CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF FRANCESCO STARA
Chef Francesco Stara was born to be in a kitchen. In my little fairytale vision, I would like to believe that he took his first faltering steps in his parent’s restaurant, followed by his assured steps by his father’s side when he was a teenager which has today made way for the confident strides he makes as Head Chef. A man who decided after four years in London that all his future jobs would have to revolve around cities where the sun and surf plan a major part, Chef Francesco has cooked in far flung places such as St. Barts, Sydney, São Paulo and now Dubai with a mission to introduce traditional Italian food to the people. His ties with his home city of Sardinia can only be measured by the millions of times he references the island and its food. A Chef who hopes to one day own a piece of land, grow his own vegetables which he would then cook them and serve at his very own restaurant is something I am sure he will one day realise… until then I know he will continue making great strides in the world of Italian gastronomy.
Name: Francesco Stara
Restaurant: Cavalli Club Restaurant & Lounge, Fairmont Hotel
From: Sardinia, Italy
Culinary School: Culinary School of Sassari, Italy
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I was because basically my family used to own a restaurant – Café Valentina (named after my sister) in Sassari so when I was born I was surrounded by the world of restaurants. I used to eat a lot of things, I was a very good kid in terms of eating except cheese. For sure I enjoyed eating tomatoes, cucumber, carrots – they are the basic vegetables you can find in Sardinia. As you grow up you discover more vegetables and food.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
After Café Valentina where my mom was more focused on the cooking, my father, Jean Franco decided to sell it and he became a Chef. He then started to travel around different areas in Sardinia ever summer (June – September) and since we had summer holidays we would go too. So ever since I can remember I always wanted to be a Chef. I grew up surrounded by this life surrounded by food, I saw my parent travelling due to it and for me it was a great experience to meet different people every summer and I thought to myself that this is what I wanted to do – it gave me the opportunity to travel and meet other people. I also knew that with a Chef job I could move out of Sardinia and travel the world. I also realised that if you learned a language, like English it gave you more of an opportunity to travel the world. So I decided that I would learn the job first, and slowly learn a language.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
After I finished culinary school at 19 years, I went to Milan and worked at Ristorante Il Liberty. I discovered Chef Andrea Provenzani’s whose philosophy of cuisine was traditional presented in a contemporary way which is a philosophy I follow today – research on old and traditional recipes, using seasonal ingredients but present it in a modern way using contemporary techniques. It opened my vision, because since I was in Sardinia, I always thought that Sardinian cuisine was the cuisine, but once I stepped into Milan, I understood that there was much more to Italian cuisine and the different recipes from the south, middle and the north.
I also lived in London for four and a half years at three different restaurants. At Skylon, serving modern European cuisine, I worked under Executive Chef – Chef Helena Puolakka, a lady Chef – who was tough but very good. Earlier, Chef Helena was the Head Chef from three star Michelin restaurant for Pierre Koffmann. We worked from 8am to 1am every day, 4 days a week and one day as a split shift for 8-9 hours and we got two days off. But the 4 days a week, was very intense in terms of learning. It was a very busy restaurant as it was located in Southbank facing Big Ben and London Eye. I learned skills and techniques here and delivery of food. By delivery of food, I mean, because it was a very busy restaurant, you had to be quick yet watch the quality of what was leaving the kitchen. So it was important to learn how to be organized before service started.
I definitely had a great experience when I worked in Brazil for three months in São Paulo at a newly opened Italian restaurant called Figurati. I was working in St. Barts in the Caribbean and I got a call from a Brazilian friend who told me about the opportunity in Brazil. As I had just finished my season in the Caribbean, I went back to Italy, repacked my bags and moved to Brazil for 3 months because that was the visa rule. Figurati was my first real experience in a senior position and it gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by a different environment, different products. So even though I was helping to open an Italian restaurant, I was still discovering Brazilian ingredients, berries from the Amazon forest – helping me discover a different side of Brazil.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I was on the beach and I prepared for myself a nice rice salad with a lot of vegetables and tuna to take with me.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Definitely El Sur (at The Westin) – it’s a very nice restaurant with amazing food. I love it because the Chef works with traditional recipes from Spain presenting it in a contemporary way. The food is very focused on flavour. My favourite dish there is the suckling pig – very well cooked, with crispy skin.
Frankie’s in JBR – I used to work there but I still go back. They have a new Chef who is a good friend of mine who cooks amazing Italian food. I like the grilled octopus with burrata or the fresh homemade linguine with clams and bottarga.
