Phoenix’s very own Chef Gabe co-hosts new Netflix wedding series

By Megan Wadding, August 2020 issue. Photos courtesy of Netflix.

Netflix’s newest binge-worthy series, Say I Do, is a tearjerker from the start, in all of the most beautiful ways. The eight-episode dream wedding reality series, from the creators of Queer Eye, features three experts who help very deserving couples plan their dream weddings.

The series, which premiered July 1, features eight couples, including two same-sex couples, each of whom have their own struggles, their own style, and their own heartwarming story. Each episode introduces a new couple, who for one reason or another, have never been able to have their own special big day.

Each member of the expert trio has a specialty skill to contribute. Gabriele Bertaccini, expert chef, was in charge of crafting a special wedding menu specific to each couple. Fellow co-hosts include Jeremiah Brent, who was in charge of the wedding decor and venue, and Thai Nguyen, who designed all of the clothing, including a custom-made wedding dress for each bride.

Los Angeles-based Bertaccini is also founder of two Phoenix-based endeavors, iL TOCCO, a premier catering company, and Culinary Mischief, an exclusive dining experience.

Bertaccini spoke with Echo about the process of creating a menu for each couple, what he learned about love from being on the show, his amazing chemistry with his fabulous co-hosts, the importance of being vulnerable, and the very personal story he shared with a groom that has the world talking.

Echo Magazine: Why do you think Say I Do is doing so well and has gained such a following so quickly?

Bertaccini: It's really a show that we need now more than ever. It’s such a divisive time in life and then of course, you add in the COVID thing and the fight for racial equality. It’s a moment when we all need to be reminded that love is here, that we are loved, that we deserve to be loved, and that we also need to love more and more. I hope that this show opens up everyone's eyes and hearts.

The show has such a beautiful premise, and each couple's story really tugs on the heartstrings. I sobbed my way through many an episode! How did you get involved with Say I Do? What was it about this show in particular that drew you in?

Say I Do was a project I kind of fell in my lap. The opportunity came and it just felt right. I’ve had opportunities before to do TV and shows, but they never felt right because they felt self-serving. This show was different. It has a purpose behind it, a bigger purpose. The show is not about me, it’s really about the couples and what love means to them and what love means to all of us. I knew I made the right decision when I met the first couple. I was like, this is what the show is about. It really moves you. You are not the only one crying; we cried for three months straight!

Alongside the two other wedding experts, Jeremiah Brent and Thai Nguyen, you had about a week to plan your part of each wedding on the show, which was the extensive menu specific to each couple. How did you find working within the short time-frame? What can you tell me about that process?

I wish that we always had the full seven days, but sometimes it was just five. The unique thing in the show is that the whole love story is narrated from the groom’s perspective. Usually, when it comes to weddings, you are more connected to the bride because it’s usually the bride who knows the dress she wants, and the food she wants, and the kind of decor she wants. So it was a challenge because we were learning the love story and what the couple likes through the groom and, you know, God bless these grooms because they often know what the brides like, but more often than not, they don’t! It’s great to get ideas [about the food] from the groom, but oftentimes what the groom likes and what he thinks he wants at the dinner table, is completely different from the bride. There were times when it was very stressful, but then you remind yourself of who you’re doing this for, and it gives you the energy and it makes you work ever harder. Because the reality is that these stories are meant to be heard and they need to be told.

In the first episode of the series, Marcus, the first groom, asks you to make a “healthy” soul food dinner for his wedding, which caught you slightly off-guard, but you successfully rose to the challenge! What was that process like of having to step back a bit and sort of let each couple sort of craft their own menu?

The moment when he told me that he wanted soul food, I had to redo the whole menu. That was definitely a curve-ball. I think I cried for, like, a couple of hours, but I was able to recover! Because guess what, the wedding is not about me. Really we are there to represent what each couple is about and what they went through and who they are in their story. Marcus and Tiffany are such a sweet couple. I really loved all of the couples. It was just such a pleasure to give them a moment where they could relax and let go.

After having a major hand in helping to plan and execute eight amazingly successful and beautiful weddings throughout this series, what would your advice be to any couples trying to plan their perfect wedding day, specifically when it comes to the menu they choose?

