The Good Life

Deep in the heart of Le Marche, ex-pats Ashley and Jason Bartner are celebrating a very special anniversary this year at La Tavola Marche…

Long-time readers will remember your regular columns in Italia! over the years, but for newer readers, can you tell us what you do at La Tavola Marche

We connect our guests to the land and people through food; they are immediately immersed in the local culture! With farm-to-table cooking classes, picking vegetables straight from our garden, mushroom and truffle hunting in our back woods, market tours and even whole-hog butchery. If you are willing to muddy your feet, we’ll guide you off the beaten path, where you will see Italy at its roots.

A pizza making class at La Tavola Marche

It’s been ten years since you launched La Tavola Marche – what made you decide to relocate from New York City to a quiet corner of Le Marche in Italy?

The quality of life. We were 25-26 years old and ready for a change in our life. We wanted to feel connected to the land and people and be part of a community, something we were missing out on in New York City.

Did it take you long to settle in? How easy is it to integrate into a new country? Any advice you would give?

We dove in head first. It’s not easy to integrate into a new country if you are constantly comparing it to where you came from. So we were prepared to roll with the punches, learn as much as we can, maintain a sense of humour and never forget why we were doing this. Advice?

1: Learn Italian. This sounds so obvious but I’m always surprised when people ask if this is a necessity. Yes! You are moving to (and possibly working in) Italy. Learn Italian.

2: Become part of the community, whether you live in the centre of Rome or, like us, in the middle of nowhere. Immerse yourself in your town in everything you do – this is part of why you moved here. Find and use your local bar. Understand the history, culture, political climate, expat experiences, food… Everything! Read books, blogs, newspapers… Expat sites and forums are a great resource. Watch movies or Italian TV. Kids’ books and music are a great way to learn too.

Did you have hospitality experience prior to relocating?

Jason and I had both worked in hospitality for 10 years before we moved, so it was a natural fit for us. Jason was classically trained at the French Culinary Institute and worked in a professional kitchen.

This experience is invaluable – so if you are planning on moving and offering cooking classes or serving dinner and you don’t have this experience under your belt, why not at least get a job or volunteer/stage at a local restaurant to have real life experience before you move.

Did it help when you started in Le Marche? Were there many surprises?

It helped tremendously – we understood not only the operations but the hospitality/customer service side, which meant we knew we could realistically execute our plan. That also gave us the opportunity to concentrate on the transition and assimilation into the community.

Of course there are tons of surprises along the way, which is why you must be as prepared and flexible as possible. From frozen pipes to sewer issues, or on the morning of a big, important lunch with a full house of guests, the power goes out and you have to finish the meat in your neighbour’s oven – 6km down the road! You have to be a good problem solver.

Tell us a bit about the realities of running a B&B in a foreign country

Running a B&B is hard work. This is not a vacation (even though at times some family still don’t seem to understand that). Business is done differently here in Italy than in the States – it’s more about building personal relationships. That takes time. Honestly, in your first few years you will probably be working harder and making less than you did before, but it’s the quality of life that made it all worth it for us.

The positives and quality of life completely outweigh the negatives by a long shot. There is an ebb and flow we now live by: the seasons – both the ‘season of guests’ and the seasons of the year. Spring through autumn means early mornings, busy days, working long into the night – always ‘on’, knowing there are guests in your home.

Then comes winter and early spring, when everything slows down and we are able to travel, decompress and do any updates or maintenance to the house to prepare it for the next season. You must be organized – months can quickly slip away.

Tell us about your orto, it always looks so amazing on your blog – you must have learned so much about horticulture. What grows well? Is it organic? 

It’s massive – almost an hectare. And of course it’s organic, or ‘bio’! Before we moved to Italy we didn’t even know which way to plant a seed – tip up or down?! We grew up in the suburbs and our vegetables came from the grocery store so we didn’t have a clue. But we did have a curiosity and passion to learn everything we could. We were taken in under the wing of a watchful neighbour who taught us the ropes of the garden.

We grow the staples of the Italian kitchen: eggplant, peppers, potatoes, garlic, beans, lettuces, squash, hundreds of heirloom tomatoes (about 10 varieties) and hundreds of onions (which are my personal favourite!) But it’s Mother Nature who runs it, and she’s fickle. Each year is a little different. If the pumpkins are outstanding, our zucchini are stunted. Everything grows and does really quite well, it just depends on the particular year. It’s a process of trial and error, with each season bringing a new lesson to learn in the garden.

Food plays a key part in La Tavola Marche – from the plot to the plate, to teaching your guests culinary techniques, foraging, etc. It’s inspiring.

