TRAVEL

Hot Pockets: Matthias Schmidberger, The Chef Who Warms the Alpine Chills

Hot Pocketsis my series of chef interviews for this blog and other publications.  My interview with Matthias Schmidberger of Ca' D'Oro originally appeared in Fathom in March 2015.

What drives a fair-weather-loving foodie to the snowy peaks of St. Moritz? A Michelin-star meal and a hunky, clever chef. Our Rome-based contributing editor Erica Firpo reports from the Swiss Alps.

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland – Schokoladenpretzel and vermicelles. Fladen and mailänderli and nusstorte. These are a few of my favorite things. Swiss pastries alone are the key to enduring our yearly settimana bianca, a ritual "white week" of early mornings, layered clothing, and snow.

I have to be honest: I don't believe in cold weather. I am not genetically nor environmentally inclined to head to a mountain at any time of the year. But I do so for love. Not because my husband Darius is an avid off-piste skier and we live in Rome, Italy (aka a train ride to anywhere!), but for love of a fork and knife.

Food, you say? Yes, I am an excellent eater, what Italians call the proverbial buona forchetta — a good fork. And I have come to the conclusion that I have no problem wearing extra layers if the gastronomical returns are, well, astronomical. For the past two years, I have been spending ski week in Switzerland — for pastry shops and Michelin stars.

Dining Room

The dining room at Cà d'Oro. Photo courtesy of Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains.

We head to St. Moritz, a bizarre gastro-Blade Runner with everything from fondue to fine dining (and apparently — or so they tell me — skiing). While Darius skis with his merry band of off-duty instructors, I eat. My favorite place is Cà d'Oro, the one-Michelin-star restaurant at Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains.

Kempinski is a super-modern renovation of a historic St. Moritz hotel. (Imagine the huge entrance hall. That's what it's like.) The design is simple, modern, muted, and high-quality, but not opulent or boutique-y. Everyone knows who you are, and they're all very friendly. I loved our room, which had a kitchen and a balcony. You can ski in and out and recover in the enormous spa. The pool has a two-story ceiling and the services are incredible. But let's get back to the food: I have never had a better hotel breakfast than the one I did here. It was the cornucopia of mornings.

I don't know if my real St. Moritz gastro-epiphany happened when I met 32-year-old Matthias Schmidberger, the Macklemore-loving Cà d'Oro kitchen rock star who (besides being typically chef-cute) has an incredible instinct for food pairing and creativity. Or if I saw the light while playing flatware chess with Matthias' waitstaff whose utensil and beverage knowledge was complete grandmaster level. It was probably both. I have never been so happily surprised as when I meditated on my fork and placed that first bite of astice marino in my mouth. And the rest is history.

Cà d'Oro is a seasonal restaurant, open for the winter season, usually from the end of November until March. Matthias is in St. Moritz from September to April. He spends the off-season sourcing products and fine-tuning his menu; I spend it trying to figure out when I can get back to St. Moritz. When the heat turns on and Matthias is back in the kitchen, he has a work hard/play hard mentality. I asked him to tell me more about it.

Creativity at Ca d'Oro

We have to be ready the moment the hotel opens. My experiences are extremely valuable to guarantee a great quality from the beginning until the closing period. I take the summer to come up with new inspirations, but they have to fit into our concept, which means there will only be small changes to our menu. I love to play with amouse bouches, with the small pre-dessert, and with sweet delicacies.

Mountain

Muottas Muragl. Photo courtesy of Romantik Hotel Muottas Muragl.

Best Way to Start My Day

I love Muottas Muragl, a gorgeous mountain with an astonishing view. I start with a good, strong black coffee and end with a fast sledge down.

Favorite Late-Night Bar

As a chef, it is a good idea to love the evening. My favorite spots are the Cà d'Oro kitchen (insert smile) and the usual places in St. Moritz: La Barraca, Stübli, Vivai, and, for special occasions, the King's Club.

Where to Ski

My favorite slope is Piz Nair, Corviglia.

