I saw spas: how a homespun Italian chef found his calling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am


If you spot a scarlet Vespa racing around Hong Kong's food markets, you'll have caught a glimpse of the ebullient Milanese chef Andrea Oschetti as he collects ingredients for one of his cuore ('heart' in Italian) private dinners (cuoreprivatechef.com). An evening with friends at home and his wife, Sandy, offers far more than a five-course dinner.

After a visit to Koh Samui health retreat Kamalaya, Oschetti lost kilograms, took up triathlons and was inspired to help his clients understand what is at the heart of good Italian food.

What was it that so inspired you at Kamalaya?

They offer food based on natural principles. My wife, Sandy, and I were looking for a really good detox place but didn't want to fast. At Kamalaya they don't dictate; they inspire. It's not about calories; it's about cooking food in the best possible way. Their cuisine was part of the well-being they offer, and completely changed my attitude towards food. Since then, eating healthily has never been difficult; it hasn't been a process of privation, but of discovery.

What inspired you to create Cuore Private Chef?

Food has always been a passion for me. When I was a young kid, both my parents were working, so after school I went to my grandmother's house, where she cooked for the extended family. The kitchen was the warmest place, and so it started there. I paid for my university studies by working in restaurants.

After I graduated, I worked in management consulting in London. Coming back home and cooking with my wife was a fantastic way to let go of all the stress. An aubergine demands your attention when you cut it - a mind clear of clients, your boss, your colleagues. You forget them all because you are focusing on the aubergine, and as a result, you are free.

What is it about the philosophy of Italian cooking that you bring to Hong Kong?

Italian food is not just about the food; it includes the culture. Italians eat and drink a little of everything; there's no Atkins diet, no counting calories. And a key part is that this food is made at home. Italian food is not complicated; it is simple and relies on local produce.

I don't create fancy dishes. My guests experience what would happen if they were at my home in Milan. I'm not pretending to be what I am not; my home says who I am. If your home is messy, it is because you are a messy person, or it's full of art because you love art. Since I started cooking these dinners, I have had my understanding of local culture boosted. I see inside my clients' homes, and in return, I let them see mine.

When you're not in your loft or your clients' homes, where do you like to eat in Hong Kong?

What I like to do is explore the dai pai dong (street food stalls). They are fantastic. Some of the best local food you can find is in a dai pai dong. A favourite dish of mine is the wonton soup at Tsim Chai Kee in Central. Otherwise, I like high-level restaurants such as Otto E Mezzo, Bombana and The Drawing Room. I love Sushi Kato in North Point. The decor is overlooked, but the fish is fantastic, and it is always full of Japanese. There's also Yin Yang on Ship Street. Margaret Xu is amazing; she does really good food with ingredients sourced from an organic farm in the New Territories.

Do you also try to source locally?

It is good to eat and source locally; you don't need to bring ingredients from the other side of the world. If you're in China, eat Chinese food prepared with local ingredients. However, if you want a Caprese salad, you have to realise that it is made with certain tomatoes and mozzarella. Mozzarella doesn't just come from Italy; it comes from a specific area. The mozzarella I grew up with in Milan sucks. I ate my first amazing mozzarella when I was 16 in Naples. So, for normal needs, go local and organic, but stay in culture. Don't say you want French cuisine made with local ingredients, or you'll be detaching the food from its source.

What else do you want your guests to take away from one of your dinners?

I want them to understand the capability of food to nourish you and make you feel good. We are in 2012; it's no longer acceptable as a chef not to look into nutrition and what our bodies need. Some restaurants add 80 grams of butter to a fish sauce and a lot of salt to make it taste of something. But butter, sugar and salt make it too easy, and we know better now. Source the best ingredients and use techniques that bring out their natural flavours. I lost 25kg in six months after Kamalaya. Eating well made me feel energetic. I wanted to go out and run, change my habits. And really that's not impossible for anyone. Fillet steak used to be one of my favourite foods. I didn't touch red meat for 11/2 years after Kamalaya. I stopped eating it. I didn't crave it. You give the right things to your body, and it wants more.