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May 30, 2008

Renaissance Man: The Final Challenge

Hotel La Tremoille
Count Gherardo Scapinelli,
my benefactor for the evening.

Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far, Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, "ruled" the kitchens of Paris, tinkled the ivories in Vienna, and painted beside Lake Como.

The funny thing about Renaissance Men is that there is no recognized international standards body. A Renaissance Man doesn't have to pass any kind of exam or pay for some kind of license, and he doesn't have a plaque hanging on his wall inscribed with the words "I hereby certify that..." followed by his name in laser-printed calligraphy. Any mono-talented fool can rent a storefront in some suburban strip mall and go into business as a Renaissance Man. It's just not right.


So let me be the first to lay down the preconditions for what it takes to be a Renaissance Man: You have to work in at least two different fields for a member of authentic European nobility.

Guests at the count's dinner party.

Well, you'll never guess what I did last night. I spent the evening at the home of a real-life Italian count. I cooked him and his guests dinner--okay, I cooked the first course. And then we spent somewhere in the region of 38 seconds admiring my painting. I am now a Renaissance Man. It doesn't feel all that different, to be honest, except for this euphoric tingling sensation all over my body, as if the archangel Gabriel is sprinkling fairy dust on me. It's pretty cool, actually.

The night got off to a hectic start. We arrived at the villa of Count Gherardo Scapinelli, and I made straight for the kitchen to get my dish underway. Back in Paris, Christophe Raoux--who's presently doing a stint at Benoit New York, so for anyone who lives in the Big Apple, now would be a very good time to visit--taught me how to make a filet of turbot in a matelote sauce. I had to augment the recipe for Lake Como--replace the turbot with lavarello, which is the lake whitefish that's presently in season. And I had to make the matelote sauce with a bunch of large, yellowy fish heads from some other species that came out of Lake Como. I decided to serve the fish with a thin line of puréed potatoes, and on top just a sprinkling of diced missoltino.

The Renaissance Man at work.

A Lake Como adaptation of filet of turbot in matelote sauce.

In theory, it was an inspired dish. In practice, there were problems. The first was that I had less time than I thought. The matelote sauce needed at least another 45 minutes to reduce into the kind of flavorful nectar beloved by the French. I had more like 15 minutes. It tasted fine, but it was too watery, which made plating something of a challenge.

There was also a problem with the stove. It has been my observation in life that the rich invariably have extremely expensive and highly dysfunctional stoves. The count's stove is a case in point. One of the burners wasn't working, and the knobs that adjust the flow of gas were so hot that using them was physically hazardous.

But enough excuses. As the chef, I accept responsibility. I should have taken more time. I should have been cooking ahead of the meal, so to speak, not behind it. Still, it was not a disaster. I think the presentation would have disappointed Christophe, and I pray that Monsieur Ducasse never lays eyes on the photo. It tasted pretty good, though.

The guests were awestruck by my painting.

Following dinner, we repaired to the sitting room. The count admired my painting for a moment, and said this: "It's good for a beginner. To be a great painter, you need to have the gift." The man has a point. He then gestured to a wall on which hung many other paintings and said, "It reminds me of these." I waited, anticipating that he would point at each work of art and rhyme off some big names in European painting. He said, "They are by my mother."

We sat. We drank. I was hoping to play the count my music, but he began recounting a series of tales all beginning with, "Many, many years ago&" A good Renaissance Man knows not to get into stereo wars with his patron.

The count is one smooth character. 

The count's people have been throwing dinner parties for centuries.

And that was it. From thence forward, it was all the count. As one story turned into a another, I realized why there are no Renaissance Men anymore. Ultimately, they're just hired help. Leonardo Da Vinci may have painted the Mona Lisa, invented the helicopter, and the nude man inside the circle. But back in the day, he was just the Medicis' guy in Florence. Those, as they say, were different times. If he were alive today, he'd have something like 14 start-ups under his belt. His cup would be runnething over with venture capital.

Who knows? Leonardo might even have his own villa on Lake Como. That's what I'm aiming for. They start at around $5 million. That's a lot of money, but when you factor in all the Schubert CDs I plan on selling, not to mention a side gig as a gardening consultant, a stint on the PGA tour, and my forthcoming chain of Renaissance-style restaurants, then it won't be long before I get in a bidding war with some Russian billionaire. And if I get my mother to whip up some paintings for me--I can teach her how it's done, don't forget--then I'll save a bundle on art.

See you then.


A trip like this could not and would not happen without the help of many others. Thank you, Klara Glowczewska, for editing such a fine magazine and underwriting this educational and transformative experience. Thank you, Ted Moncreiff, for keeping me on point. Always. Thanks, Hyla Bauer, for making me look good. Thanks, Lily Newhouse, for the invaluable logistical assistance. And thanks, Tom Loftus, for editing this blog and correcting all my Renaissance (mis)spellings.

Thank you, Greta, for letting Daddy go away to "visit the horsies" for an entire month.

And finally, my wife. Behind every good Renaissance Man is a forlorn pregnant woman who's had just about enough of doing dinner and bath every evening for a month. Laura, only one more night before I'm back home in your sweet embrace. Please keep in mind that I've been cavorting around Europe in five-star luxury. Fluff the pillows accordingly.


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