Do you have particular favorite vacations that guests request over and over again?

I’m partial to: Sausages from Scratch, the Wood Oven class and any big family class. (I’m a sucker for cross-generational family bonding!) However, my favourite is our annual ‘Forage, Slaughter & Butcher Your Meal’ Workshop. We raise it, kill it and cook it. It takes place every October at our farmhouse, sharing with our guests the full circle of the food we eat. We ask brave culinary travellers to forage, slaughter and butcher their meal – while they are on holiday in Italy!

That goes way beyond your typical pasta or pizza class! Inspired by Michael Pollan’s ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’, we teach people from around the world how to forage for mushrooms, slaughter (and butcher) a hen and then butcher a whole pig with knife-in-hand classes! Raise it, kill it, cook it. Guests walk away with a much deeper connection to and appreciation of the food they eat.

What was your original vision for La Tavola Marche? How much has it (and you) changed in the last 10 years? Do guests prefer a more bespoke stay now?

That’s such a coincidence – when we prepared for our Consulting Workshop ‘Moving to Italy & Starting a Business’ and reviewed our original business plan, which is over 12 years old now, it made me proud to see the work that went into it, and even more that we were spot on and ahead of the game with the culinary and sustainable tourism trends.

We executed exactly what we set out to do. I think more travellers in general prefer a bespoke stay, and luckily for us it’s what we’ve been doing from the beginning. Travellers realize it’s not about fancy sheets or a plasma TV in the room but the experience you have and a story to tell when you get home.

You planned to sell the business a couple of years ago, but things didn’t go as planned. Can you tell us a bit about what happened and, more importantly, what has happened since? 

Where to begin? A year ago we attempted to sell our cooking school and after months of negotiating with the couple concerned, it went unexpectedly and terribly wrong.

Two days after all the documents and contracts were signed at the notary (and legally binding), the “new owners” of La Tavola Marche boarded a plane back to the good ol’ US of A! Seriously. They lasted six days in Italy. We were in total shock – it’s the stuff movies are made of. Obviously there is a lot more to the story than that but the bottom line is: when life gives you lemons – you make the best damn limoncello!

Jason and I did not want this to be the end of La Tavola Marche. So the choice was easy. We are proud to continue the farm, inn and cooking school we founded in 2007. If anything, this process has rejuvenated our passion for sharing the good life we have cultivated here in Le Marche.

The sad part is that we thought we had found a couple who shared our work ethic, passion, entrepreneurial spirit and integrity to continue what we started; unfortunately that was not the case. We definitely learned a valuable lesson, naïvely thinking we could trust a deal that had been worked out at our kitchen table.

Owning a B&B is not a holiday – it’s a life of quality that comes with a lot of hard work. It can be risky, and scary at times, and it’s not for everyone. Moving to a foreign country can turn your world upside down if you are not prepared. More than physically, you must be mentally strong. With the realization of all the work ahead – from the house to having no language skills to not setting a proper budget or real plan, combined with having no experience in this field… The weight of it all was too much for them.

This big old farmhouse has been good to us for the past 10 years – we’ll keep her happy and do our best to keep her filled with happy and hungry guests! It was time to unpack the aprons and sharpen the knives because we were back and ready to rock it again!

Looking back and trying to analyze the situation we can see that we put on blinders to red flags since were so excited at the opportunity to sell our business and watch it succeed in a new set of hands. We were also naïve and didn’t protect ourselves. It was an expensive lesson, but one we will learned from greatly.

We began to look at the situation from the other side of the table and started consulting with couples wanting to move to Italy. We realized most people are ‘dream drunk’, which can be a wonderful thing but also dangerous if you are ill-prepared and don’t really understand what it takes to move to a foreign country and start a new business.

A year later we are stronger than ever and took this experience to plan a Consulting Workshop How to Move to Italy. It sold out immediately! We wanted to share with others this opportunity to learn from us and our panel, for them to ask all their burning questions and get honest answers. It’s a good dose of reality. We have another five-day How to Move to Italy Consulting Workshop scheduled for October 20-24, 2017.

What happened next?

This is life. It’s 20 per cent of what happens to you and 80 per cent how you respond. We pulled up our boot straps and got back to work. We pivoted our plan, we took our bruises and are still recovering today, almost a year later. We are incredibly thankful for our fantastic guests. We have a core group of guests that return year after year – they rallied to help us save our season. Unfortunately it’s in the losses that we learn the most about ourselves and life. Wouldn’t it be nice if the wins did the same?

What future plans do you have?

We’ve learned the best paid plans can change on a dime, so who knows! Life can throw you a curve ball and this time we’re ready for whatever is next!