Where to Go to Escape St. Moritz

There is a German saying: "the carrot which is hanging in front of you will be in your hands after every season." During the season, there is no need to escape. It is a wonderful place with a lot of opportunities for me to relax: biking, swimming, sitting in a piazza with ice cream, skiing in winter, hiking, and celebrating with my team.

FIND IT

Cà D'Oro Via Mezdi 27 St. Moritz, Switzerland 7500 +41-81-838-30-81 info.stmoritz@kempinski.com

Hot Pockets: David Posey, A Breakout Chicago Chef Declares His Love for Italy

Tasting the risotto
Tasting the risotto

Hot Pockets is a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications.  My interview with James Beard Rising Star David Posey originally appeared in Forbes Travel on December 2, 2014: A Breakout Chicago Chef Declares His Love for Italy

Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts recently decided it was time to bring on five new signature dishes to its iconic menu of recipes that already included delectable standards such as eggs Benedict, red velvet cake, Thousand Island dressing and the eponymous Waldorf salad.

Through exciting (and oftentimes unpredictable) pairings of Waldorf chefs from five different hotels in Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, La Quinta (California) and Shanghai and a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Taste of Waldorf Astoria was born, and so were unique signature dishes that will hopefully be celebrated on Waldorf menus around the world.

At the Rome Cavalieri encounter in October, its veteran toque Heinz Beck met with Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee David Posey, who’s also the former chef de cuisine for the Windy City’s beloved Blackbird, for five intense days of tastings, testing and touring the Eternal City. The result? Posey and Beck’s redefinition of risotto. We caught up with Posey to talk about visiting Rome for the first time, eating around Chicago and venturing out on his own in 2015.

What can you tell us about the risotto that you helped to create? The rice risotto that Heinz and I made is something that I’ve been playing with. It’s based on the idea for a dish I had in Paris and a technique I read in a cookbook. Heinz and I worked on the dish for a few days to really refine it and hone the flavors. I really enjoyed working with Heinz. And with the celery root risotto, both of our culinary voices are heard. There is modern technique, which I love, then Italian flavors and sensibilities that Heinz is know for.

Beck Posey 2
Beck Posey 2

What do you like about Rome? Rome reminded me of my hometown of Los Angeles, with the amazing climate and busy city life but with a more relaxed attitude.

What is iconic Rome to you? The icons of Rome would have to be the general ancientness of the city. Just walking around, passing a 2,000-year-old building, then a 700-year-old statue, or, in the evening, seeing people still living in 500-year-old houses.

What is an iconic Rome taste? Rigatoni with amatriciana [a spicy red sauce with guanciale] and cacio e pepe [pasta with cheese and pepper] were two great pasta dishes that I tried, which are special to Rome. My favorite bite that I had, though, was mortadella on focaccia, which Heinz Beck showed me when we went to lunch in an amazing little enoteca.

Where did you eat in Rome and what did you think? I didn’t get to eat out as much I liked, but the meals I had were great. Heinz took me to Roscioli, where we had a great pizza rossa [with only red sauce], pastas and salumis. Then I was lucky enough to eat at La Pergola, which is Heinz’s amazing three-Michelin-starred restaurant, twice. His pastas, and minimal use of fat or dairy, really blew me away.

What is iconic Chicago? Iconic Chicago, for me, is a city of progression. We have the country’s first skyscraper, then we built the country’s tallest skyscraper. The World’s Fair was in Chicago for a while, where anything groundbreaking at the time took place. With that progression, our city burnt down, so we got to build it all over again.

What is an iconic Chicago taste? Chicago has quite a few well-known foods, the most known being the Chicago dog and deep-dish pizza.

Favorite places to grab a coffee or snack? There are a few favorites of mine here in Chicago. For coffee, I love Bow Truss, which is a new roaster in the city. I love Portillo’s for Chicago dogs and Au Cheval for cheeseburgers.

What are your plans for 2015? My wife, Anna, and I are working on opening a restaurant in Chicago. It will be modern farm-to-table food at an affordable price point, similar to the new bistro style of restaurants opening in Paris.

