CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF MARIANNA VITALE
If there is one thing I have learned in life it is: when opportunity knocks grab it with both hands. That is exactly what I did when I was asked if I would like to interview Italian chef Marianna Vitale of Sud Ristorante, recipient of a Michelin star. This interview opportunity was offered to me as I was trying to get my first interview for Pickle My Fancy’s CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! segment with the Executive Chef of Bice Mare. This gesture taught me that Chefs are not competitive (not like in the corporate world I am used to), but more like promoters and supporters of each other.
So here goes!
Name: Chef Marianna Vitale
Restaurant: Sud Ristorante, in Quarto (in the hinterland of Campi Flegrei), North-West of Naples
From (Country): Italy
Culinary School: Self taught
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @VitaleMarianna8
My first visit to Dubai was in November 2014 when I attended the Italian Cuisine World Summit and it is also where I met Francesco (Executive Chef Francesco Guarracino) of Bice Mare. I think he was impressed with my unique style of creating dishes (winks and smiles) that he invited me back to Dubai. My visit to Dubai is also the perfect opportunity for us to promote the upcoming summer event called ‘Star Tripfood’.
Tell us a little bit more about “STAR TRIPFOOD”
We are very excited about the Star Tripfood which is going to happen in June. It is like a road trip through Italy – from Rome to the South of Italy over 8 days stopping in 8 regions. The Group will have 8 Italian chefs from Bice Mare, some customers (a competition to select who will go will be posted by a fellow food blogger FoodDiva – so watch out for that ) and suppliers who will travel as part of a caravan which will introduce them to local produce, those that are not commercially found in Dubai in each stopover. They will stop at traditional farms, learn how the product is grown and then eat a meal with the product as the focus but cooked in a traditional way. In the evening we will then have the same product, but it will be cooked in a Michelin star kitchen. And of course on this road trip they will visit my restaurant Sud Ristorante in Quarto, near Naples.
Tell us where in Italy were you born?
I was born in the historical centre of Naples and was brought up by my grandparents.
What is your favourite place in all of Italy, and why?
My favourite place in all of Italy is my home because I am never at home! Other than that a beach is where I love to be at.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a chef?
I knew I wanted to be a chef at a very young age. I remember when I was 15, I found fulfilment in cooking for others. It came naturally to me because it made me happy and it felt normal that I wanted others to stay well by eating well.
Did you receive your culinary training in a school, or at work in a restaurant?
No, I learned to cook by watching my grandmother. From the age of 5 until I was 25 that is how I learned – by watching and experimenting. I then worked for a year in a restaurant in Naples where I learned that cooking may be my passion but I also had to learn how to run a business. It was during this one year that I learned how to convert my passion into a business.
Lino Scarallo was the person whose restaurant I worked in for one year and he taught me that to be a great chef, you must first be a great person – a person with a sense of responsibility, simplicity and humbleness. My approach to food developed under his eyes – to keep it simple – to look at food as you were a child.
Just out of curiosity, since you spend so much time in your restaurant’s kitchen, do you ever cook at home? If so, what’s your favourite home-cooked meal for the family?
I love cooking so I also cook at home when I get the chance. Arancini (Rice Balls) is my favourite dish to cook at home. It is a typical Sicilian dish – you take overcooked rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese made into balls, then coated with eggs and breadcrumbs and fried.
What don’t people know about you that you wish they did?
(She laughs before answering) I used to sing in Church and I still love to sing, but my singing is now more restricted to the bathroom (smiles). Also not many people know that in the future, when I retire, I want to be a fisherman.
What misconceptions do people have about Italian cooking and how would you like to change that?
The biggest misconception about Italian food I believe is that everyone thinks it is all about pizza and pasta; and that it is all junk food. I tell people that they must visit Italy to try the authentic food – to visit restaurants where Italians eat and not the touristy places where most people end up eating.
What do you see as the future of Italian food?
I think the future of Italian food is going back into the past, going back to tradition. I feel that it is important for us to bring back old forgotten recipes where simple ingredients were used which today have been forgotten and are no longer used. It’s going back to how our past generations cooked.
