CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF MASSIMILIANO
Massimiliano comes across as the most lovable teddy bear. He is all smiles and always seems happy. He loves to travel – and that is obvious by the countries he has worked in – Italy (but of course), Switzerland, UK, Jordan, China, Qatar, Malaysia, Philippines and of course the UAE. Inquisitive and intrigued about everything – about cultures, ingredients, people, countries, Massimiliano has the most chilled out outlook to life. He is unhurried in his manner, but you know that things will get done. He is soft spoken, laughs often and is unapologetic about his love for Nutella – which makes him a man after my own heart.
Restaurant: Merletto, Marriott Hotel Al Jaddaf Dubai
From: Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy
Culinary School: Villa Santa Maria, Abruzzo
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram: @marriottaljaddaf/ @mascalzonelatino1981
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I only did not like cauliflower when I was a kid. When you are very young you don’t like cauliflower because it has a very strong flavour and taste. Otherwise I ate everything. But by the time I was 10 years old I started eating.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My first thought when I was really young was that I wanted to work at a petrol station. I always remember because I used to travel a lot with my father. My parents are from Naples and I am from Abruzzo which is on the Adriatic coast which is on the opposite side and we used to travel between these two places. I remember every time when we stopped at the gas station to refill the tank, the smell of the gas – I love the smell – and then when I saw the guy working there open his money pouch which was full of money, I used to think to myself this is what I want to be.
When I was about 6 years old, my grandmother was not feeling well, so my mother stayed more with my grandmother in Naples, so I was alone with my father in Vasto. I think that is the time I started to get passionate about cooking because I had to cook – I was helping my father. At that time I still could not reach the stove, so my father bought a small stool in order for me to reach the stove. We had a friend who owned a restaurant and my father always asked for recipes from the Chef there. What I used to cook well was an egg frittata – basically omelette style frittata with vegetables. I used to sauté the vegetables in a pan. You know, we never throw away any food in the house, so I used to also soak the old bread in milk so it got soggy after which I squeezed it very well so I am left with only the pulp of the bread and I used to mix together with beaten eggs and then I used to add it to the sautéed vegetables.
When I was about 14 years old, after secondary school, I went to a science college – totally unrelated to culinary. Even though I was doing well, when I looked at it in the long term I did not see myself sitting in an office or within four walls. Since I was passionate about cooking, I spoke with my parents – who at the beginning were quite shocked as I quit the science college in the fourth year, which meant that I only had one more year to complete it and get a diploma. For my parents who come from a family of doctors, their son being a chef was not something they expected. But after the initial shock they were very supportive. So I started again from the first year of culinary school and practically I did two years in just one year so that I don’t once again lose the years. The subjects I had studied in the science school was accepted so what I had to do was to study more and give an exam for the subjects that were not in the science school. In Italy, the first two years you take subjects related to culinary, service and front office. In the third year you choose your specialization. To get a diploma you need to do two more years.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Actually all of them are memorable. But if I have to choose, I would say The Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland. It was during my summer school break for four months. This was my first experience outside of Italy. My first school break internship was near my hometown and for my second year, since I was one of the better ones in my class, my teacher in school recommended I go to Gstaad. That is where I first saw the hierarchy of the kitchen and how it works and it was quite challenging because it was the first time I was out of my city and away from my parents for so long. It was here that I fell in love with the ingredients because we were using the best ingredients available. At the time I was doing all the preparation work for salads and for the other sections.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Yesterday I was off from work so for lunch I had a pizza at home with tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil and some cherry tomatoes. It is similar to a Margherita pizza but here I used buffalo mozzarella.
Place you eat most often on days off?