Hot Pockets: Conversation with Massimo Bottura, Superstar Intellectual Italian Chef

Hot Pocketsis a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications. This article was originally written for Fathomand published on Friday 21st November 2014.  

Our continuing adventures during Chefs Travel week takes us to Italy for a converation between contributing editor Erica Firpo and Massimo Bottura, the chef whose flagship, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and sits at #3 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list — about his new cookbook, about food and art, about the importance of Playboy to the young boy's mind.

MODENA, Italy – Every time I think about the time I had lunch at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, I smile. Who else would create a transcendental dish dedicated to parmesan and call it The Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano? And who would sit you in a restaurant decorated with his personal art collection which includes pieces by Vezzoli and Cattelan?

To make a long story short, a few years ago I treated myself to Bottura's tasting menu at his restaurant in Emilia-Romana. The next thing I knew, I was driving around Modena with Bottura to meet his wife Lara Gilmore and to say hello to pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, David Salle, the Chapman brothers, and Marcel Dzama, among others. I told them I loved every piece and therefore I loved them. They told me they were writing a book.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is his new conceptual cookbook, a beautiful tome that looks gorgeous on the coffee table. It's filled with Bottura's stories — transporting tales through head, heart, and stomach. As a reader, you take the journey with him. Bottura is a creator: His dishes are edible, personal stories that traverse travel, tradition, perspective, and, to some, patience. They are as much about art and word play as they are about culinary experimentation. We recently had a chat about all of the above.

Osteria Francescana

A kitchen scene, as appears in Bottura's cookbook. Photo by Stefano Grazieri.

What was the first piece of art you purchased?

One of the first contemporary works we bought was Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. We saw the taxidermy pigeons at the Venice Biennale in 1997. By December, once the exhibition was dismounted, ten were in our apartment in Modena. We didn't dare put them in the restaurant at the time, but today some of the pigeons are hanging from the rafters of Osteria Francescana. We installed them after a renovation in 2012. The rest of them sit quietly on a bookshelf in our living room, observing us from above.

What was the last? What's next? What else do you collect?

I just bought, after years of desiring and hunting, two Joseph Beuys pieces. The first is his classic felt suit — one of the most important works in his career — and a material that became a signature for him, the way Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar are for me. The second is a La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a print that shows Beuys walking with his determined gait, iconic hat, and safari vest, a comment on the many social sculptures initiated in Italy in the 1980s.

The first film we ever made for OF was an attempt to describe our creative process through the close examination of two different recipes. We called it We Are the Revolution after Beuys' conceptual premise. We still don't know if these new works will be hung at home or at the restaurant. We always say, "We don't find the art. It finds us." And in that same breath we add, "The art knows where it needs to go."

How would you define your creative process?

My inspiration comes from living in the present and from not getting too caught up in the day-to-day. I daydream a lot. I probably would have been put into the category of ADD when I was a kid. Thank goodness no one noticed or corrected this trait. I let my mind wander as often as I can and I travel through my memories, my experiences allowing my eagerness to taste life guide me. Whenever I find myself in a new place, I eat locally and seek out simple authentic food. That is how I understand a place, through my palate. When I was in China, I learned the technique of making dumplings. In Sri Lanka, curry, and in Thailand how to balance spices. All these experiences are added to my cultural baggage. They become part of me and part of my kitchen. They tell stories about my travels and experiences. I am very interested in personal cooking; not in national or regional cooking. I want to feel that the chef is there, somewhere, in that recipe, speaking to me, asking me to change my point of view.

I always suggest that young chefs read, travel, and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 28-year career.

So, to answer your question, my creative process begins with the world around me, who I am, and where I come from, but everything I have read, listened to, watched, cried over, tasted, and dreamt. I often say, "learn everything, then forget everything." It is so important to fill one's suitcase with culture, books, music, literature, and art, travels, and then kitchen experience. Cooking is not manual labor but a thinking man's job. I mean, creativity is creativity. It's not throwing a piece of meat into a skillet. That is cooking. What we are trying to do requires jumping into that pan with your soul. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one too often left behind, is the mind. If you really think about it, the only zero kilometer cooking is that which is taking place in our minds. I can dream anything or traverse continents without leaving the kitchen.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

Your dishes are conceptual and playful in nature and in name. They're Duchampian — inspired by art and experience. Would you elaborate on that?

