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My name is Marco Barbieri. I’m a chef, the “Marco” from Da Marco.

I’ve always been interested in Asia, particularly China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, but I didn’t know cooking would take me here. Actually, first I started studying computer programming. But it was a five year program and I didn’t want to waste time on that. But professional cooking school was only two years, and I always liked to cook at home, since mom was in the shop and dad was working. So. A chef.

I worked in New York, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Venezuela – I was working with an agency that sent us all over the world. One option was Singapore, a restaurant called Pasta Fresca. So I said okay. After a month there, they asked if I want to go to their restaurant in Shanghai. So again, I said okay, why not?

First day I arrived in Shanghai was end of January, start of February, I don’t remember. Right before Chinese New Year, 1995. I landed in Hongqiao. I remember I was having a cigarette and I threw the butt on the ground, an old lady wanted to fight me. All I remember is it was chaotic, but nice. I remembered the fireworks. They were really amazing.

Working at Pasta Fresca was really busy. At the time, it was one of the only Italian restaurants outside of a hotel. Most foreign chefs were the hotel chefs: Americans, Germans, Austrian, Australians, Dutch, English… we’d all finish late so we’d go to Manhattan’s because it was open. It was the bar of the chef. Or Judy’s. Or Malone’s, O’Malleys… the bars were always moving around, but they were moving together. The Western community all went out drinking back then, and it was more connected with local chefs. They were working with us, but usually I prefer to take people that have never worked in the kitchen. At least they follow what I teach them!

We mostly talked about food suppliers, where to find ingredients because it was hard to find everything. Even vegetables. You could find eggplant, celery and tomatoes, but salad, basil, rosemary, sage… the Italian consulate at the time was in a villa, so they planted sage and basil in the garden which I got to use.

Some suppliers are still here, but there are still some that pop up for 6 months and disappear. Some would have a product once and then not again. A lot of work was just finding out where to get the ingredients from. Especially beef, good beef. They produce in China in Qingdao, but it was not enough to supply all the restaurants in Shanghai. But restaurants didn’t fight, we tried to share.

I worked at Pasta Fresca for one year, and found a job at the Equatorial hotel. It was still a four star then. The manager was Italian, lots of Italians were coming, CEOs, diplomats... They needed the chef. I worked there for two and a half years. It was good. Paid more, less time, more freedom.

Then I went to Singapore to work for Holiday Inn for six months. I didn’t like it. Singapore was too small, and very frustrating. The mentality was too… even on their off day, they’re thinking about what they’re going to do at work the next day. Shanghai was more wild.

Me and my wife, we came back here for holiday, and one lady who used to work with me in Equatorial was now the general manager in this building. She asked me if I wanted to take over the restaurant. It was like a café back then, for the apartments, but no one wanted to take over the space. It was a very good deal, though! I didn’t have to pay rent, didn’t have to pay a percentage, I said yes immediately.

We came here for a holiday and we got Da Marco. I was the chef, my wife was the boss. Still the same!

In the beginning it was not easy. This was ’98. ’98? Yes, ‘98 now – ’99 if you ask my wife – but it was still difficult to find ingredients. We did a lot of things by ourselves, like the pasta. The risotto was made with Chinese rice, you could not find ham or salami, olive oil, cheese… but it was okay. Da Marco, it was a community. All the Italians were coming here. It was spontaneous. We didn’t try to build it, no marketing, it was really simply, family style.

The customers are the same after 23 years. The first customer who came in still comes in three, four times a week. Some have almost become part of the furniture. They came when they were kids, now they’re coming with their own kids.

Da Marco stayed the same as many things happened. We were here for SARS. It was scary. It was shorter, but it was scary, because no one knew what was happening. We didn’t have to close, though. We closed for COVID. No one asked us, but all the other restaurants closed so we did too. Well… they padlocked the side doors, but left the front door open.

We have tried to expand. Customers keep coming to me with ideas. It has been a good experience. We had a factory producing frozen foods, we had ones in Hangzhou and Shenzhen airport, did catering all over China…  but after a certain point I said no. Forget it. I just had no more life for it. It was too stressful. There’s a franchise in Pudong but it’s not quite the same. I keep this one. It’s good enough for me. If I have to open another one, it’ll be in Alaska. Somewhere people only come if they want to see me.

The biggest change for us hasn’t been SARS or COVID, it’s that after 20 years, we had this new Italian chef, and we decided to finally change the menu. It was… a big mistake. The chef, he’s a good chef, young, very talented, but changing the menu after 20 years, you know... we joke he left because a customer tried to kill him. The new menu was shorter, more fine-dining style, but it was too impulsive. It changed overnight, what people have been ordering for over 20 years. We tried for 5-6 months, but now we’ve gone back to the old menu.

We’ve also just finished a big renovation. We closed three months; in all these years, we never closed for that long, not even during COVID.

In Shanghai now, the chef community does get bigger and bigger, but less connected. Before we had the monthly association meeting sponsored by the suppliers, but now, no. No Manhattan either, not anymore! If I go out and drink like that I need a week to recover. Now, I go out to visit the Italian chefs: Atto Primo, Gianluca, Funkadeli, Italo, Severino. It’s good, but you know, sometimes the Italian chefs, they’re a little prima donna. The next chef starting here is American. The Italians are too much a pain in the ass!

As for Shanghai, I liked before and I like now. It’s totally different, Shanghai, more Western, but I like it. It’s safer, it’s nice, clean, one of the cleanest cities in the world. I’m 52, I’ve lived here half of my life, and I’m here almost every day. I try to go away, but I haven’t managed yet. I just bought a camper though. I want to travel China. I’ve been thinking about it 25 years! I’m tired! I want to retire, go travel in my camper.

Oh, the painting?  An old manager, Dragan, he took the pictures and photoshopped all the customers on and I had it printed professionally. It’s still the same one. Same Da Marco, same painting.



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[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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