Ask the Foodie: Alex Bignotti
Alex Bignotti, 35, is the new head chef at Nicholini's, the Conrad hotel's Italian restaurant. He started working in a professional kitchen at the age of 14, while still at school.
Bignotti, who was born in Milan, left Italy 18 years ago. He lived in India for five years, working at hotel and restaurant kitchens in Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai, before moving to Hong Kong. He also served a stint as head chef at a hotel in the Maldives. Who taught you to cook? My father. He was a hairdresser, but he loved to cook. Sometimes he would wake up at 6am just to cook.
I used to travel with him and my uncle around Italy in search of small food producers. We would go to a ham festival, or to try an olive oil. They would wake me up at 3am to go with them. I just wanted to sleep. I thought, "Why must I suffer this?" But I have grown up knowing about great Italian produce.
Is there a particular food which reminds you of your father?
The smell of Castelmagno cheese. My father used to take me to buy cheese in Castelmagno, which is a small village in Piedmont surrounded by hills. The cows there are only fed on grass. The cheese has an especially delicate taste. Its distinctive smell brings back some fond childhood memories I have of travelling and cooking with my father.
What do you think of the produce in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is chef heaven. You can get all the ingredients you need flown in more efficiently than anywhere else that I have lived in the region. What is your opinion of the Hong Kong palate? The one thing I've had to do is to ease back a bit on the salt. I've had to use a lot less, which is a big problem for a chef. What inspired you to create the 'smiling' seafood salad? I come from Milan, which I think has the best seafood in Italy. Everyone in Italy eats cold seafood salad, but I'm not a big fan of it. I feel that if you seal the prawns by cooking them, you bring out their natural flavour. I call it "smiling" because it looks smiley on a plate. How do you create new dishes? I imagine different tastes together, and then try combining ingredients. Sometimes you try something and it works out, and sometimes it goes wrong. I got the idea for a prawn carpaccio on the plane on the way over for my job interview. It was quite crazy, but it works. You are loyal to Italian ingredients. What are your favourites? I have a few, like an olive oil from Tuscany that's made by a producer called Manni. Let's just say it's the best olive oil on the planet. It costs HK$4,000 a litre and I would like to use it on everything. But then my boss would kill me at the end of the month. Paolo Parisi in Tuscany has the best eggs. He feeds the chickens on goat's milk, which no one else does. When you make pasta with these eggs, it's really fluffy. I also love Taleggio cheese from Milan. It's more crumbly than creamy, and I use it in risottos. You started working in a restaurant at a young age. How do you think you have matured as a chef? I'm a calm chef now. I used to be like Gordon Ramsay. I worked for him at his Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London when it was awarded a third Michelin star. People who worked for me hated me. Finally, I realised I could achieve more with a smile. Did you ever consider another career? Yes, I wanted to be a professional footballer. In Italy, the first thing a boy does is kick a ball.