I am actually reading a fantastic biography of Duchamp and I love the Calvin Thomas book Afternoons with Duchamp. He had his finger on the pulse long before many others. The language and the titles of my recipes are intrinsic to the ideas and stories behind them. There is Duchamp in there, but also Boetti. Words play such a big part of our world today, and maybe have since the bible, since Gutenberg's printing press. Many artists have used words as visual signifiers for other things — culture, consumerism, and identity. If you call a poached turbot with faux grilled marks "Is this a grilled turbot?" you not only create a curiosity among the diners but you begin to address other issues: How should turbot be cooked? Why is it always grilled on the Adriatic Riviera? Isn't it time we question that?

Food is nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind. Stimulate the appetite, but feed the hungry soul. Language has played a role in my kitchen since the first savory potato and onion Cappuccino, then Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, and so on. A little bit of irony goes a long way, especially if you think about how serious and set in stone the Italian kitchen can be, which is an oxymoron in itself because the Italian kitchen is based on improvisation, yet everyone wants to write down the absolute truth. Well, it just doesn't exist. Bollito, not boiled. There you go.

What's your favorite name of one of your dishes? And your favorite name for a piece of art?

I love the way Alghiero Boetti's mind works. "Immagine e somiglianza" is the title for a series of works by the artist, but the expression also refers to most of Western art. As for my recipes, it's hard to pick just one. They have become companions over the years. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart talks about imperfection and Millefoglie di foglie addresses the importance of finding poetry in the everyday. I love the recipes because I love the ideas behind them as well as the flavors, not just the word play.

You mention Notari "Come to Italy with Me" and "tearing up the pages of the Silver Spoon." You're an Emilian chef who both throttles Italian cooking traditions for not encouraging creativity and grabs hold of other regions to shake them up. What does tradition mean to you?

Tradition is everything. It is our geography — every bell tower and church dotting the countryside. Tradition is an accumulation of human gestures. And when it comes to traditional food, then one is also addressing agriculture, artisans, territory, and identity. I do not deny traditions but work through them, never assuming they are right but always trying to respect their origins. My kitchen is probably (and ironically) the most traditional in Italy today, even if it doesn't look that way. The only way to safeguard our traditions is to let them breathe and grow and move out of the comfort zone. When they become comfort food, then there is the inevitable decline. The critical (and constructive) mind is distracted by sentiments and nostalgia, and consequently the ragu looses something magical in the process. It just becomes another routine instead of a solution to a question, an active gesture, an attempt to revive not just repeat.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

You've made the Emilia Burger for Shake Shack. What are you saying about Italian food and your cuisine to Americans?

If you make an Emilia burger at home, then you will know what I am saying about American food. Good idea, but poor followthrough. What is the great weakness of any hamburger? The patty is always dry. That is why we added ground cotechino and Parmigiano-Reggiano: flavor, gelatin, and texture. Try it and see what happens to your hamburger. By adding a dollop of salsa verde instead of insipid lettuce or a pickle, we've added acidity and chlorophyll in concentration. The touch of balsamic mayonnaise rounds out the flavors and lends depth to the palate. I love America. And I love street food. Eating a hamburger in a park is one of the great joys of being in a city like New York, but if you add a little Italian zing, then wow! Wise contamination is a good thing.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is wonderful — a hybrid coffee table/family history/cookbook that focuses on three-dimensionalization of an idea. It's not just a cookbook or a culinary history. Where do you want to see this book?

I'd love to see the book leave the shelves and migrate to elementary schools and libraries and museums, or find a secret community under the beds of a teenage boys, like the once-coveted issues of Playboy we all collected as kids.

Many of your dishes, like Pollution, have a message. What is your overall message?

