The Santini family, owner of one of the world’s best restaurants, have decided to turn toward regenerative agriculture, in harmony with nature. A dramatic shift and an essential evolution which brings to life Relais & Châteaux’s 2022 RegenerAction campaign with Slow Food.
During the first lockdown in 2020, the Santini family, owner of Dal Pescatore, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in the small town of Runate, two hours east of Milan in Italy, witnessed, like people everywhere, deep uncertainty and fear about the future. Supply chains came to a halt. Everything stopped. But when Giovanni Santini went outside, to nature, the future direction seemed crystal clear. At the height of the pandemic, he made a bold choice about the future of his restaurant. This decision – to purchase land adjacent to the restaurant that had previously been farmed intensively, and to create an entirely regenerative farm in its place – was a moment that would profoundly change the way Giovanni Santini would run his family business and how it would source much of the food he and his team prepared in its kitchens.
Yet in some ways it was also an easy choice. It represented everything his family stood for, with even more integrity. “We wanted to create a model of truth and values,” says Giovanni, the third generation of chefs at the helm of the restaurant, which was founded in 1926 and has held three Michelin stars since 1996.
Giovanni knows better than many that the food industry is facing an ideological dead-end. Having studied Sciences and Food Technology at Cattolica University of Piacenza, he understands the broader implications of food in modern society, planetary and human health. About a third of global carbon emissions come from agriculture, and our broken food system prefers financial gains over the ethics of fixing the more fundamental issues of water, soil, carbon cycles and public health. “Food and farming are going through a very difficult phase,” he says. “In past decades the big actors in the food industry have shifted our relationship with soil, seeds and animals. In fact, they are the key to regenerative farming.” Restaurants must “wake up” to how they can contribute, he says – suggesting they must begin taking responsibility for their own supplies and their impact on the environment.
With his partner, Valentina Tanzi, an idea took root for how Dal Pescatore could start producing some of its key ingredients. The objective: food sovereignty of course – becoming more self-sufficient and guarding against future scarcity. But more than that, the wish for a deeper alignment to the values the Santini family has upheld for almost a century: a restoration of its profound connection to nature, the elevation of its peasant farmer culinary traditions to high culinary art, the sharing of the gastronomic jewels of the Po valley. In purchasing the land, the Santinis agreed to bet on a closer relationship with food production and the everyday life of plants and animals. And, both as a serendipitous benefit and a crucial part of the equation, on reducing its carbon footprint along the way.
Conventional, industrialized agriculture – that which supplies most hospitality operations today – pursues a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach wherever it is found. It tends to cultivate monocrops, which are inherently vulnerable to disease, and is simultaneously dependent on the fossil fuel economy and petrochemical-derived pesticides and fertilizers. Its practices deplete soils of nutrients, and treats land, the crops and animal life cultivated on it, like an economic resource – and creates huge volumes of greenhouse gas emissions.
By contrast, farming regeneratively means replacing all this with agro-ecological methods on a smaller scale that respects local food biodiversity. In practice this means reducing or eliminating chemical fertilizers and irrigation in favor of enhancing the natural fertility of the land and its ability to retain moisture. The goal of creating ‘biologically rich’ soil, teeming with micro-organisms, insects and fungi is achieved by a combination of techniques, from reduced tillage to rotating what is grown and where (and where animals graze), reforestation and agroforestry and using organic animal manure as fertilizers.
All are practices equated with low, no or net zero emissions. The result? It leads to more nutritious crops, healthier animals and land that is resilient to the challenges of climate change and its variations in temperature, rain and wind. Land can even become carbon negative, through greater and greater sequestration of carbon in the soil. In short, healthy soils means healthy foods, and healthy foods means healthy humans.
At first, Dal Pescatore’s project seemed a bit complex and ambitious. Giovanni and Valentina went back to university, where their mentors helped them shape a whole system regenerative farm. Two years later, their idea for a brave new world is now reality. It boasts a perennial food forest, incorporating a free-range chicken coop and an apiary for honey with a fruit orchard and a vegetable garden, plus a herd of cows that graze regeneratively, rotating between parcels of land, each with specific plants grown for forage, with their manure fertilizing it as they go. “All our food forests are FSC-certified, and our fields are on the way towards receiving organic certification,” says Giovanni. When grains, plants and animals are cultivated separately, as in industrialized farming, all links to regeneration are broken. But the fertility of the soil returns when animals become part of the equation. By putting in place rotational grazing, with different plants and grains to feed cattle – grasses for sugars, leguminous plants for proteins and integration with corn, barley, pea, field beans – the farm feeds the animals, and provides enough manure to ensure a healthy soil for the orchard and vegetable garden. To put it another way, the combination of manure and grass grown for cattle feed creates new topsoil – the key to sequestering hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
“When I speak about this project, I am not sure if people really understand,” says Giovanni. “People want the headlines that are in fashion. Too often, speaking about sustainability is empty, but this is not about marketing. This project has given more sense to our lives. When working with your hands, you understand the magnetism of the land and terroir, and the true value of working with it. The practice of regeneration is ancestral, it is not something new.” In a way, the Santini family are going back to the way the food system operated a couple of generations ago, before the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1950s and ‘60s brought ever bigger tractors and complex machinery to spray pesticides, replacing ancestral native seeds with global standards. “We have to let go of the big things: big tractors, big production, and profits. Machines give you perfection, but the sensation is different. Delicious food is not only about great taste – when you understand how food is made, it is felt with a deeper emotion, a higher purpose.” Nadia Santini, Giovanni’s mother, puts it another, equally profound way: “The sense of good taste must reflect the beauty of nature.”
The restaurant’s close-knit relationship with its own smallholding has now revealed the gulf that exists between so many restaurants with how and where they source their food from. But improving their connection to the land that feeds us is something all restaurants can and should work towards, says Giovanni. “Transparency, freshness, quality, animal welfare, human relations, health, companionship – these things do not come in quantity, they come in quality. A small-scale operation is a chance, because you have the ability to change, but most importantly to keep your freedom,” he says. “A project like this does not work thinking only of investments, technology and results. Instead, choose happiness, and freedom. It is about improving the relationship we humans have with nature.”
What has also surprised Giovanni is that in the process of working the land, he has naturally strengthened the relationship with his neighbors, and local farmers. Today, the Santini farm has made its way to the heart of the kitchen, as the team learns to understand its rhythms and how to integrate kitchen and agricultural work. Having helped change the way Italians, and the world, look at ‘cucina contadina’, or peasant culinary traditions, the restaurant serves as inspiration to the more sustainable future we all need. Dal Pescatore embodies an expression of the most delicious resources of its ecosystem, in a way that honors nature and culture and acts with integrity.
And while no one expects every fine dining restaurant to farm its own land, everyone in the hospitality industry can choose better ingredients, processes and partners – and that’s the reason Relais & Châteaux is collaborating, for the sixth year running, with Slow Food to promote regenerative practices. For Olivier Roellinger, Vice President of Relais & Châteaux, “Relais & Châteaux chefs are guardians of biodiversity, acting as stewards of nature's beauty, which in turn creates resiliency in our food system. Prioritizing soil health results in carbon drawdown and improved water cycles. This is regeneration. This is the future of gastronomy.”
The journey to true sustainability will take time – walking step by step, at the speed of happy humans, animals and plants, without any technological shortcuts or miracle silver bullets. But it can get us where we need to be. At a time when we require the collective responsibility to act for the sake of the planet and the future health of generations to come, Giovanni is clear what he wants his legacy to be: “I want to be an example for my son Lorenzo,” he says.