Cheese carver extraordinaire on his unusual art, the best cheeses to sculpt and the chance that made him a chef
Alberto Tomasi has made a living out of cutting cheese. For more than 50 years the Italian has been creating art from hunks of provolone, Asiago and other dense cheeses, as well as fruit, vegetables and ice. See his work in Hong Kong
It’s not even 9.30am and 78-year-old Alberto Tomasi is anxious to get cracking. He arrived in Hong Kong the previous day after being invited by upmarket food retailer City'super to demonstrate his cheese sculpting skills at its Artisan Cheese & Charcuterie Fair in Causeway Bay that runs until March 4.
“He just needs a block of cheese, a table and chair and he can work all day,” says his 23 year-old grandson Marco Tomasi, who accompanied his grandfather and translated on the trip.
It turns out that Alberto, his son Gianluca, and grandson Marco are all chefs; Gianluca specialises in canapés, while Marco likes to cook all kinds of dishes he says. But for Alberto, or Berto as he likes to be called, it’s carving – squash and pumpkins, to watermelon, ice and wood – and of course cheese.
Berto Tomasi hadn’t intended to become a chef. As his father worked with wood, Tomasi thought he’d build houses, but after finding out he had an allergic reaction to cement powder, he switched to working in a restaurant at the age of 19.
It turned out to be the best decision he ever made.
In his early 20s Tomasi began focusing on food carving. After peeling tomato skins to turn into roses and sculpting turnips into roses to put in a roasted pigs’ mouths, he took one more step to stand out of the crowd and became the first Italian to carve cheese.
“I come from Veneto, a mountainous part of Italy near Venice where there are big cheese farms that make Asiago and provolone cheese,” the amiable Italian explains. “I started bringing these cheeses home, colouring them and sculpting them.”
He says the best cheese to carve is provolone because it’s dense, while Mezzano, caciotta and cheddar are pretty good too. While Swiss cheese can be sculpted, Tomasi says the holes make it challenging, and the crumbly nature of Parmesan makes it one to avoid.
Being the pioneering cheese sculptor also meant creating the tools for the job. “Small sculpting tools didn’t exist when I started carving cheese; there were only small knives, so I had to make them myself,” he says, showing off tools that make half-moon lacy shapes or small curved knives to cut out small chunks of cheese.
“But the real foundations [of carving cheese] are a small knife, the brain, and heart – the passion to be a chef. It’s not a craft – it’s an art. It’s a gift to be born with talent,” says Tomasi in Italian, pointing to his head and heart.
He has won numerous awards for his work. In 1983 he was the first to present cheese sculptures at a culinary event in Luxembourg, for which he received a gold medal from the Prince of Luxembourg.
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Tomasi continues to show his work, take part in competitions and give live demonstrations. This is his first visit to Hong Kong and his work at City'super is causing much interest. Even though he has retired, he continues to sculpt vegetables, fruit and cheese freehand, unlike the symmetrical Thai style.
“In life there is the artistic chef and the mechanical chef. The mechanical chef always cooks with his head down and never betters himself,” says Berto Tomasi. “The artistic chef is constantly moving, creating, listening and puts in his head that he must grow and learn, and goes home recharged [from] always trying something new.”
Tomasi says he is fortunate to not only have his son, but also his grandson become chefs too. Marco reflects on this. “Imagine if my grandfather didn’t have that skin allergy from the powder … would I become a chef? Ten years ago he broke his arm and was very upset he couldn’t do anything for a while. “He’s just so happy when he is working. When he carves, he makes a mess and my grandmother complains about always having to clean up after him,” Tomasi’s grandson says with a laugh.
“When he carves pumpkins, he takes the seeds and plants them in the garden so he’ll have more pumpkins to carve later.”