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Making way for mod-Italian cuisine
WHEN MASSIMO BOTTURA’S Osteria Francescana made its debut at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, it wasn’t so much a validation of the acclaimed chef’s work as it was a triumph for modern Italian food itself.
Even as he tells stories of how he was demonised as a younger chef for daring to serve six tortellini in a row rather than in a big bowl like most Italian grandmothers serve it, the same is true for other modern-leaning Italian chefs
The issue resonates in Singapore, too, where you will find plenty of modern European chefs, but someone who tries to push the boundaries of Italian cooking? Not so much. But of late, there are some native Italian chefs who are trying to change the mindset that their cuisine is only about pizza, pasta and their grandma’s cooking.
PLAYING IT SAFE
“The concept of Italian food here is still stuck in the old traditional ways,” says veteran Italian chef Gabriel Fratini, who first helmed DOMVS at Sheraton Towers in the 1980s – when there were maybe 10 to 15 Italian restaurants here – and returned to Singapore in 2013 to find hundreds of them, if not thousands.
But they’re all serving the same thing, he says. Even though standards have improved, “many of those who open a restaurant in Singapore are afraid to do something different – they don’t want to rock the boat, so they play safe.”
Beppe De Vito, Chef-Restaurateur of the ilLido Group, agrees. “Italian food is one of those cuisines that customers seem to have a very specific mindset about, and they are resistant to something different.” says chef De Vito. “In a French restaurant, it’s totally acceptable for the chef to work with Japanese or Asian produce. But if an Italian restaurant were to do the same, the restaurant is perceived as not authentic enough.”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Buona Terra’s chef de cuisine, Denis Lucchi, who has been in Singapore for 11 years, considers himself to be in the ‘mod-Italian’ camp, in the sense that he is still rooted in the classics but uses modern techniques and is open to non-Italian ingredients.
“A classic Carbonara, for example, consists of egg yolk, cheese and guanciale. In Buona Terra, we intensify the umami flavour by curing our egg yolks and grating it over a rich guanciale-infused parmesan sauce. After which, we shave some seasonal truffles to complete the experience.”
Chef Lucchi adds, “There are several Italian chefs who are taking a different approach towards Italian cuisine. It’s still early days yet but I am very optimistic. It’s about the right timing and balancing what chefs want to cook and what customers will accept – it takes two hands to clap.”
Chef Fratini, who recently opened his new restaurant Solo Ristorante in Amoy Street, says:
“When I opened Trattoria Fratini in Bukit Timah five years ago, I was the only one doing Omakase. Now, there are many more restaurants doing that.
“When I do something different, sometimes guests don’t understand and say it is not Italian food. Just because I serve raw tuna belly doesn't mean I am serving Asian cuisine. We have been eating raw food in Italy for a long time and we have some of the best tuna in the world. Just because you’re not familiar with it, doesn't make my food Asian or non-Italian.” But on the flip side, when he does the unexpected like Osso Bucco in ravioli, or a prawn and chicken ravioli, “my guests will say, ‘this combination is so good.’”
“Most chefs are feeding guests who have certain expectations so we can’t blame them for (sticking to the tried-and-true),” says chef De Vito. “But I do wish that more chefs would join me on this battle to defy conventions.”
For his efforts, chef De Vito earned himself a Michelin star for his tiny contemporary Italian restaurant Braci. The restaurant now can’t keep up with demand, which is why he is working to bring a similar concept to his Market Street restaurant Osteria Art, now rebranded simply as Art.
“When we opened Osteria Art, the market was demanding classic Italian. But the market is evolving so fast. Consumers are younger and richer, unlike in the past. They’re looking for a more theatrical or unique culinary experience.”
KEEPING A BALANCE
Marco Guccio, owner and executive chef of the newly opened Guccio Ristorante, sees a new wave in Singapore “where several Italian restaurants infuse new flavours and techniques to reinvent the cuisine”. An example, he explains, would be using Japanese and other ingredients. But he warns that overdoing this would result in something that is far from Italian cuisine.
Giorgio Maggioni, who arrived in Singapore a couple of months ago as the newly appointed chef de cuisine of Dolce Vita at the Mandarin Oriental, considers himself in the middle of the classic-modern spectrum. “If you are a chef with ambition, pushing boundaries is necessary. Everyone has what it takes to follow Massimo Bottura’s footsteps, but it boils down to whether we want to or not.”
“It is all about respect for the ingredients and the tradition,” says chef Guccio, who previously helmed the kitchen at Zafferano. “I consider myself ‘modern’ as I like to explore new cooking techniques and make use of different presentation styles but without losing the focus on the taste. I still follow my grandmother’s way of making fresh pasta – it doesn’t mean it is outdated or not keeping up with the times.”
While chef De Vito admits that he’s still tied to the ball-and-chain of ‘classic Italian’, he is staying in the modern camp. “I don’t believe in typecasting my cooking. The food is my own interpretation, and it is Italian because that is my roots.”
As for chef Fratini, he says, “I didn’t like my grandmother’s cooking. It was always overcooked.”
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