Carlo Middione: The Brave Struggle of a Chef Who Lost His Senses of Taste and Smell

Chef Carlo Middione ladles out meatball soup -- a dish he's made countless times, but can no longer taste.

Anyone who has ever suffered through a cold knows how unappealing food gets when you can neither smell nor taste it.

Now, imagine that condition possibly lasting permanently.

And happening to a chef, of all people.

That’s exactly what befell one of San Francisco’s most well-known Italian chefs, Carlo Middione, whose condition forced him to close his 29-year-old Vivande Porta Via on New Year’s Eve 2009.

Middione lost his senses of taste and smell, following a car accident three years ago a block from his home in San Francisco, in which his Toyota Corolla was rear-ended by a Toyota Tundra driver who was allegedly speeding and talking on a cell phone. In the impact, Middione’s brain was jostled so severely that the neurons that connect to his olfactory nerve, which is instrumental in the sense of smell, were sheared off.

A noted cookbook author and long-time culinary instructor, Middione hasn’t worked since closing his restaurant. But he is eager to do so again, he says, as a consultant to train staff or organize kitchens.

Dishes for lunch ready to be served.

“I’m not the type to tell people that I broke a tooth, so I didn’t talk a lot about the accident publicly,” Middione says. “I was on so much medication the first month that I wasn’t really eating. But four weeks later, I noticed I couldn’t taste anything.”

Indeed, this is the first time Middione has talked at length about what happened to him. Read all about it in my story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Loss of smell can occur because of head trauma, viral infections and from aging, explains Barb Stuckey, an executive with Mattson, in Foster City, the largest independent food development firm in the country, who is writing a book, “Taste What You’re Missing’’ (Free Press), which will be published next year and will feature a chapter on Middione. Eighty percent of people over the age of 80 suffer from some sort of smell loss, she says.

“Carlo has cooked for so many years that he has such an inherent understanding of how flavors work together,” Stuckey says. “It’s a testament to how ingrained his understanding of taste and smell is that he can still season food even though he can’t experience it.”

Creamy beans make up this simple and wonderful salad.

Poached shrimp served chilled.

Middione still does most of the cooking at home for himself and his wife, Lisa. She is now his official chief taster. She has to be, as he can only glean the taste of  salt and bitterness now.

Even so, Middione, the youngest of 15 children born to a Sicilian chef father, hasn’t lost his love of cooking. That was evident in all the little details in the abundant repast he made when a photographer and I visited him earlier this month.

Panna cotta with caramel syrup and fresh berries.

We sat down to a lunch of delicate meatball soup, cannellini bean salad, simply dressed butterhead lettuce leaves, poached shrimp, panna cotta with fresh berries, and buttery, cornmeal cookies.

He may not have been able to taste it. But the rest of us could. And it was sublime.

Crunchy cornmeal cookies.

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  • Very courageous indeed! I can’t imagine how it is to live without both senses. Terrible, especially if you are a chef.

    Lovely food.



  • I can’t imagine losing those senses. To know how food should smell and taste but not experience it. Yet, he seems to be coping with it well. These dishes look delicious!

  • Great article Carolyn. Just read it in the Chron this morning. I would be devastated to lose my sense of smell. Years ago I sustained an injury and couldn’t cook for six months. I was truly lost. Carlo Middione has my deepest sympathy.

  • it is an incredible story, I am so happy to see him so strong and back for a fight! :0 Great story!

    Hey I am back! 😉

  • nice dishes and dessert! 😉 yummy!

  • Very endearing story. How wonderful to see that your work doesn’t have to stop even when you’ve had an unfortunate circumstance happen.

  • i can’t imagine losing my sense of taste and smell forever. it happens to me whenever i get a sinus infection and it scares me to death every time. what a brave person carlo is!

  • I admire his strnegth to persevere despite his ‘limitations.’ He’s still providing lots of joy to people around him, and that’s the most important thing.

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  • OH, this was heartbreaking to read. I can’t imagine, thankfully his wife can expand her role as his partner through tasting for him.

  • I felt so sad as I was reading Carlo Middione’s story — what a tragic fate for such a wonderfully talented chef. The light at the end of the tunnel came for me when I learned he can still season food and understand what flavors work well together even without his two most important senses as a chef. It just comes to show how gifted this man really is. Thank you for sharing this with us Carolyn, I admire this man so much.

  • Carlo Middione is another chef that, just kind of fell off the map. He was so prominent in the 90’s, with his PBS cooking show and his cookbooks. I admire people who find a way to enjoy life no matter the circumstance.
    Bravo Carlo!!!

  • Hello,
    I also suffer from loss of smell and taste. However mine is intermittant, most of the time I have the loss. Occasionally I can taste and smell somewhat. While I don’t wish this affliction on anyone I was relieved to know that I’m not alone. I’ve had ert specialists check it out and an MRI to no avail.
    I’m much interested in your book. Thanks for the excellent article in the paper.

