Michelin-Starred Chef Niko Romito Talks Taste and Technique

Michelin-Starred Chef Niko Romito Talks Taste and Technique

The mind behind Bvlgari Hotel Milano's Il Ristorante shares his Abruzzo influences, how to keep nutrition in mind, and why starting from the bottom was the best thing that ever happened to him.

The mind behind Bvlgari Hotel Milano's Il Ristorante shares his Abruzzo influences, how to keep nutrition in mind, and why starting from the bottom was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG

The Bvlgari Hotel Milano is a newly renovated 18th-century Milanese palazzo located on a private street in downtown Milan. The site is home to Il Ristorante, helmed by three-Michelin-starred Chef Niko Romito, the man who cultivated the menu with new recipes created exclusively for the Italian property. Read our Q&A with the gastronomical genius below.

I read that you're a self-taught chef. How does one become such a pro without any official teaching? 

Yes, it’s true. I am a self-taught chef. If I had been trained in the traditional way, I would never have done this type of cuisine, which derives from the fact that I started from zero - making a lot of mistakes and doing just as many stupid things. At the beginning, I was taking inspiration from the culinary tradition of my region, Abruzzo, trying to update the local cuisine with early dishes that were at the same time contemporary and reassuring. Then I started my own path, made of research, solitary experimentations in the kitchen and a lot of trials and wrong dishes. Over the years, I found my personal style and gastronomic language: I did not have teachers, I had no external influences and only at a later stage my cuisine has been fed by an exchange with the gastronomic worldwide community. This has been a great advantage for me because I let my creativity and philosophy grow autonomously, leading me towards new and innovative concepts. It’s been a very personal and independent growth from a little “trattoria” to Michelin starred cuisine. I still draw from my territory for the best products, but today for me Abruzzo mostly represents an ideal: it stands for focus, respect and truth - applied to the ingredient.

Niko ROMITO. chef. Il Ristorante. Bulgari Resort Dubai. UAE. 12/2017 © david atlan

What differs your cooking from another chef's? 

My cuisine is based on intense research. I only use a few ingredients, but in fact the process is quite complicated. Every element I use is encouraged to express itself to the full – I layer the ingredients, concentrate the flavors and use a wide variety of techniques - like cooking at low or controlled temperatures, fermentation and maceration. It’s a modern approach that retains continuity with the past. I mostly take inspiration from raw materials. I never decide whether I want to cook a pasta dish or a dessert: to me creating a dish is always a process of research, and at the very beginning I have no idea where this research will lead me. My dishes come from the ingredients, and what I do is try to awaken their intrinsic power rather than add it. I don’t want the ingredient to get lost, but rather explode on the palate with all its vitality. In my cuisine balance is also crucial, because when attempting to rely on an extremely limited number of ingredients in order to focus on radical essentiality, the slightest misalignment will emphasize eventual mistakes. At Il Ristorante - Niko Romito in all the Bvlgari Hotels & Resorts, one may order à la carte or select a tasting menu. The latter comes in two versions, a more traditional and a more sophisticated menu. We let the food do the talking and what the food speaks of is culture and pleasure, substance and elegance. The sole way to have people discover our food lifestyle is getting them to try it. Only then will customers located thousands of miles from this country be able to acquire their own code of Italian taste, be able to recognize it, make comparisons, expect the genuine thing when eating out and ordering, say, spaghetti with tomato sauce. I truly believe some flavors can be “recognized,” even if one tastes them for the very first time.

What is the balance between health and taste in your kitchens?

The wellness of guests is incredibly important to me. I want to provide them with lightness rather than weigh them down, ensuring that after a good number of courses they feel good, their palates still capable of perceiving flavors and their digestion uncompromised. My dishes reflect my cooking philosophy and tell my story. Balance is crucial, alongside with lightness and health. The ‘lightness quotient’ of my dishes, however, is not the result of calculation. Health and wellness are an unpremeditated consequence of my food. I don’t create food that is balanced from the nutritional standpoint to satisfy a moral imperative, I do not follow trends. What guides me are flavor and the quest for its purest expression. The techniques I use, with maximum respect for the ingredient, lead me naturally to create dishes that are neither sweet nor fatty. My cooking is light and balanced because only in this way can it express the ingredients to the maximum.

When you began to redo the restaurant in Milan, what was the new goal? 