If there is one thing about weddings that I could suggest and hope that everybody takes away from all of this is that a wedding day is not a day that you should try something new. A wedding should be a day that you feel comfortable with, that’s beautiful and in touch with who you are, but at the same time, that speaks of your own authenticity and that represents your own voice, and who you are as individuals, so that the guests really get a glimpse of who you are as a couple.

You, Jeremiah, and Thai are so fun together and you seem to have such a genuine chemistry. You compliment each other so well. I bet filming together was a lot of fun! What can you tell me about working with them?

It was a very natural connection. I feel like they are my two brothers. When you spend day in and day out, twelve hours a day, you spend it by sharing stories about who each of us is.  We do that on the show together, we do that at dinner afterwards, and we do that while we are getting ready to go on set. It felt that we have known each other for so long, but that is a product of the day-in and day-out vulnerable mode that we were in, and it creates an amazing bond.

You were born and raised in Florence, Italy and you also attended culinary school there, and even though your obvious specialty is Italian cuisine,  you seem to be able to cook anything! During the series, we see you make seafood, French food, create a farm-to-table menu, start up a pig roast, and even throw together grilled mac n' cheese sandwiches and a donut wall to please the couples. What was the most challenging aspect of crafting a meal to the specifications of each couple?

Clearly my own style of cooking goes back to Italian cooking or Tuscan cooking. I do have a philosophy in anything I do, and it doesn’t matter what style of cooking it is. I want to make sure to rely on the most amazing ingredients that I have on hand. But immediately when I meet a couple, I’m thinking about their wedding, and then I'm thinking about what I would like at my own wedding. But guess what? It’s not my wedding. The trick comes from adapting the food to the story of the couple.

You attended Arizona State University where you studied journalism and public relations. Now you are a chef with own your own international culinary event company, and also now a co-host of a television show about weddings. So you're sort of a jack of all trades, but food seems to be the common thread tying all of your endeavors together. Do you think that growing up you always knew that you'd do something with food?

I am a man of many passions, and I feel like there’s a lot of things that I could do, but there has been one constant in my life that has been here since I can remember, and that is food. I knew I was going to work in hospitality and that my purpose in this world is to create moments for people to come together, and it happens that I do that through food and wine. Everybody has a calling, and some people have multiple ones. Mine is about being of service and doing things for others. Cooking for me, since a very young age, was a way to express myself and a way to express to people that I care and to say how much I love them. So, yes, I would say that probably I always knew.

You moved to Phoenix when you were just twenty years old and lived there for over a decade before moving to Los Angeles a few years ago to expand iL TOCCO. Did your time in the US southwest have an influence on your culinary skills?

Cooking is a skill that keeps on developing. Not some thing that you just learn and you got it. It’s a passion. You feel it in your heart, but you also feel it in your belly. With cooking, or with anything that's creative, usually the inspiration comes from tasting new things, traveling to new places, being exposed to new ways of life, talking to people, sharing stories, and so forth. My time being in Arizona, did it influence it? Absolutely it did. There is no harsher place on the entire planet than the desert. When you look at it, it all looks dead, but if you actually pay attention and give the time and respect to the environment that it requires, you start to see different shades of what it offers to you. It might not be as visible as another places, but it is there. Being able to actually access those moments and access those ingredients, and then seeing how we can transform them and include them and make them part of my culinary heritage was something amazing and it keeps going. It is a continued love affair. I’m in Phoenix all the time and I love it. I have a place there and I come back all the time. I still feel like I live in Phoenix.

In episode one, in an what is possibly the most poignant moment of the entire series, you share with the groom Marcus that you are HIV-positive after he shares with you his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis. The conversation was really so beautiful to watch. With there still being such a stigma around HIV, what made you decide to share that with Marcus, and also simultaneously, with the whole world?

For me, it was important to open up to Marcus about my HIV status, not only because he opened up about his [Diabetes], but because I thought maybe we had a lot in common. It might be a different diagnosis, but the feelings are the same. That’s really where we bonded. I think it’s an amazing moment that will hopefully teach a lot of people that we have to share our stories, we have to talk about what we’ve been doing, and we have to talk about our fears. We constantly pretend that we know what we are doing in life as if we have done this before. I have never lived on this earth before, so I am trying as I go. I am seeing what works and what doesn’t work. That moment with Marcus was the same. It was a moment where we just let go of this idea that we have to be perfect. Marcus did that by sharing his life-changing diagnosis, so it just felt so natural to tell him that I have the same feelings, the same fears, [and] the same doubts.