I honestly see each recipe in the context of what I learned from it or what we as a restaurant learned from making it. So recipes are little life lessons for chefs and for restaurants. I am still making them up, so I probably won't know the final message until it is too late. The career of a chef is like a puzzle. Over time the pieces fall into place and you begin to see a picture, but often it is not what you thought it would be. I began wanting desperately to be avant-garde, to break the rules and live dangerously. The more I grow and learn, the more our kitchen whispers rather than shouts. I like this reversal because I'd rather engage an audience in an idea, a flavor, a string of thoughts than shock them. Our kitchen leads you inward like a labyrinth to a place called flavor — which at times can be familiar and at times alarming. We hope unforgettable and enduring. That is what we aim for. But the real message of the book is directed at the next generation: Be like a tree. Grow slowly.

Hot Pockets: Enrico Cerea, The Best Italian Meal You'll Ever Have is in Switzerland

Hot Pockets is my series of chef interviews for this blog and other publications.  My interview with Enrico Cerea of Da Vittorio originally appeared in Fathom in October 2014.

When we think of St. Moritz, we think of luxurious lodges, flashy furs, and snowy finery. We don't often think of Italian food. The Cerea family, owners of Michelin-starred restaurant Da Vittorio in Bergamo, Italy, is changing all that. Fathom contributing editor Erica Firpo fills us in on the restaurant's new Alpine satellite, which is helping turn an ostentatious ski town into a hidden food paradise.

ST. MORITZ – According to my husband, Darius Arya, there is only one reason to go to St. Moritz. Food. Don't get me wrong, he's an avid skier (off-piste, I might add), but lately his obsession with the tiny Engadin valley town is its restaurants, pastry shops, and pubs.

St. Moritz is home to some 90 restaurants, of which at least four are Michelin-starred, as well as an annual four-day Gourmet Food Festival where top chefs take a break from their own restaurants to show off some flare. Mark your calendar for January 26 - 31: The 2015 festival will star some of Britain's top chefs to celebrate their discovery of the Swiss winter getaway.

Bottom line, from fondue to foam, St. Moritz is a foodie enclave.

When Darius proposed a ski vacation, I laughed. I don't relax in less than 70-degree ambient temperature, and the kind of sports I like give an overall tan. But when he mentioned that St. Moritz is a snowballing supernova of ski and cuisine, I thought it was about time I dusted off my earmuffs, hopped that fabulous red train that runs through the Bernina Valley, and make my way to Da Vittorio.

If St. Moritz is an exploding galaxy of amazing food spots, Da Vittorio is its Red Giant star. The outpost of historic Da Vittorio in Bergamo, one of Italy's eight Michelin three-star restaurants, opened at the Carlton Hotel in December 2012 and captured a Michelin star in November 2013. Not too shabby for a seasonal restaurant.

But Da Vittorio isn't simply a restaurant — it's a family empire. The Cerea siblings — brothers Enrico, Francesco, and Roberto and sisters Barbara and Rosella — have taken their father's Bergamo restaurant and expanded into an all-encompassing philosophy, institution, and school, or, better yet, a cult where food is God and God is good.

I met up with Enrico and the St. Moritz team to talk about the Cerea food philosophy and what to expect in St. Moritz.

What is Da Vittorio?

Da Vittorio is a family restaurant started by my father, Vittorio Cerea, in 1966 in Bergamo. He was more than just a buona forchetta (literally a "good fork"). He was a self-taught chef who just wanted to share his passion. In 1970, he received his first Michelin star, in 1996 his second, and in 2010 his third. My siblings and I continue his legacy and love for cooking by overseeing a large, family-style team of approximately 140 people who work together at our restaurant, pastry shop, and catering company at the Dimora Boutique Hotel in Bergamo, and now at Da Vittorio's new location in St. Moritz.

So what is Da Vittorio St. Moritz?

Da Vittorio St. Moritz is slightly different from Bergamo. The clientele is more relaxed. They are on vacation, and that's reflected in the menu, style, and atmosphere. My brother Roberto and I alternate between Italy and St. Moritz, where we have a team of eleven people, including chef Luca Mancini. He's been working with the Cerea family for six years, and in 2012 he was voted Northern Italy's Number One Emerging Chef. Since 2012, he has spent the winter season in St. Moritz and the summer in Bergamo. We bring our more experienced chefs to St. Moritz and introduce and train new chefs in Bergamo.

cerea
cerea

What can we expect at Da Vittorio St. Moritz?

