CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with GIOVANNI DI AMBROSIS
For a man whose English I was told was poor, I was surprised at how eloquently Chef Giovanni spoke. Yes, he has a strong Italian accent but his passion for the kitchen is far greater to undermine any message he might want to get across. I love the fact that he is unapologetic about his dislike for what he calls ‘fake Italian food’ and has a very strong sense of his home country’s cooking heritage. Over the last many years, having worked as a consultant or Chef in over 30 jobs around the world, his dream of travelling the world following his passion has come true. Chef Giovanni set a path and direction for himself when he was 12 years old, he has followed it and it has brought him to Dubai. I don’t think Dubai will be his final port of call, after all the rest of the world awaits.
Name: Giovanni di Ambrosis
From (Country): Varese, Northern Italy
Culinary School: Istituto Alberghiero E.Maggia Stresa, Italy
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
And I never did. No way! Now yes, but when I was a kid, NO. We even had a farm near my house where we grew all vegetables and fruits except for watermelons and sweet melon. We used to grow to consume not to sell. When I was a kid, I used to eat a lot of pasta and risotto, a lot of meat, fish and chicken. My father used to get upset with me a lot when I would not eat my vegetables. I would not even have a minestrone soup when I was a child, but now I have it – it’s not my favourite but I still eat it. I started eating vegetables when I stated to work. I started to work when I was very young, when I was 13 years old at Villa Casigcioni, it’s one of the most historical hospitality villas in Varese. My first job had me helping the chef. When you understand that this is going to be a profession you want to pursue, you then have to make a compromise with your life, so you start to eat whatever you have to cook. This is natural if you have a passion for something.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
For most Italians, if you like to travel, study in a culinary school you will want to become a Chef as soon as possible. My first experience as a Chef was when I was very young, say when I was about 20 years old in Favignana in Sicily. But before this I worked every summer.
I was about 12 years old, when my sister invited a friend, Alberto, who had just returned from a holiday in Sardinia, for dinner. He was on holiday having worked on yacht. He learned how to become a Chef on the yacht having no hospitality or culinary experience and travelled the world for over five years. When you are young and hear about this lifestyle of seeing the world as a Chef, you start to fall in love with such a job. Alberto made me open my mind to the possibility of travelling the world while being a Chef.
Another great influence in my life were Nello and Liliana, a couple who came from Napoli and opened a pastry shop – Pasticceria Cali – opposite my house. I worked there for free every Saturday and Sunday just so I could learn.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Tr!beca. I usually open fine dining restaurants around the world. Tr!beca is the first place which is more casual restaurant and not solely Italian and I believe Dubai is ready for a place like this. I was in Shanghai opening an Italian fine dining restaurant before I moved to Dubai in 2008. Opening a place like Tr!beca in 2008 would not have been the right time. I have had more than 30 consulting jobs so far, and 90% of them were in opening fine dining Italian restaurants around the world. Tr!beca is organic and this is a word that has taken Dubai by storm. It is healthy for sure, and taste is one of the most important things and we are what we eat.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Quinoa salad and avocado as part of tasting as its going to be on our menu.
Place you eat most often on days off?
At lunch when I am free, I will always have something healthy. I try and not eat pizza that I love a lot but is not healthy. I like to go round Dubai to find new concepts of food, from the expensive to the value options. I love going to Bur Dubai or Karama to find the local food.
If you want to have good Pizza you should try it at either Fratelli La Bufala or Sapori di Bice at The Beach or Bussola. The quality of Italian food over the last 2 years has improved.
Another place I have had a good meal was at a Yemeni restaurant in Al Barsha where I had a full lamb which was cooked under the ground and that was delicious.
A very good Thai restaurant called Busaba has recently opened at The Beach. I love how they cook their vegetables and chicken and I love their green papaya salad.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Basil. It gives you a real Mediterranean taste. 80% of Italian food has basil as a herb. It adds flavour.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Tokyo, Japan eating sushi and sashimi. I have not yet been to Japan so I don’t have a particular restaurant. I don’t like too much spice and don’t like wasabi or chilli. I know in Japan it’s a totally different kind of presentation, taste and technology for cooking is very high.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Bahamas. I was on a cruise around the Bahamas and I loved the natural fruit, and the colour of the sea. You find amazing quality of fruit and fish. I love the beach. I cannot stay without the beach so Shanghai is not my kind of place. I would love to go to either of the Polar regions – North or South – on a cruise. I know they will be very different to what I have seen until now.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
New York. I have been there on holiday for a week and I think New York is where you have great opportunity and where the life grows. I will go there to check out what is available in town and after a week I can decide on what I want to do. New York is the trendiest and happening city in the world and the mentality you find in America is totally different to what you find in the rest of the world – it is open.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
When I was very young, around 13 years of age working at Villa Casigcroni, I cut the watermelon on the same board as I had cut the garlic and I served the watermelon as part of the parma ham and watermelon dish. The guests complained and I had to go to their table with the Chef. When they realised I was young, the guests laughed it off and did not make an issue out of it but it was very embarrassing for me. I have never made that mistake again – use a different cutting board for everything.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I would have loved to have cooked for my parents Walter and Luigia. I only cooked for them only once or twice when I was at Villa Casigcioni when I was 13 years old. After this I travelled the world so when I came back home I did not cook – you can say that ‘I NEVER cook at home’, better still you can say ‘I WILL never cook at home’. I believe if I could chose, I would have made them my favourite risotto and some fusion food, something you cannot find in Italy. But for sure it would have been a pleasure if I could have cooked for them some more.