What has the reaction been like since that episode aired? Are people reaching out to you?

I honestly have been so moved. I have been getting messages from all over the world and when I say all over, I mean everywhere. Messages of support and hope, of vulnerability and acceptance. They are the type of messages that remind you that the world is so beautiful and actually so welcoming. It’s so easy to get sucked into the negativity of everything. Just like when you drop ink into a glass of water; it stains the whole thing, and you forget that the water, before it got dark, it was pure. It’s kind of the same thing that happened here. I had forgot how beautiful and supportive people all over the planet are.

Do you ever get negative reactions from people when you share your status with them? How do you get yourself through that?

Sometimes I see the reaction when I tell people that I’m HIV-positive, and it is unsettling. And then I feel uncomfortable or like I shouldn’t have said that. But I have to remind myself not to play small and that this is not something that defines me, it is just something that happened to me. It’s just a chapter of my life. You know, if I had to choose it again, would I? I probably wouldn’t. But I also have to be honest in saying that this has been the most amazing learning experience my life. It is something that has made me appreciate every moment I spend with my friends and family, think about what love means to me, how to live authentically and unapologetically, and what it means to feel alive. The thing I always get when I open up about my HIV status, is always, “Oh, I never would’ve known,” or, “I would’ve never expected.” I hope we will get to a point where I will not receive this, because when they say that, it means that the person has an idea of what HIV looks like, and it usually looks something like what we experienced in the 80s and early 90s. We are on a completely different level and playing field now. It’s amazing that we are making such fantastic strides in the fight and in the treatment of HIV and AIDS, but there is still so much shame around the subject.

Despite all of the amazing medical advancements in recent years with concern to HIV and AIDS, there is still such a stigma around even talking about it. How have things changed in terms of actually living with the virus? What do you think we can we do to change how people think about it?

The needle did not move forward when it came to the stigma; it got stuck. Luckily the medical advances did move [forward], and we are able to live lives that are healthy. The life expectancy for an HIV-positive person is now the same as a HIV-negative person. We are now able to treat HIV in a way that we become undetectable, so that we are no longer able to transmit the virus. And we are now able to be on PrEP, so that we don’t have to worry as much about contracting the virus. Those are all amazing advances, but we have to start talking more about accessibility to medication, accessibility to mental health support, and accessibility to PrEP. We have 30 to 40 years of medical advancements when it comes to HIV and AIDS. However, I want to ask, where are the stories? Why is this stigma still so vivid? Why do we still envision the 1980s and 1990s epidemic when we think of HIV?There seems to be such a big shadow over any conversation that has to do with HIV, and I think it’s so important to feel comfortable talking about it.

Based on your own experiences and your own journey so far, what message do you have for people who are living with HIV? What is important for people to know?

I am hoping for people to be more proud of who they are, regardless of their HIV status, to not have fear of being rejected, and to also know that if you are HIV-positive, that you are lovable, that you are loved, and that you should never feel that you need to take a step back in life and let it define you. For people who are HIV-negative, and for people who might not be familiar with what HIV looks like, the thing I’m wishing is for them to be more educated, to not be afraid of asking the questions, and not to be afraid of coming to me or asking your friends or going online to find out what it means to be HIV-positive in 2020. We have to talk about how HIV is no longer a “gay disease”, and it is not anymore a disease that you die from. I want to remind people that HIV does not discriminate. It is a disease that touches everybody. It does not matter if you’re gay or you’re straight, if you’re white or black, a girl or a guy, if you’re married or not married, if you’re a lawyer or a clerk. It does not matter. And it didn’t discriminate with me.

I'm going to ask the question that everyone who just binged the series is wanting me to ask: Any chance we'll be getting a second season of Say I Do?

It is something that is hopefully in the works! Like with any project like this, the response that we receive dictates a lot. And we’ve honestly been having an amazing response. I’m so thankful and so grateful. I really never expected to do anything like this or to be gifted stories from other people to be told through my own cooking. I like to think positive, so I think that all of this amazing feedback will translate into a season two.

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