  • What a sad story…I hadnt heard of him which is a pity.
    He must be so very talented to still come up with what looks and sounds like some amazing dishes…

  • This is an especially fascinating subject for me, Carolyn, because our older son was actually born with congenital anosmia (no sense of smell) which we did not figure out until he was around four years old because he can taste just fine. “Blind tastings” of things like jello, jelly beans and lifesavers made it clear that he could definitely distinguish flavor nuances, and he sure did have strong preferences about what kind of jelly I used in PB&J sandos! Only when he was around 30 and had an MRI done for some sinus issues did we find out the cause. In-utero, a very small branch of his brain apparently developed out of order, such that it impeded later connections between developing ends of the nerve carrying scent data. Both ends of that nerve are still visible, but they were never able to hook up. Clearly, after making it to adulthood without ever having smelled new-mown grass, or his mom’s Thanksgiving turkey dinner in the oven, he was not about to undergo elective brain surgery. But it’s a whole different story for someone to lose a sense they’ve relied on, than never to have had it to rely on in the first place. Hats off to Chef Carlo for having come to terms with such a sudden, and in his case livelihood-ending, disability! And kudos to you for having written about it with such sensitivity and respect.

  • That is so sad and he’s a chef. I can’t imagine how one would be able to cook with the loss of both senses. My heart goes out to him. People driving and talking need to get serious tickets, it’s ridiculous. They shouldn’t allow the user of a cell phone on the road, period.
    He is soooooo brave!

  • That’s absolutely fascinating Carolyn! I’ve heard of another chef like that-I think of your blog! 🙂 I can’t imagine how hard it would be to not be able to smell the food that you’re cooking!

  • Poor guy that would just be horrible… especially considering his whole lively hood depended on taste and smell — I hope he was awarded some decent compensation :S

  • That’s a terrible thing to happen to a chef! But how wonderful that he keeps on cooking!

  • Thank you for sharing. What a horribly tragic story. But it is so nice and important that he continues cooking.

  • Bravo to Carlo for keeping up with what he loves. Also, this reminds me of the film, “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman”. The patriarch of the family is a chef who has lost his sense of taste. Some of the best cinematography of food preparation I’ve ever seen. Makes my mouth water every time!

  • This story is so inspirational, thanks for sharing, its amazing how your whole life and career can change in a single day

  • Please tell Mr. Middione that he has two ardent fans in Virginia. He is a rock star, up there with Julia et Jacques.

  • Deborah: I emailed him to pass on your kind words. I’m sure it will mean the world to him. 😉

  • Years ago I cut out his recipe for roasted onions from the Sunday New York Times magazine. The next day when I arrived at my one day a week job, personal asst for Albert Fuller , on his desk was the same cut out recipe. I commented on it and he told me that Carlo Middione was a friend of his. I was just going through all my recipes today and found that cut out. I have made those onions for years – always to screams of delight. But it brought me back to my early days in NYC, the stories from Mr. Fuller, and to the connections to my current life – planning a move to Southern Italy. How the world spins and yet keeps certain threads holding tight!!! So I just ordered the cook book – The Food of Southern Italy – and I look forward to new explorations.

    This article is particularly interesting in the time of Covid with so many people temporarily losing their sense of smell and taste. Coincidentally my brother lost those sense last fall – no testing has determined the cause. Eating for him is now all about texture. Luckily it was not my other brother who is a chef and would suffer as Chef Middione has.

  • Hi Tara: I, too, thought back to my interview with Chef Carlo when COVID hit and the stories of long-haulers surfaced about their struggles to regain their sense of smell months after recovering from the virus. You’ll be glad to know that a friend of mine who knows Carlo well talked to him recently, and learned that Carlo’s condition has been improving as he’s worked with a specialist in recent years. So sorry to hear about your brother. I hope it’s temporary, and that he regains his sense of smell again. Stay safe and well! 😉

  • Amazing to read this evening.
    I spent my day making Braised Oxtails, Roman Style, Green Beans in Olive Oil and Lemon Juice and Chick-peas in Olive oil from the lovely cookbook, ” THE FOOD OF Southern Italy”. Erickson Ranch loves your cooking as it is part of our heritage and the flavors bring it all back.

  • I last saw Carlo at the sad auction of his restaurant when I bought his meat slicer. He was very brave during the sale. I was doing some maintenance on it yesterday and thought of Carlo and the many brilliantly simple and soul satisfying meals I enjoyed from his kitchen. I hope he is still going as strong as his meat slicer. Vivandie and Carlo were a San Francisco treasure.

  • Hi Larry: I can only imagine how hard that must have been for Carlo. How wonderful of you, though, to purchase something so meaningful from his restaurant. I’m sure it gave him immense comfort to know it was going to such a considerate home. I hope it brings you many great memories for years to come.

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