One place I like to go to is Fratelli la Bufala in Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). The food is wonderful and since it is more Mediterranean which is closer to the things I like to eat – I like pizza, pasta, fresh salad. This restaurant is a franchise and they have one in Italy too. The pizza I eat at this restaurant in Italy is exactly the same as I have here in Dubai.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Extra virgin olive oil from Italy of course. That is what usually enhances all the flavours of every dish. For example, whenever I make soup, or other dishes like pasta, I always used to put some fresh olive oil before it left the kitchen.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
In Napoli having a pizza – any pizza – but mostly Margherita style – with my family.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I will go back to Vasto, Italy and open my own restaurant. What I would like to do is open my own restaurant with not too many covers – a maximum of 30 covers – where I would take care right from going to the local shop to buy the ingredients one by one. There would be no a la carte menu. The guests would come and would eat dishes made out of the ingredients I found in the market that day. So, everyday my guests would get something different using only the freshest ingredients based on the availability, season and market.
What has been your biggest cooking mistake?
I remember when I was in Switzerland, once in a month we had what we called a ravioli night. Basically, four of us would sit up all night making ravioli during the night shift – about 10,000 ravioli which would be the production for the whole month. The mistake happened, when I and my other colleagues got the proportions of water and eggs wrong – the liquid part of the preparation – and the dough did not come out right. So, to recover from this, we had to start from scratch.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Friends. I know my friends, and know what they would like to eat. So I will go to the market and buy the ingredients and whatever is nice and fresh and cook for them. Mostly it’s all about being together, and sharing. It could be Italian, Spanish, English – it could be any cuisine, but not individual portions – more a sharing style.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I eat the Caprese di Bufala – the buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil pesto – I love the freshness of the mozzarella and tomatoes and is light. For pasta I like Spaghetti with cherry tomato and basil.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I like to keep my dishes simple. By that I mean I like working with not so many ingredients in one dish – maybe just 3-5 ingredients maximum. I like working with fresh ingredients without manipulating them too much. Because I always think that if you have already got great ingredients as a base of your dish, why would you want to add sauces or spices or condiments that are going to cover the real taste and flavour of the ingredients.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The best meal have is when I go back home and my mama cooks for me because those are the flavours that I have grown up on. Every time I go home, my mama asks me what I want to eat, and I always ask her to just cook anything. I love the Rigatoni my mama makes – especially Paccheri – where she crushes the tomatoes by hand over the pasta and adds mussels – we call it Pasta con le cozze. This is one of the first things I want to eat when I go home.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Nutella – straight from the bottle with a spoon.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Parsley because it goes with almost anything. I like interacting with the team, cooking with them, roaming around and checking everything, interacting with them. Being in a lot of places at the same time.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
When I started in my culinary school, my teacher, Mr. Nicola always used to tell me that if I really wanted to start this career I could only do it if I was really passionate about cooking. It is not like other jobs and requires more sacrifices – for example when everyone else is on holiday around Christmas, Easter, New Year’s Eve we are working. We always know when we start our duty, but never know when we will finish. But on the flip side, when you see the plate coming back from the guest clean, that’s when you think its all been worth it.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Maybe something related to hardware or software because I like computers. Or I would be a photographer. I like photos more than movies, because a photograph captures one moment and tells a story.
Most underrated ingredient? Salt. There should be the right balance otherwise even a little bit more can completely ruin a dish. That is why I always tell my team, when you put the salt always stop a second before you think you have put the last pinch. You can always add, but you cannot remove it.
Best culinary tool? Knife.
A chef that inspires you? When I was working in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Italy at Sextantio was my mentor Niko Romito. His restaurant has a three star Michelin now. I worked with him for over two years. What I admired was his simplicity and his respect for the ingredients. He used new techniques like steam-bake, or cooking with a runner (like sous vide)
One dish you can’t live without? Pasta – any pasta. All I need is tomato, basil, olive oil or even aglio e olio style which is garlic, a hint of red chilli with olive oil. I mostly like to have this with spaghetti. Whenever I travel to a new place, three things I always pack – 2 packets of pasta, olive oil and Italian coffee.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Pastiera. It is kind of a dessert in Naples which we made around Easter time. As soon as I stepped into my grandmother’s house, the smell of the baking would come right to the door. It is made with ricotta cheese, eggs, whole wheat and cinnamon.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, authentic and fresh
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
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!