Italian chef Andrea Magnano has a passion for the mineral

Italian chef has a passion for the mineral that is an essential part of all cuisines, writes Tracey Furniss

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 11:10pm

To cook, all you need is fire and salt, says Andrea Magnano, executive chef at Armani/Aqua. "The first chef I ever worked for, 24 years ago, told me this," the Italian chef recalls. "Now, I can't really play with fire, but I can with salt."

Magnano has a passion for salt. He is always experimenting with rare and unusual salts from around the world, pairing the right salt with high-quality ingredients, rather like sommeliers do with wine.

"You cannot think about it as just salt, but how you would pair a wine to a dish," he says. "Look at salt with different eyes and understand that it's something much more - pure crystals, mineralogy and a lot of knowledge about how pure the crystals are and how different the saltiness is of each single one of them."

He says salts can enhance or ruin the flavours of ingredients. "It's complex. Salt is the most difficult thing to control. I try not to overpower every taste bud. To do that, you need to find a very high-quality ingredient that matches the mineralogy of the salt, but sometimes that is not even enough as [flavour] depends on how many grams of salt are used for a particular ingredient. It can sometimes help you to discover new flavours and sometimes it can destroy the ingredient. And we know that only by making mistakes."

Born in the great food and wine region of Piedmont in northern Italy, Magnano's passion for salt started when he was working in Dubai.

"It started around 13 years ago. I was in the Middle East and I had the opportunity to find a couple of chefs who were treating salt not like anybody else I knew. I wondered why and discovered that the Middle East is where you can find most of the world's rare salt," he says.

As we sample the restaurant's Salt Discovery menu, Magnano explains that salts come in many colours, textures and from many sources.

"Viking Java salt is aged in Norway for thousands of years," he says." It goes well with fatty meats." On his salt tasting menu at Armani/Aqua, he pairs this yellow salt with pan-fried foie gras and home-made duck ham with truffle caviar, apple vinegar and sherry caramelised green apple, rosemary oil caviar and balsamic drops.

The Persian blue rock salt brings out the sweetness in a dish. "The Persian blue is excellent with the risotto, caviar and scampi dish as it brings out the sweetness in the food." The salt is shaved rather like truffle over the dish and, according to Magnano, it is rare and sought after.

The starter of fresh prawns with three distinctive flavours is paired with licorice yellow Cyprus salt, while hoarfrost salt is matched with Black Angus beef with rocket jelly.

This is the first salt menu in Hong Kong, but Magnano says salt menus are the norm in the Middle East and Europe even though they are not as common in this part of the world. "They may think it's not healthy or too salty," he says. Natural salt contains many minerals that are good for us. "It is not like white processed table salt."

Magnano has lived in Hong Kong for about four years and has seen some changes in local tastes, not only with food but also how locals perceive his homeland. "Before, [people in] Hong Kong were more focused on Italian ways. I am not talking only about food - it was more about traditional ways. Nowadays, that has gone because Italy is not just about tradition, it's about friends, it's about design, rather like Armani/Aqua," he quips.

Like all good Italian chefs Magnano is known to sing while cooking - it helps him come up with superb food for customers.

Growing up in a culinary family, having one uncle who was a baker, Magnano started as a pasta maker at the tender age of three. His mother used to take him to the countryside and introduce him to various ingredients and basic cooking techniques.

At the age of 20, he went to Switzerland, cooking and preparing dinners for parties of up to 2,000 people. At 21, he was working with British master chefs Gordon Ramsay and John Williams at the now-closed Claridge's restaurant in London. "They really taught me how to grow in a professional manner and as a man."

Magnano's salt journey continues as he is now experimenting with desserts. "I am making some new desserts and this is a new process," he says. "I want to make a tiramisu with salt that's going to be something unique but extremely difficult because the balances must be perfect."

He sees the work of a chef as a creative process. "Our job is being creative every day in a way that nobody else has tried - at least that's what we think," he says.