Macau chef Alfonso Iaccarino on the joys of southern Italian cooking
Alfonso Iaccarino is a passionate talker on subjects such as fish farms, anthropology, the perils of pork reared in two months, the Mayo clinic, Alzheimer's, the food chain, multinationals, the change in chickens and eating too much meat.
But he keeps returning to key points: local, organic, seasonal food and the southern Italian diet. And with more than 40 years of experience and two Michelin stars, he knows his onions.
The affable chef was in Macau recently to prepare one of his biannual dinners at his restaurant Don Alfonso 1890 at the Grand Lisboa. The restaurant opened three decades after his first - in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi on Italy's Sorrento Peninsula.
Opened in 1973 and named after the chef's grandfather, the restaurant was successful enough to pay for the chef and his wife to take a round-the-world trip later in the decade.
After stops in New York, Los Angeles, Marrakech, Singapore and Bangkok he had four days in Hong Kong and decided to visit Macau. "I had heard about the [Jesuit missions] and how they had done work in Macau and I was very interested in the combination of Portuguese and Chinese cultures," he says.
Born into a family of hoteliers and restaurateurs, Iaccarino studied hospitality and cooking at college but he learned the rudiments from a young age.
"From when I was a baby my grandfather taught me about the quality of fruit, vegetables and meat. The village I lived in was fantastic [for this]. Fortunately, it is not much different today," he says. "We don't have a big mall. I like shops where people specialise in something."
As a teenager he had a keen curiosity and respect for food and tradition. "When I went to places like Morocco and Greece, the first thing I wanted to do was look at the food in the markets," he says.
The chef broadened his horizons when he hit the big time. "I travelled to France and I met all the best chefs. Now I am good friends with everybody: Jöel Robuchon, Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse, Georges Blanc … " Iaccarino has also met Spanish molecular chef Ferran Adrià.
"I have respect for technology and innovation but you must never forget your origins," says Iaccarino. He bought a farm to ensure he could get the produce he needed.
Iaccarino says southern Italian food is healthier and lighter than its northern counterpart - there is little or no cream or butter - and he has long believed that eating seasonal, organic and local is the way to go. It sounds familiar, but Iaccarino was eating organic food before that label existed. He has a religious respect for seasonal eating. "God made the seasons and each one offers different things - this is my philosophy," he says.
The chef is not averse to innovation and the menu in Macau goes beyond ingredients from Italy, particularly seafood; a case in point is his amuse bouche of Japanese scallop gnocchi with sea urchin and celery leaves.
Other dishes include ravioli stuffed with mozzarella and drizzled with a trio of sauces: basil, tomato and mozzarella; tender slices of octopus atop cubes of potato and beetroot with curry and salmon roe; lamb chops with stuffed cherry tomatoes; and a ricotta sorbet with strawberries in cold balsamic vinegar consommé.
Other ingredients arrive twice a week from Iaccarino's eight-hectare farm on a stony hillside near the Italian restaurant, thereby ensuring that visitors to Don Alfonso 1890 eat the same as the people of Sant'Agata.
"The only thing I ask is that we buy the best of everything," he says.