CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with PASQUALE SIPONE
If there ever was an alternative profession that I could suggest Chef Pasquale would be great at – it would be as an Italian Ambassador. His love for his home, for his city and country is so evident that it makes you want to go there. As he says, without sounding pompous (and that is not very easy to do) – there is no other place like Italy. Chef Pasquale loved telling me stories – stories of his growing years, his family, his work and his city, Andria. He knows one day he will return to his beloved Andria, where he will grow his own produce on a farm and hopefully feed his grandchildren traditional food like his grandmother made for him. As he said, life is a circle, it always comes back.
Name: Pasquale Sipone
Hotel: Towers Rotana
From: Andria, South Italy
Culinary School: Istituto Professionale Alberghiero di Stato (IPAS), Assissi
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @towersrotana
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes. But there was one particular one – cime di rapa (turnip tops) because it was particular to our region and is done with a hand-made pasta called orchiette. There is a particular way of preparing it – you boil water, put the cime di rapa and half way through them being cooked you have put in the pasta and then they cook together. Once cooked you have to sauté it with olive oil, garlic, bit of chilli and a piece of anchovy. The most simple and easy dish, but the taste that comes out of it is delicious. And my grandmother made this dish the best. The difference in the recipe of making this dish between my mother and grandmother was, my grandmother used to garnish this with the cheese of the poor – which were fresh bread crumbs sautéed with olive oil and garlic. Till today, before my father visits me in Dubai, he goes to the market in my home town and buys the freshest cime di rapa and comes to Dubai.
There is also another particular dish I am very attached too called Favette e cicoria (dried board beans). My Grandfather Pasquale Davide worked as the chief of security for a very rich family that owned a lot of land. So as he did his rounds of the land, some of the worker would offer him vegetables from the field. This dish, cicori is basically wild cicori (it’s a leafy green) and favette is dried broad beans. So you make a soup with the favette (its consistency is like a mashed potato) and then boil the cicori and put in on top with a little olive oil.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I was very attached to my grandfather Pasquale Davide who was a man who took care of the land and was the manager of the estate. when I was 5, and his preferred grandchild, I used to go sometimes with him to work. Since he worked for a rich family they had a garage of sorts with a lot of tractors and he used to make me sit on them. My dream was to be a tractor driver at the age of 5. But then again, at the age of 6 or 7, something else took my attention: food.
So at 13 I went to a school which taught hospitality. I was lucky that my mentor was a person with a knife (cooking department) and when I was coming up to my 14th birthday, he told me that I was going to work in summer. Even my father supported this decision. So my mentor called a friend who was a Chef at a restaurant on the Italian Rivera and got me a job. 1986 was my first year when I worked in the summer. I remember earing 1,100,000 lire ($1=1200lire) at my first job doing the most unwanted job – peeling potatoes and artichokes. I enjoyed it, because the chef was looking after me. After this season, the following year, I did not have to wait for my mentor to tell me that I was going to work. The same Chef was preparing the team for another season and he called me and asked me to come and work. I did my first 4 seasons with the same Chef. SO until the age of 18, I was with him. At the age of 19, among my friends I was the first one with a car – a 3rd hand Ford Fiesta with plate number ROMA.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
What I am today is thanks to one gentleman – Franco Ricatti. He was the owner of an Italian restaurant called Bacco in Barletta. I worked there as a commi and I was 19 when I started working for him. The restaurant was named after the Roman God of food and wine and only had 11 tables. In early 1990s, the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. The main focus of this restaurant was wine. The reason why I got very impressed with this restaurant was because of the owner’s philosophy – how an idea can drive a business. It’s those little things that make the difference. We had different glasses for different wines, but for the water, it was served in a black crystal goblet. It used to make me mad. He explained that the black camouflaged the drink, so the person drinking water would not feel out of place.
After doing all the seasonal jobs earlier, this was my first proper job which was close to my home so I could go home and sleep in my own bed after being away for so long. What made this job memorable was because it in my area to have a restaurant like was unique and working at the restaurant was like a privilege. What I learned was consistency. As a commi I used to do easy and simple tasks in the kitchen but even these had to be perfectly done. This is where I learned that even the simplest task had to be done with perfection every single time.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had the Carne Salada. It’s a cured meat from North Italy with rocket leaves, parmesan cheese flakes and olive oil. It’s kind of carpaccio , but its not raw because its cured. It was a very light lunch. And of course my daily 6-7 cups of espressos. I have my espressos differently – I have mine with milk.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I am very attached to my land (Andria) and since I have a Dubai-born son, Davide, who is 10 years old, I like to stay at home where he can eat traditional cooking made by his mum. What I am today is because I had my mother and grandmother when I was growing up to teach me. I want my son to learn to discover the culture and tradition of the same food that my mother cooked. In Dubai I can take my son to different places to try different cuisines – from healthy to junk, but I want him to learn to be Italian. So in order for him to be 100% Italian he has to learn to eat Italian the way my mother made it.
