THE FAMILY KITCHEN I was born in Italy, in a small country house near Clusone, a village in the province of Bergamo, at the foot of the Bergamasque Alps. Growing up immersed in a rural atmosphere, as fortunately happened to me, means being able to connect from the start with the seasonal patterns. June represented the scent of freshly cut hay, just before my uncle fed it to his cows; August still brings memories of bright yellow corn, ready for harvesting, and the garden where my grandmother grew vegetables with almost obsessive care. The best ingredients came from there and ended up in the large kitchen, where everyone, from my grandma to my mum and my father – who went there to cook game – used to spend a lot of time planning meals, sorting ingredients and preparing typical family dishes.
FIRST TASTES I was the only one out of six siblings who was really attracted to the fascinating, cosy and warm environment of the kitchen. I took my passion for cooking from my grandmother, a great cook who had been working for years in the kitchen of an aristocratic family. When I was only three years old, she handed me a fork and asked me to roll the gnocchi on the tip of it to make those beautiful, light grooves that allow gnocchi to absorb the sauce. That movement, the soft texture of the dough and the satisfaction of seeing the gnocchi materialise in my little hands is something I will never forget. It made me truly happy.
GUINEA PIGS It was quite common, back in the 1970s, to have part-time jobs after school, to earn some pocket money. At the age of 11, I started helping in the kitchen of a restaurant near my place. I watched the chef at work and tried to memorise his moves. Afterwards, I came home every night to try the recipes, using my brothers as guinea pigs during tasting sessions. They were quite worried back then but now they like to say that I always had what it took to become a proper chef. When it came to high school, I chose to attend the Catering and Hospitality School in Clusone, near where I lived. Besides the cooking practice, I was very attracted to a chef’s life, someone I pictured with a suitcase packed and ready, often travelling the world. That was what I wanted to do.
MY MAESTRO I started my journey away from home near Milan, when I was called to work at the Antica Osteria del Ponte, in Cassinetta di Lugagnano, at the court of one of the great chefs, Ezio Santin, a man who had an extraordinary sensitivity in the kitchen and the greatest gift of balance. He was the one who taught me the importance of purity and stability of flavours. In his kitchen, I worked with a guy who planned to move to Los Angeles and asked me to join him there. They were hiring people at the Rex Restaurant, a mythical place that represented Italian culinary excellence in LA.
PLANET HOLLYWOOD In order to understand what the Rex Restaurant meant to the Hollywood scene, try remembering one of the funniest moments in (1990 film) Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts tosses the escargot from her plate during an elegant dinner with Richard Gere and his clients. They were at the Rex, the best restaurant in the world.
It was nestled inside the Oviatt, an art-deco building beautifully furnished and dating from 1928, and everyone who counted made a reservation at that restaurant. The deus-ex-machina of all was Mauro Vincenti, from whom I learned the art of food presentation: every dish had to be a piece of art and the restaurant was like a theatre where a new show took place every night. We worked long hours.
The movie stars came in at any time and always ordered dishes that were not on the menu. Madonna liked my cooking but once she asked for pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) because it was one of her favourite dishes from her family hometown, in Abruzzo, Italy, and I got it wrong. My pasta e fagioli followed the northern Italian recipe: it was soupy, and with borlotti beans. She wanted the southern version, slightly creamy with cannellini – the white long beans. Luckily, she liked my grandma’s recipe, too.
SOME LIKE IT HOT Nine years in Los Angeles went by quickly. I was bound to stay, I thought. But then, the end of a love story and a job opportunity brought me here, to Hong Kong. It was 1993 when I packed my chef’s suitcase again and accepted the task of opening an Italian restaurant at the Ritz Carlton. We called it Toscana. I clearly remember my first impression of Hong Kong. I landed in the terrible heat of mid-August and promised myself I would stay for three months only, not a single day more. It’s now, what – 23 years? The experience at the Ritz Carlton taught me a lot. I felt like I was taking a master’s degree in my career.
COOKING UP A STORM When I turned 45, I decided it was time for another adventure. I wanted to open my own restaurant, following my personal taste and adding a bit of a Hollywood twist. I found the right partners and, in 2010, I opened 8½, named after the greatest movie by Federico Fellini, my favourite director. I studied every detail together with the architects. I wanted to achieve a warm, cosy, friendly and yet sophisticated environment. I hung Picasso and Andy Warhol’s works on the walls and, since we opened, we have always been fully booked, for lunch and dinner.
STAR QUALITY The first two Michelin stars came shortly after opening, but they were nearly lost in translation. That morning – we were all waiting for the crucial call – the Michelin guys rang the restaurant, but the lady who answered the phone didn’t understand. She thought they wanted to reserve a table and put them on the waiting list. Then, Danilo (Nicoletti, 8½ Otto e Mezzo’s general manager) finally got in touch with me to deliver the news: we were awarded not one but two Michelin stars. That was completely unexpected. My first reaction was to lock myself in a room. It was such a great responsibility; I had to keep up with expectations now. Only one year later, the restaurant received its third Michelin star.
I’m obviously very proud of this success, but my greatest personal satisfaction is Juan Carlos Miranda, a guy from Central America who worked with me at the Rex. He was one of those jobless immigrants who wanted to earn an honest living and asked me if he could get a chance at the restaurant. So I put him to work in the kitchen, and he was one of the best staff I have ever had. A few days ago, I received an e-mail from his daughter. She wanted to thank me because her father had become a skilled and appreciated chef. They still live in LA and they are all fine. These are the stars that matter most to me.