A truly telling biography of Suzette Gresham should take place on a table, rather than a press junket – each plate representing the long and arduous path she took on her way to the head of Acquerello. “You're only as good as your last meal,” she’s eager to remind one, never pausing to dwell on her list of accomplishments because, really, what good is last year’s Michelin star if today’s meal isn’t any good? Being a full-time mother while maintaining her reputation as one of the most respected chefs in the United States doesn’t allow much time for former glory. In the modern world of celebrity cooking, Suzette is determined to expound on the principles she remains dedicated to: professionalism at all costs, unbridled passion for quality and service, and a love for the people she serves – for whom there isn’t much she wouldn’t do.
While television has recently taught us much about the glamorous lives of America’s most talented chefs, Suzette’s journey to Acquerello seems rather unsophisticated in comparison. Food, however, is meant to look good on a plate, not on a piece of paper. She received her degrees from community college and apprenticed where she could, never relying on fancy accreditation or personal connections for her opportunities. Every achievement, every step of her career was earned the old-fashioned way – through hard work, dedication and perseverance. Her role as a woman in a male-dominated industry has made every accomplishment that much more significant. In 1980, Suzette became the first female apprentice ever to represent the U.S. in professional cooking competition, on the American Culinary Olympic Team, earning a spot with the country’s very best.
With personal pride comes humility. Suzette is proud to be what she calls “a chef’s chef,” someone who can handle the pressure and politics of the kitchen, leave the drama with the dirty dishes, and make sure each course is up to her standards. While chef Mark Pensa is busy designing the exciting new menus for Acquerello, Suzette makes sure her staff is able to skillfully replicate them. Even the most tested gladiators of the cast-iron appreciate her ability to both educate and enlighten those around her, while constantly and consistently keeping her focus on the food. Personally, Suzette holds the highest respect for those who can manage their house without the need for fear, intimidation, or ridicule. As someone with little tolerance for the aforementioned techniques, Suzette’s kitchen is a vestibule for the tenets that she preaches. Recognizing that her own understanding of cooking was nurtured by the goodwill and patience of others before her, she strives to pass on the lessons from her own experiences to those inspired by similar passions.
Suzette has accrued a multitude of praise for her cooking, but the matriculation of her assistants into their own successful endeavors provides the greatest compliment. That’s not to say, however, that Suzette’s achievements should go without mention! She is an Antonin Careme medal holder, only the second woman to earn that title since Julia Child.
She has been invited to cook at numerous food festivals, including the “Vino in Villa” in Italy, as well as to speak at the California Culinary Academy commencement ceremonies. More impressive than her long list of awards, however, is the way Acquerello patrons react to her Parmesan cheese budino, foie gras pasta, or lobster panzerotti. The eyes can ascertain her curriculum vitae, loaded with a lifetime of accomplishment, but it’s certainly not a representation of Suzette’s cuisine on the palate. Her understanding of nuance, delicacy, and how to precisely understate a dish stands in complete contrast to any pomp and circumstance or braggadocio. The simple flavors of her food simply stand for themselves.
While Suzette believes in flavor above all, she prides herself on the definability of her work. “If you close your eyes and put the fork in your mouth, you should still be able to tell what you’re eating,” she says. In the end, there are no tricks in the cuisine at Acquerello, no attempt to dazzle beyond the inherent capability of the ingredients on the plate. Much like fine wine or whisky, Suzette believes that food tastes better when you know something about it, so she strives to act as a tour guide for her cuisine. Understanding how and why the dish came together is inevitably linked to the enjoyment derived from it. Suzette’s passion for education therefore extends beyond the kitchen, into the dining room and alongside the patron, creating an experience that transcends what most consider to be fine dining. A meal at Acquerello is memorable for its quality, but perhaps more so for the communion that transpires between Suzette and her diners.
Today, Acquerello continues to be recognized as one of the finest Italian restaurants in the United States. Suzette’s passion remains undaunted. “I still listen,” she states, “and I am still gullible. My heart is still in the game and I continue to believe in the best in people.” A long career in the kitchen has yet to jade her one bit. Her commitment to her children, her patrons, and her evolving role as a top female chef has tested her endurance and her resolve time and time again. Nevertheless, Suzette continues to be inspired by food and all of its capabilities. She steadfastly believes a meal tastes better when it’s prepared by someone who truly cares about cooking it. After more than three decades in the business, Suzette Gresham still enjoys putting on a clinic, but remains perfectly happy behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. “When it comes to being a chef, is it about you or the food?” she asks, bringing into question the necessity of a self-serving biography. “For me, it’s about the food,” she replies, answering her own query. The proof is on the table, as it has been for her entire career – always simply stated and elegant.