It is important to remember where you come from and that is why even though my family lives in different places, when you visit any of our homes you will have no feel of difference because in our homes we still use the authentic traditional ingredients which we bring over from Italy. My son love’s his mum’s pasta but more specifically the rigatoni, he loves that the sauce can go inside it. He loves this with tomato sauce – not a Bolognese or plain tomato. When he was younger, to get him to eat more vegetables (my family traditional way we make children eat their veggies), my wife used to make meat balls with more vegetables and less meat. And my son still thinks he is eating pasta with meat not realizing that he is eating more vegetables.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Olive Oil. We come from a region, where ever you look around you will see olive trees. It’s an ingredient you can do almost anything with. Have you tried the olive oil ice cream? Italian food is never complete without olive oil. Majority of Italian food has to have olive oil. I would say Italy would not be Italy and Italian food would not be Italian food without olive oil. You can do things without tomato; you can do things without cheese, but olive oil is the essence of Italian food.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would definitely go home to Andria. My starter would be favette e cicori accompanied with burrata on the side. This famous cheese that is now available in Dubai can trace its origins to my home city. It is a cheese which I was eating when I was very young. The rest of my meal would be a nice plate of hand-made orchiette with cime di rapa with an espresso with milk. I would wish my mum and grandmother would be make this meal for me.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Each location and holiday has been an experience. Each and every one has been exotic in their own way. I have been to South East Asia, India, quite a few places in the Middle east, America and Europe. The place I am missing is South America. I think Argentina might be my next destination. I love the idea of the green land, with nature all around.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Last year I visited Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, Canada. Of these three I would go back to Montreal to open a restaurant to show them what authentic Italian food is all about; to show and introduce the Canadians to good, traditional, Southern Italian food.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
When you reach a point where you are overconfident, well I had both an embarrassing and a lesson learned when I was 24 years old in Italy. I was a senior sous chef and being overconfident I was instructing the kitchen staff on what to do. They must have been a bit upset with me because they changed the bucket for salt with sugar. When I asked my staff to taste they all said it was wonderful and I was so over-confident I did not taste the food before it was sent to the table. The Maître D’ was not a happy man and of course the dishes came back. It was very embarrassing – everything that day was sweet and I learned never to trust anybody when it came to my food.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Anybody who comes to the hotel or restaurant. Everybody who comes to your restaurant, no matter who it is, should be treated as a king. The moment you are sitting in a restaurant, you become a king. We are there to make sure that whoever, WHOEVER, walks through these doors should be treated as the most important person.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
At Teatro I would usually eat the butter chicken with plain naan and at Longs Bar I love their cod fish and chips with mashed peas and malt vinegar.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Simple. To put so many ingredients, left, right and centre and make it complicated is not the right way. Use only 2-3 fresh ingredients. Chefs working 50-60 years ago, were only exposed to fresh ingredients, local produce and seasonal. So simplicity, uncomplicated mix of ingredients is always the secret to great flavour, to something unique. And Olive Oil. Even a drop of olive oil will enhance the flavour.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I tried to bite a caramelized cockroach in Bangkok, Thailand. My wife and I were walking on Si Lom Road and suddenly a guy came with a little trolley and all the people went and flocked around it. I was curious so I went to look and I saw all these different insects, you name it, either caramelized, dry.. so I took the cockroach and I closed my eyes and I still could not do it.
There is this one cheese in Italy which is forbidden to sell because it is fermented to the point the actual worms come out of the cheese. It’s a niche product and I had this in Sardinia. This cheese is banned from distribution but people still people produce it. You cannot import it. You could make it for self-consumption. It’s very smelly but has a distinctive taste. You eat the cheese and little white worms with a piece of bread.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Every meal my wife cooks which I have with my family. I am so attached to my family and I am away from morning to evening, so having my wife and son at the same table having a simple meal is perfect. This quality time spent with loved ones over a meal is the best you can ever have. There is no need for me to spend a fortune, I am very simple.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Fresh bread. Any bread, I can’t resist it. When it comes out of the oven, and then you leave it cool for 5 minutes, and then break the bread open, and smell it – that for me is irresistible. At the hotel we bake bread 3 times a day, and make 37 different types of bread in rotation. Oh yes, and the bread always has to have a bottle of olive oil next to it.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Parsley. In the south of Italy we put parsley everywhere; I am literally everywhere, all over the place.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
Liliana, one of my first Chefs in Italy used to tell me to put good things in your ingredient list and you will always be successful. If you put good ingredients in your dish, your dish will definitely be good. If you start using sub-standard, or old ingredients your dish will suffer. By food things she meant fresh, from the season.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I never had a plan B.
Most underrated ingredient? Good olive oil. There are many in the market but it’s important to use good olive oil.
Best culinary tool? A spoon; a tasting spoon. After my experience nothing leaves my kitchen without me tasting it.
A chef that inspires you? Me. I am my own inspiration. I don’t look to anybody else. I have my way of seeing things. Me and the team are constantly evolving. They sometimes watch you and imitate you, but sometimes they come with suggestions – my team inspires me.
Favourite cuisine? I have started to discover Indian cuisine on a daily basis and I have started enjoying the variation of the use and taste of different spices.
One dish you can’t live without? “Two spaghetti” which quite simply is a plate of spaghetti/pasta. If you want to make an Italian happy, no matter where he is, where he sits and what he does, if you make him a plate of pasta it’s like he’s home.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Confusion. I see around so many weird combinations. The world is nice, you can find different things from everywhere but when you start mixing food cultures and giving it a different name, that is what I don’t understand. You should start to taste a country’s flavour and appreciate it for what it is and the way the dish should be done. The confusion between tradition and commerciality has to stop.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. I loved a good piece of ham or salami. When I went to school, my sandwich was always – 2 slices of bread, salami and a piece of provolone cheese inside – that was my lunch.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? I would be more surprised if people did not find that they are looking for in my fridge or cabinet.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Grilled corn-fed chicken breast with rosemary and garlic with a simple green salad which my son helped me make.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, quick, easy.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!