We focus on Italian dishes, such as our paccheri (Da Vittorio's signature dish, a simple pasta elevated to a meteoric level), and we are proud of regional and local traditions and products (like Bergamo's sciur, a very piquant aged blue cheese covered in red fruits). All of our produce, meat, and fish come from Italian suppliers who we have worked with for decades and know personally. We pick and choose what we want, and it is shipped the next day.

Enrico seems to spend most of his time traveling back and forth between St. Moritz and Bergamo to talk with family and a team of more than 100 chefs and local producers. Everything on the table comes from decades-old relationships with Italian-based farmers and fishermen. The St. Moritz team represents practically every region of Italy and is made up of top sous chefs and students from Bergamo. His sommelier is a walking encyclopedia of beverages and chocolate.

And the cuisine? It's almost ironic that I traveled out of Italy to experience what could be considered a basic pasta dish. But it blew me away, as did everything else that was on the table.

Hot Pockets: Roy Caceres, Rising Rome Chef’s Brave New World

Hot Pockets is a series of chef interviews that I write for my blog and/or other publications. My interview with Roy Caceres of Metamorfosi for Forbes Travelwas published in April 2013.  Caceres since gained a Michelin star.  

SB_RoyCaceres_CreditMetamorfosi5
SB_RoyCaceres_CreditMetamorfosi5

It’s a brave new world in Rome’s restaurant scene. Where tradition once unwaveringly reigned supreme, creativity is the novel leader. Heralding the movement is Roy Caceres, chef of Metamorfosi, the latest entry to Rome’s growing list of top-tier restaurants. Likewise, Caceres is being feted as one of Italy’s rising stars.

Born in Colombia, Caceres has been sharpening his skills in Italy’s kitchens for nearly two decades, including Porto Ercole’s Il Pellicano and Bologna’s Locanda Solarola. In fall 2010, Caceres set stakes in Rome’s tony Parioli neighborhood, opening Metamorfosi. With a sly wink to antiquity’s Ovid, the Roman poet who wrote Metamorphoses, Metamorfosi is all about transforming the Roman cuisine stereotype by Caceres’ mosaicked menu of dishes that play on Italian traditions and nouveau cuisine. As Caceres says, “Every dish is an homage, a joke, a play on food, whether traditional or not.”

When Caceres is not playing with tradition, he’s making it, best exemplified by Uovo 65°, an unlikely reinterpretation of carbonara, where taste trumps form as the traditional dish excludes pasta in favor of creamy essence, and the more subtle (but long-titled) Bottoni, burro, parimigiano 36 mesi e tartufo, a delicious, truffle-garnished ravioli served in a parmesan broth as hearty and delectable as any beef stock.

Though the menu meanders around Italian fare traditions, it is also a celebration of culture as the Metamorfosi team of chefs represents Sweden, Colombia and Japan with collective experience in Italy, their respective countries and around the globe. It is this Caceres-described inter-cambia (an engaged interchange) that creates not just a dynamic menu, but collaborative participation in the kitchen and on the table.

But even with the obvious dedication to the restaurant, I was somehow still able to pull chef Caceres away from the stove for a quick chat. Here are the highlights…

What is your favorite dish at Metamorfosi?

Crudo di Fassona (tartar of Piemontese beef). This dish reminds me of my grandfather who used to make me something similar when I was child. It also contains my favorite ingredients including raw beef, mint, spring onion and egg.

What ingredient is a must-have in your kitchen?

Salt is fundamental to me. It jumpstarts tastes and augments it, but it must be used well or else it will cover up natural flavors.

Where do you like to eat in Rome?

On my days off, I like to take my family out of Rome and to the countryside. A favorite restaurant is Le Colline Ciociare in Frosinone. In Rome, I’ll go to Gabriele Bonci’s Pizzarium for take-away pizza.