Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published April 26, 2014
Affection for imperfection
Italy's youngest Michelin-starred chef Lorenzo Cogo tells Debbie Yong about getting a head start in life and his own brand of personality and imperfection-driven cooking
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'I love playing with flavours. Sometimes a dish may be too bitter or too sour - but it's all on purpose, done to prove a point and leave an impact', says Chef Cogo. - PHOTO: EL COQ

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WHEN John Legend croons about perfect imperfections in his latest radio hit, he may well be singing about Italian chef Lorenzo Cogo. While most chefs slave for days and weeks to pin down that elusive perfect balance between sweet, savoury, bitter, sour and umami flavours, the 27-year-old Italian chef is quite happy to tip the scales intentionally.

The chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred restaurant El Coq in Vicenza, 70km outside of Venice, elaborates: "I love playing with flavours. Sometimes a dish may be too bitter or too sour - but it's all on purpose, done to prove a point and leave an impact."

Chef Cogo was in town earlier this month for a guest chef stint at the Tippling Club as part of the World Gourmet Summit. In the 17-course tasting menu he presented was a quenelle of cardamom ice-cream topped with a single string of carob tagliolini and finished off, table-side, with a pour of banana-infused grappa. The subtly sweet dessert had a surprising mouthcoating umami flavour that trailed off with a cloyingly bitter aftertaste.

"Bitterness is the soul of the Italian palate - and the tradition of our palate is what I want to showcase when I travel, rather than just recipes," he explains.

The message is driven home again in another course: a prim, maroon-and-white marriage of red martini-marinated beetroot with yoghurt sorbet and tapioca sago is set against a soil of dried beetroot, hazelnut, sea salt, and pops of Szechuan pepper. The tartness from a garnish of sorrel leaves and bitter diced cranberries complete the flamboyant flavour parade.

"To appreciate my food, you need to open your mind and say, 'All right, let's see what story this guy is trying to tell'. If you do, then you will enjoy it more. You may have a laugh, say this is crazy, but that's all part of the experience," he adds. "I don't want to be perfect."

Luckily for him, his imperfection was what some were seeking. It was that very beetroot dish - now christened the Beetroot Tribute and often showcased on his global guest chef stints - that caught the attention of influential Spanish food critic Rafael Garcia Santos, who called Chef Cogo a young prodigy and bequeathed El Coq the International lomejordelagastronomia.com Award in 2012. It sent a subsequent flurry of chefs and food writers booking in, recalls Chef Cogo. A Michelin star followed shortly, just one year into the restaurant's opening, flagging him further as one of the youngest Italian chefs to be recognised by the vaunted restaurant guide.

"If I go to a restaurant myself, I want to be surprised. I don't want to just eat good food, I want an experience, so I am focused on giving that at El Coq. There are so many great restaurants in this world using great produce with good techniques, and with good service staff in beautiful locations. But what makes restaurants really stand out is the identity of the chef behind it," he states.

Assured as he seems in the kitchen and at the interview table, his own identity, he admits, is something that took a while to chisel out. Though born to a family who runs a traditional Italian trattoria, he felt from an early age that classic cuisine was not his calling.

"If you have a traditional recipe, you can't grow from there. There will always be someone telling you whether you are doing it wrong or right," he explains. The alternative route of reinventing classic dishes, however, was something he baulked at. "I want to have my classic dishes as they are, untouched."

So that left him with the only option of paving his own route. He set off from his hometown of Thiene to work his way from the bottom up in more progressive restaurants in Milan and Vicenza, before the opportunity arose to work at the Vue du Monde in Melbourne, then Australia's top restaurant. (And also where he struck up a fast friendship with the Tippling Club's Ryan Clift.)

Postings to other leading Australian restaurants such as Mark, Tetsuya's and Quay followed for the fast learner, then a tutelage in Japan under Seiji Yamamoto, before he headed back to Europe for stints at The Fat Duck, Noma and Basque restaurant, Extebarri.

"I've always travelled with the aim of opening my own restaurant, and I constantly had many ideas running through my mind. I just knew I wanted to do something," he says.

He moved home to open his restaurant in 2011 but influences from his star-studded resume are still apparent in his creations today. A dish titled Bottom of the Sea brings together Nordic-meets-Nippon flavours such as seaweed fronds, herring and salmon caviar and lettuce and seaweed granite, rounded out with beautifully smoky flakes of salmon that bear imprints of Extebarri's barbecue-centric cooking.

The mash-up is all part of what Chef Cogo once labelled "instinctive cuisine", or cooking that isn't inscribed by any particular style, technique or regional flavour.

"We are not doing molecular cuisine or traditional Italian cuisine - we are just doing what we feel is right," he says. And, as loose a philosophy as that is, it is a vision he hopes to take global. "The idea of Italian food everywhere is very classic, but we have more than just pizza and pasta in Italy. My cooking is Italian too, even though people may not quite get it the first time."

The restlessness is driven, not least, by the significant dent on the Italian restaurant industry caused by the Europe-wide economic slowdown. Though he initially chose to open El Coq in its current location for its proximity to fresh produce and wild foragable forests, it has been a struggle to keep the 25-seater constantly full, he admits. "Even three-Michelin star restaurants in Italy are empty," he shrugs helplessly.

Opening a second restaurant in Asia is a pipe dream for now, but he's been filling up his travel calendar to gain momentum in the meantime. Shortly after his Singapore visit, he was off to Paris to guest chef alongside contemporary culinary rising star, David Toutain, "because I need to keep growing and finding new stimulation".

Where does he get all the energy from, you ask. Youth?

"Youth was and is an advantage," he states unequivocally. "I had the advantage of starting very young. I was born in a kitchen so it all came naturally to me, and it is still an advantage because I want to do all of this while I'm young and have plenty of energy and passion."

Then, with a grave practicality you wouldn't expect from his charming, boyish demeanour, Chef Cogo adds: "I come from a family who works a lot, which is why I want to start early to build a business that works well. So that by the time I start a family, I can enjoy the time my father never gave me."

(El Coq, it is said, is his father's childhood nickname, though the elder Mr Cogo has only dined in the restaurant once "and he still doesn't really get my food", the younger Chef Cogo shares in a candid moment.)

"I don't want to spend all my life in the restaurant. To have my restaurant, to do interesting food with a good team behind me, that's more than enough," he says.

"The main goal is to be happy."

By Debbie Yong