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|Italian immersion: Manager brings back culinary culture|
By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, dozens of local residents sat enjoying their meal at the Monroe Olive Garden.
The restaurant had just opened and the staff was gearing up for the noontime rush.
General manager Bryan Gibbs smiled as he watched servers move from table to table handing patrons Olive Garden's signature salad and breadsticks.
A young girl sat with her parents twirling spaghetti around her fork. Across from them, an older couple seemed to be celebrating a special occasion.
Gibbs said this relaxed, family atmosphere is what he loves to see every day.
Gibbs knows a thing or two about Italian hospitality. He got to experience that hospitality and the great food of Italy during a recent trip there.
Gibbs spent a week at the Olive Garden's Culinary Institute in Tuscany where he took in the Italian culture and sampled the cuisine there on a personal level. He traveled throughout Italy, tasted the freshest ingredients and cooked authentic meals, which he says has reinvigorated his love for Italian cuisine.
"The passion that Italians have for food, wine and the entire dining experience defines how they live life … with enthusiasm and generosity. I can't wait to share the same care and warmth the people of Italy bring to every meal with my team and our guests," Gibbs said.
Each year Olive Garden sends about 100 of its managers and trainers to Tuscany to learn more about Olive Garden's roots in Italy. This was Gibbs' first trip out of the United States and one he will never forget.
Gibbs visited Florence and toured Rome and all the while he was overwhelmed with the kindness from everyone he met.
"I didn't expect the people to be so inviting. I was really surprised and taken aback by their hospitality, and it was really kind of awe-inspiring," Gibbs said.
He said everyone he met treated him like a long-lost relative. He wants to share that same experience with local guests.
"We want to be a place that's a home away from home, where you can visit with family and friends over a great meal. When people come here we treat them like family, so when they leave they'll enjoy not just a great meal, but a great experience," Gibbs said.
The 1999 University of Louisiana-Monroe graduate also spent the week cooking with the institute's executive chefs.
"I think the biggest thing about the trip is being able to bring back that passion and hospitality and sharing that experience of a genuine Italian dining experience with our guests," Gibbs said.
Since returning from Italy, Gibbs has worked with his staff to give them a sense of that Italian dining experience so they in turn can share it with patrons of Olive Garden.
"We want them to come here not just for the food and wine, but for the experience," Gibbs said.
Gibbs had the most fun touring the street markets in Florence where he got to pick fresh produce, spices and herbs to use in the culinary classes.
Gibbs, who started out as a server for Olive Garden, says good ingredient selection is what makes a great meal.
"We pride ourselves on using the freshest ingredients. We only take the best we can get and I think that shows," Gibbs said.
He said when preparing a meal, it is important to remember that it doesn't always have to be something big or elaborate. It could be something simple, he said, but if it includes fresh ingredients and it's done the right way, it always makes for a great meal.