When Bvlgari suggested I create the cuisine of Il Ristorante at the new Bvlgari Hotels, I realized this was an opportunity to bring my philosophy of simplicity to bear on the world of luxury. An elegant, joyful cuisine that would express an unconditional “total” taste to reflect our culture and spirit in their entirety. I wanted an unprecedented concept. That is how we came to orchestrate a canon of great Italian classics – an anthology of not only ingredients or recipes, but style of presentation and service, revisited in a way that’s meant to be necessary and concise. In Milano, the menu includes some dishes common to all the Bvlgari Hotels, such as lasagna, veal Milanese, and Tiramisù, but is enriched with some new recipes created exclusively for this property. The Codfish with potato mayonnaise and bell peppers, for example, [is] a dish that embodies one of the most popular mix of ingredients of the Italian gastronomic tradition. The idea of creating my own, uncompromising code of great contemporary Italian cooking fascinates me; the chance to see it reach far and wide intrigues me: perfectly humble ingredients, ennobled by technique. Sophisticated ingredients, further fine-tuned by the touch of simplicity. The kind of cuisine I’d like to eat when I’m away from home, my “ideal” of Italian cooking. Naturally, food is a total experience that goes well beyond what’s in one’s plate. It’s a question of atmosphere, care, even sophistication, and above all, well being. One of the keys to the best Italian hospitality is just that: putting guests at ease without apparent effort, without letting on how it’s managed. It’s a number of factors and nuances as indefinable and irresistible as the idea of an Italian identity, italianità. Bvlgari does this style of hospitality especially well: welcoming guests into a world of relaxed, natural, unforced luxury – as when a guest walks into an extremely elegant restaurant yet may choose to dine at the counter.

How do you update something while still paying respects to its origins?

My cuisine comes from the lonesome Abruzzo land, the local producers, the mountains and its silence. And, moreover, it comes from my solitary experimentations when I took over my dad’s restaurant when he died in 1999. Since then, my cuisine has evolved significantly although the Italian gastronomic tradition has always been the reference point: techniques, textures, lightness and purity of flavors, but at the same time it reminds something familiar to the eaters. I work on the ingredients, enhancing them at their maximum, and ingredients come from the Italian heritage. I like working with common materials, modifying the perception people have of them. That’s why my cuisine is both surprising and familiar, and everyone can understand it without explanations. The Bvlgari project embodies this concept very well. It requires continuous research on new recipes that we want to offer to our guests. It’s a never-ending trip into the Italian gastronomic tradition, which includes a countless number of dishes in all their regional variants. You can always expect different menus, although following the same guidelines and inspiration: a true Italian cuisine with a pure, uncompromised taste, lending the palate elegance and pleasure.

What are tips you'd give for aspiring chefs?

To follow a path that must start from the gastronomic tradition. Not to undervalue or underestimate the domestic cooking, the old fashioned trattoria style. The more I grow old, the more I realize that those bases are fundamental. My biggest inspirations come from the domestic kitchen because in my cooking philosophy, the ingredient is always protagonist.

What's something you foresee being a popular course, ingredient, or drink in 2019? 

I think there is a growing interest about food in terms of a deeper awareness of how food is related to health, environment, about the interaction amongst all the actors in the food chain. This means a broader knowledge of food in terms of what it really is, and not only of how to cook it. There is an increasing need of simple and reassuring food that can be easily recognizable. In my opinion chicken will be one of the big protagonists of the coming years, it has been for a long time considered a “cheap” dish and today is being strongly reevaluated. Chicken is one of the very few ingredients that has no religious or cultural barriers and therefore belongs to everybody. In the à la carte menu of all the restaurants Niko Romito in the Bvlgari Hotels, the braised chicken with olives and capers (Pollo alla diavola olive e capperi) is, in fact, one of our best sellers. Legumes and vegetable soups are also becoming very popular, and of course bread, which I have been studying and researching for years, and has become a course within the tasting menu at Reale.

What's your favorite part of your job?

I am a cook and the time in the kitchen testing new dishes, trying them over and over again with my team is by far what I enjoy most doing in life. I strongly believe that creativity is something you have or you don’t, but it does not remain constant; it comes in waves. My creativity finds its maximum expression when I find the time to isolate myself in my kitchen and let all the thoughts and reasoning that come from my traveling, from the people I meet along the way, from my students, from the restaurants I see, the daily experiences arouse and give me the right stimuli and feed my ideas. In the kitchen, theory and practice are always connected. Sometimes I start with taking inspiration from the raw materials: textures, colors, flavors, everything can inspire me but I do not have a precise idea of what to do until I start to transform the ingredient. Other times, I start from a theoretical assumption, like a chromatic assonance or a specific technique that I want to apply to a specific ingredient (in cauliflower gratiné, for example, I used 8 different techniques for only one ingredient).

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