Lately I went to Coya and I liked the concept – I loved the environment – not just the food, but the drinks and music – it’s a very cool place. I ate some amazing ceviche there.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It’s a gift from nature. I put olive oil in everything including dessert – at Cavalli Club we do an olive oil cake.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Probably, Barcelona enjoying all the tapas. I have not yet been to Barcelona but I am interested to go and would love to go to Albert Adrià’s restaurant called Tickets.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
California is a good place to go. I have planned my next holiday there. There are a lot of farms that work with a lot of interesting locally grown organic vegetable and fruits. There is a big food revolution in California now related to making a modern restaurant which is related to local farming produce.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
There was a friend of mine who visited Cavalli Club as a guest not so long ago, and he let me decide what he should have. So I made him a nice spaghetti with sea urchin, mussels and bottarga – it’s a very fishy intense flavoured dish and he did not like it. I thought I would impress him as this was my signature dish and was focussed that he would enjoy it so when he told me he did not like it, I was very embarrassed. So I went back and made him some pasta with stuffed chicken and parmesan cream – which he loved.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I would love to be able to cook for my grandparents from father’s side – my grandfather, Francesco Stara (who I am named after) and my grandmother Giovanna Porqueddu. Unfortunately I never got to meet them.
For them I would definitely have cooked many things but if I have to pick only a few dishes, I would say a nice ravioli stuffed with goat ricotta and a sauce with fresh artichokes because they make a fantastic combination and we produce those ingredients in Sardinia. I would also make a dish with lamb, probably slow cooked and then roast it with some typical herbs and some antunna mushrooms made differently, because I know that my grandfather used to go out to pick this kind of mushroom.
My father believes that if they were still alive, they would have been really proud of me and the food I make.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
For sure I enjoy the gnocchi with duck ragù because of the sweetness that comes from the duck ragù which is made from duck breast and its braised and slow cooked bringing out the intense flavour of the duck and there are many fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme and lavender and vegetables.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Seasonal for sure. Traditional recipes presented in a modern, contemporary way. Humble – most of my dishes comes from tradition. At times in Italy we cook with ‘poor’ ingredients, like eggplant but when mixed with garlic, parsley and you braise and grill or fry it can become a wonderful dish. There definitely has to be a lot of passion in what I do and research products as well.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Weird but good. We have a Pecorino cheese in which tiny worms live called casu marzu – it’s weird but amazing. This cheese usually comes in summer time and I had it three years ago for the first time in Sardinia. I used to see my father eating casu marzu spread across pane carasau (thin and crispy traditional flatbread from Sardinia) and having red wine growing up. So I was a bit weary when I first decided to eat it as you see the live worms and you know it’s going in the mouth it can make it a bit weird. But in Italy we have great respect for elders for what they eat because they have amazing background on products, so if they enjoyed this then it was something I definitely had to try. I enjoyed it.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
When my father cooks – it’s the best meal. He loves to cook fish and every fish dish – it can be salad, pasta – is amazing. I can see that every dish is filled with flavour and a lot of love.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Gourmet fast food. I love burgers but it needs to be made well. Like Counter Burger at JBR or Elevation Burger or Slider Station.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Olive oil because it goes with everything. I get along with everyone and I am a total team player.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
My father told me that whatever I chose to do I should do it passionately and with love.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I wish I could be a surfer!
Most underrated ingredient? Onions. You can do amazing things with it. You can cook it in a medium way, under the salt to grilling it to frying it and you can have amazing results. Many people just think it’s just a vegetable that can add some flavour, they don’t understand the significance of the onion to impact a dish.
Best culinary tool? Knife. It gives me the opportunity to work and make geometric shapes that you need to make from something. And lately I love using small tongs because it allows you to be precise when it comes to plating.
A chef that inspires you? I went to eat in his restaurant – Mugaritz by Chef Andoni Aduriz. He is connected to the roots of the place (Spain) and its ingredients and its traditional recipes but he presents it in a totally crazy way. He is very avant-garde yet traditional. The experience at his restaurant is fantastic – its 25 courses – takes more than 3 hours and with the first 10 dishes you don’t even have cutlery, it’s a multi-sensory experience. I admire his vision of gastronomy.
Favourite cuisine? Italian – because of the variance of product and technique. You can eat something from raw like fish, you can eat some amazing seasonal vegetables, you have rice and pasta. Italy may be a very small country, but when you move even 10 kilometres away within the country, you will experience a different world, a different dialect and different cuisines. We have more regional cuisines.
One dish you can’t live without? Pizza. Margherita – simple – tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Fast Food Chains which sell cheap food so you can’t expect to get good quality and there are a lot of preservatives.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Definitely the fry meatball – Polpette. Its basically beef, mixed with some garlic and parsley and a bit of the inside of the bread that is dipped in milk to give it a softness with salt, olive oil and then you make a meat ball and then deep fry. Sometimes we ate it with homemade tomato sauce that my grandmother made. We used to eat this at least once a week as part of lunch. So polpette and pasta in tomato sauce made by my grandmother is something I always remember. I have tried making it, but somehow it never tastes like how my grandmother made it – she had a magic touch.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Last night I made a plate of pasta – paccheri pasta with tomato sauce and some pork sausages and Pecorino cheese.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Authentic, colourful and tasty.
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?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!