85% or 95% Perugina Nero are increasingly popular because they allow you to play with flavor combinations, they offer different sensations from soft and delicate chocolate.
If there is no class that afternoon, we will work on developing recipes that we will publish on the Perugina website, for which we will also have to take beautiful photos. We have fun with Perugina products, such as drops, cocoa powder or Gran Blocco to create all kinds of recipes ranging from cakes to parfaits, creams, small pastries and many more. It’s not just recipe fulfillment – we experiment with the different types of cocoa we have, from sweet to extra dark, and test which variety is most appropriate in specific recipes. It can take two days to create the right set or look for the product or recipe.
Before Covid we were doing a lot of events, show cooking or conventions with clients. When I do show cooking I try to convey my passion for the product and the profession, what people say they feel. In reality, I am very lucky because I am doing my job which was my dream.
Last year, I was a guest pastry chef for an episode of ‘Bake-Off Italia’, shot in Perugia. Benedetta Parodi (the show’s host) came to visit the school and we showed her how chocolate is made. I advised candidates on how to prepare a typical dessert from Perugia, Ciaramicola, revisited by Ernest Knam (one of the show’s jurors), who added chocolate. It was a lot of fun, the team was very nice and made me feel comfortable because I’ve done a lot of TV shows and I’m always afraid that certain words will escape in dialect.
Every year many television channels visit Perugina, with a stop at the school. It is now quite regular that I have to do show cooking to play with Perugina chocolate live. I have traveled a lot with my work in the past, we have done many show cooking activities to launch new Perugina products or to show how they are born and how they can be used in pastry. These are experiences that always leave me with great satisfaction, people are fascinated to follow the technique to temper chocolate and work it. I’ve done show cooking in very original places and situations, it’s always great fun.
Dinner is at home, it’s the only time of the day when I can finally relax and sit around the table with my family and have a good dinner. My wife cooks normally, except on Sundays when I’m going to make pizzas from dough which I’m going to start in the morning. I take care of the confectionery and the wines – I’m also a sommelier. We don’t talk much because the TV is on, probably Bake-Off Italia or some other cooking show. Before, I forced them to watch baking shows, now they do it voluntarily.
I’ve been doing this job for 40 years, and yet I’ve learned that you never stop learning. You have to stay open and curious. When there is the chance to go to a fair or a show cooking with other teachers, I always go there willingly, to have the opportunity to learn from others.
We are a community of pastry chefs, but those who appear on TV are better known, I knew Ernst Knam before, and I had a panettone evening with Iginio Massaribut usually we all know each other because we go to events or fairs like SIGEF and share ideas and maybe have dinner.
Sometimes I think I could have a pastry shop or a chocolate shop, but after a few minutes I forget about it when I think about the headache of taxes, responsibilities…. I spent many years leading a team in a large pastry shop, and you have to create to sell, which is not the same as producing for pleasure. I have a lot of fun and visibility with the products now.
I go to bed happy and wake up happy to go to work because I have the chance to live my passion every day.