From time to time I find my thoughts wandering to the great meals I’ve had. A couple of years back, there was the one at Il Palagio, the Michelin star Italian restaurant at Four Seasons, Firenze, where I attended a special dinner titled ‘The Reds and the White’, a six-course extravaganza created by Executive Chef Vito Mollica using the divine autumn white truffles from San Miniato by Savini Tartufi paired with nine great Italian reds from the house of Pio Cesare (Piedmont), Allegrini (Venteo and Tuscany) and Argiolas (Sardinia).
For many years now ‘La Cucina Italiana’, or the Italian Cuisine, has been one of my favourites. I love Italian cuisine for its simplicity, flavours, diversity and magical ingredients. Italian cuisine arrived in India a couple of decades ago when I was just starting my career as a chef. It was the early ‘90s and cooking Italian food in India had its own challenges. It is not possible to cook any ethnic cuisine without the right ingredients and Italian recipes in particular use a wide variety of indigenous and artisanal ingredients. Finding some of these ingredients was as difficult as mastering the art of cooking itself. Substitution may be possible at times, but the results may not be inspiring.
My first brush with Italian cooking was in the kitchens of the Orient Express, New Delhi. Although the menu there was ‘Contemporary European’, it included several elements of Italian cuisine. In 1998, I had the opportunity apprentice with Michelin Star Italian Chef Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano. What an experience it was to witness the art of converting freshest ingredients into superlative dishes! White Alba truffles, delicious salads, amazing antipasti, fresh seafood, creamy risottos, al dente pastas, delicate desserts and great Italian wines were all there. On my return to India I opened Seventy Seven, an Italian cuisine-inspired fine dining restaurant at the Manor Hotel, New Delhi.
With no import licence, Italian ingredients were hard to come by and I had to depend on purveyors who would import these ingredients for me. Soon, they were all rewarded as the demand for these ingredients, showed a steady increase and their businesses began to flourish. I also encouraged local farmers to grow fresh herbs and exotic vegetables and worked closely with Gayatri Farms for guinea fowl, duck, turkey, Japanese quail and corn-fed chicken. Around that time, economic liberalization also facilitated the availability of more imported food into the country.
In my next assignment as Executive Chef of The Park, Bangalore I was entrusted with creating and opening the Italian restaurant I-t.alia, in 200. It was to be the finest Italian restaurant in the country and we collaborated with the legendary Italian food expert Antonio Carluccio for a comprehensive training programme on Italian Cuisine. Soon after I put together a menu that was an honest expression of Italian food augmented with fine presentation.
It has been a long journey of love, fascination and discovery of Italian cuisine for 21 years. Even today the knowledge and understanding of Italian cuisine and ingredients continue to inspire the menus of my flagship restaurants Caperberry, a showcase for avant garde European cuisine, and Fava which features Mediterranean cuisine, as they do for several restaurants across the world.
The popularity of Italian food is fuelled by the many similarities it shares with Indian cuisine in terms of ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, chilli etc, regional cooking diversities and the simplicity of home cooking. It is also packed with a wide range of comfort food like pastas, pizzas, risottos and hearty soups all of which are as delicious in their vegetarian format.
With so much to offer, Italian cuisine continues to delight chefs, diners, food lovers and enthusiasts around the globe in a manner that makes it a real ‘cuisine of the world’.