July 19, 2019

KNIFE-LY DONE

Chef Alessandro Persico from Celini, Grand Hyatt Mumbai adds a special twist to every plate he serves. And it isn't just an Italian twist, so much of it is his own. You have to watch him at work with his knife to know what we are talking about

AS TOLD TO YVONNE JACOB PHOTOGRAPHY ROSHNI MANGHANI

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Alessandro. I’m from Genoa, Italy. I started working in the kitchen when I was 14 years old. Now that I’m 44, I’ve travelled to many places around the world, for the last 10 years (I will complete 10 years in September) I am proudly working for Hyatt as Italian chef de cuisine! This is my life, my passion.

Do you have a specific style of cooking?

My mother is from a small island called Sardinia. They say that people from Sardinia don’t belong from Italy because they have a different language and a different cuisine. But if you see my father’s side, he’s born and brought up in Turin. I spent most of my childhood travelling all over Italy during the summers. My cuisine is of course a try at giving a touch of my region, because it’s my region. But you can say it’s from all over Italy. I try to blend all the regions, all the specific traditional recipes. And sometimes they transform into something more exciting.

When did you know that food is your calling?

When I finished school, I was 14 and of course, I applied to go to a culinary school, but I also wanted to buy myself a bike! My father wasn’t agreeing to that so I asked my mother, who at that time was working in a court, to help me. We found a job in the kitchen where I worked for 3 months during the summer break. I have to admit, the first experience was a little dramatic, but after that I understood that cooking was my future. Even before I started to work, I used to cook at home with my sister after school. So that was the time I used to try my recipes. My parents came to India 40 years ago and they brought back a lot of spices. Oh, I just remembered the time when I was trying to make all kinds of sauces with them. I used to put turmeric and masala powder for fun and I used to make my sister eat the food. Most of the time it used to be disastrous! But you know, everything takes time and patience and I made my way till here today at Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

Are you more of a dessert person or a savoury kind?

(Laughs) Good question! I love all kinds of food. I love sweet, especially Italian dessert because there are so many types in Italy! I cannot have too much sugar so I put my effort more on savoury – homemade pasta or a nice meat recipe. Now that I work in India, I also specialise in vegetarian dishes. I try to do my best in everything from appetisers to desserts.

What’s that one ingredient you can’t live without?

There are two actually! One is tomato and the other is parmesan. Tomato is the basic for a good pasta sauce. Basically, tomato, cheese and pasta – you cannot find an Italian who can live without these things.

On a lazy day what dish would you like to have?

You know, it’s funny because you work in the kitchen and have these elaborate plates and food around you, but when it’s time to eat, all chefs prefer simple food. You know what do I like to eat? I like pasta with some very good extra virgin olive oil and parmesan cheese. That’s one of my favourite dishes. Simple things, you know! Some nice arugula salad with cherry tomato from Italy, some balsamic reduction, shaved cheese, that’s all we eat in Italy. Today is an evolution for cuisine. We didn’t have the same kind of pasta in Italy hundred years ago or the pizza or tiramisu. It’s all age old, but recent too, you know!

SOMETIMES I GET A DIFFERENT TYPE OF INGREDIENT AND I SEND IT BACK. YOU CANNOT JUST USE A SIMILAR THING. YOU NEED THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS FOR QUALITY DISHES

What’s your idea of comfort food?

That’s what I say, comfort food is simple food. Fresh! It’s all about the ingredients. It’s something simple, like my mother’s sauce. You go to my house at lunchtime and she makes this nice tomato sauce, I don’t know how she does it. She has some kind of magic in her hand and I can never understand. She has this ceramic pot, one piece of garlic, some olive oil and tomato. She makes simple food and every day you have your pasta, you have salad and a cheese tray in the refrigerator. And of course, a nice glass of wine is never missing on the table!

Are there any tools or ingredients you simply don’t compromise on when it comes to quality?

Yes I do. There are so many ingredients you cannot compromise on. For tomato sauce, we choose the best kind. Sometimes I get a different type and I send it back. I have to have the right rice, pasta, flour, vegetable and cheese. You cannot just use a similar thing. You need to have the right ingredients for quality dishes.

Is there a cardinal sin that a chef can commit?

I think when you are in the restaurant, you need to be very professional. Sometimes in your private life many things happen. But when it comes to work, you need to be yourself all the time and be respectful too. I never answer in a bad way to the guest, even if they are irritating (chuckles). Maybe they had a bad day, but our job is to make them happy. So I always try to find a way to make it a good experience.

What are you known for amongst your teammates?

I think I'm known for my personality and good attitude. I guess I have a good attitude (laughs) and also because of my funny look. They told me I look like Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille! But more importantly, it is also the fact that God gave me the gift to cook, so this must be it too.

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