What advice you would give someone who wants to become a better Italian home cook?
This is simple. Find the oldest Italian recipe book you can find, the older the better and follow that. The reason I say this is because the older the book the less it has been modified and there are less interpretations. Also, NEVER over cook the pasta!
How did SUD Ristorante come about and what does the name mean? Tell us a bit about the journey.
We opened our restaurant in Quarto near Naples which is in South of Italy and it seemed perfect to call it SUD which means ‘South’ in Italian. Most people when they graduate go to the North to cities like Milan where the opportunities are much more. But I wanted to choose a different path, for me I always knew I would do something close to home, my home because I love where I come from.
Share with us any embarrassing moments you have had in the kitchen, which you can look back and laugh about?
I remember one incident, but it was not in the kitchen but in the restaurant. A repeat male customer comes to my restaurant with a beautiful woman and I went up to him and said, “Welcome back.” When I saw the reaction on the face of the lady I realised I had not said the right thing. It turns out that the first time he had come to my restaurant was with his girlfriend and the second time, when I wished him, he had come with his wife. Since then I have never said ‘Welcome back’ to any of my customers and I now stick to ‘hello’and ‘good-bye’.
You have won many accolades, Chef at a Michelin star restaurant, best emerging chef by “Il Sole 24 Ore”, “Top di domani Ruota d’Oro”, for the Italian hotels and restaurants guidebook, printed by Touring Club, to name a few. Which is the one that you treasure the most? Which is the one award/recognition you would like to receive in your lifetime?
The award that means the most to me is when SUD Ristorante was awarded a Michelin star. And receiving a Nobel prize in my lifetime would be nice but I would settle a 3 star Michelin recognition and being listed in the San Pellegrino or The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Can you share any tips for starting and running successful businesses that you’ve learnt along the way?
I can share with you what is not important. Contrary to popular belief, I believe that location is not the most important. What is important is managing the food cost, the human resources and the way you approach and build relationships with your customers. These three things will make your restaurant business successful.
How do you come up with new recipes? Do you follow a tried and tested approach?
I have a one word answer for this – Instinct. I believe all my recipies have to be 100% original. For me when I see an ingredient, I can already picture what the final dish is going to be and then I work on it. I transfer my emotion and my feelings into the dish which I am creating.
What’s currently your most exciting new dish or ingredient and why?
My most exciting and new dish is called Impepata which is a delicate mix of mussels, pepper and lemon in a cream sauce made with the same ingredients. This is a traditional Napoleatan recipe which I revisited and was voted as the Best Italian Dish of 2015.
Apart from your own restaurants, where would you recommend people to eat in Quarto at the moment?
Without a doubt Le Colonne di Rosanna Marzziale in Caserta.
In terms of your restaurant, what appears to be the favourite dish of your customers?
The most popular dish on the menu is a hot appetizer called Salt cod cheese-cake which is made with buffalo ricotta cheese, scented with fennel, with chickpeas, tomato confit and lemon peel.
What is the most rewarding part of being a chef?
My kitchen has this big glass through which I can see the restaurant and my customers while I am working. The most rewarding thing for me would be a customer’s smile or a look of appreciation when they taste the food in front of them for the first time.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with? Lemon.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating? It would have to be New York City having a cheese burger.
If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living? I think I would have been a diplomat.
What are three pantry items essential to cook great Italian food? Olive Oil, good pasta and a good wooden spoon.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for? I love to cook for my brother Antonio, it is the way I show my love.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most? It would have to be sea anemones with spaghetti.
How would you describe your food philosophy? Essential.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? Pizza at Le Colonne di Rosanna Marzziale.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food? I love eating Trippa (veal) street food style.
Most underrated ingredient? Tomato
Best culinary tool? Fork
A chef that inspires you? Spanish Chef Carme Ruscalleda
Favourite cuisine (besides Italian)? Indian
One dish you can’t live without? Arancini (Rice Balls)
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Pasta and beans made by my grandmother and mother
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Mayonnaise and wurstel (Vienna sausage)
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I cooked the popular and traditional Pizza di Spaghetti to eat on the flight to Dubai.
Well, that’s that!
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!