The other person I would love to cook for is Pope Francis because I love this Pope. I think you can have a good chat with him without any problem. For the Pope, I would decide on a white food theme which would be healthy and Italian.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Grilled Salmon Salad because it not heavy and has no carbs. Salmon is good for cholesterol and is filling. Its complete with fish, vegetables, avocado and goat cheese.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
The most important thing is the taste. I have eaten a lot of fake Italian meals in Dubai and wherever I go so I always make sure I take care of the taste of the food. I hate cream because Italian kitchen is not based on cream. I do not use it, you will never find it on my menu. When I go outside of Italy, they use too much cream, cream with everything – lobster, pesto, fish, Ragù – but cream is not Italian. It’s very easy to cook with cream, I like it but I never cook Italian food with cream. I look for authentic ingredients for the different types of cuisines I do. In Dubai you can find ingredients and different kinds of products, but what is important is the combination of the cost and the quality of the product which is not easy in Dubai.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Cheese with worms from Sardinia called Casu Marzu. You eat the worms as well but its amazing cheese. It’s a little pasty and its strong. In Shanghai, I had grilled spiders on a skewer which were marinated with some sauce they use on the street. It was very crunchy.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Fish on the beach in Zanzibar. It was at the Baraza Resort and Spa. It was fresh local caught fish – Trumpet Fish – which was given to the Chefs by the fishermen directly as they came in from sea. It was grilled in a banana leaf with seasoning of lemon and black pepper and papaya sauce immediately after cleaning with a papaya salad as a side. It was the first time I had this fish and it’s very easy to eat as it only has one bone and is very fleshy. It is the best fish I have every eaten.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Pizza and Burrata cheese. I know it’s not healthy but I like it coz of its Italian taste.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Parsley. In Italy we have saying that goes a bit like – He’s like parsley – that is what Italians say of someone or something you see everywhere, like parsley on Italian dishes. I cannot stand still and I can be adapted to different scenarios. Parsley marries many culinary dishes, it goes a long way.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
Best advice was on how to cook meat by Chef Bruno Caproila at Villa Casigcioni. He said if you wanted to keep the juice inside the meat (beef) you need to cook it on a very hot pan, post or grill, searing it to create a crust to retain all the moisture.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
A pilot or psychologist.
Most underrated ingredient? You only need passion. It’s the only item you need to have to cook and then every ingredient can work for you.
Best culinary tool? A vacuum machine. It preserves and retains any ingredient to its optimum for a lengthy period of time.
Favourite cuisine (besides Italian)? Japanese food. The technical way in which they operate is very high, they know how to cook their vegetables, how to keep the authentic taste of the ingredient in a very simplistic way.
One dish you can’t live without? Spaghetti with sea urchin cooked in olive oil, garlic parsley. I fell in love with this dish when I visited Favignana Islands near Sicily.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Fake Italian food. Anywhere you go around the world, you find the restaurant serving ‘Italian’ food but it’s not – there is no Italian chef, there is nothing original from Italy, they use cream everywhere. They try to imitate Italian food, but if you don’t have an Italian chef or Italian product then it’s very hard to do. So I don’t understand why they write ‘Amazing Italian food’ – when it’s not. It’s important to set a standard for an Italian restaurant, where a commission instructs restaurants to have at least one Italian Chef and an Italian restaurant manager and put down some rules.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mom was a very good cook. I remember very well the mince beef meat, cooked in a pot with olive oil, which was cooked medium rare on which my mom put scrambled eggs and parmesan cheese. I usually ate it with bread.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Lobster Bisque. It is a secret to cook a dish with fish – you can use it for risotto, spaghetti, oven cooked or baked fish – if you add a touch of bisque to any fish dish it gives you the perfect taste.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Yesterday was tasting dessert day so I made a Passion Fruit Cheesecake. I also made warm chocolate cake. I also made Ricotta gnocchi with Mediterranean sauce which has cubes of tomato with basil, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Natural, healthy, dedicated.
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?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!