What happens when an experienced, charming and passionate Italian chef leaves his comfort zone at a Michelin-starred eatery in Rome (read the highly-acclaimed Imago at Hotel Hassler Roma), to head the kitchen at a fine dining Italian eatery in India? The experience is nothing short of enriching. Chef Alessandro Stefoni recently set up shop in Mumbai after a 12 year journey through a slew of Italian restaurants across cities like Milan, Venice, Los Angeles and St Moritz, and an enviable stint as the King of Spain’s official chef for an evening. In fact, the young chef even worked with Chef Gualtiero Marchesi, considered by many to be the father of Italian cuisine.
Assuming a role at the helm of an Italian restaurant like Vetro — which has already established itself as one of Mumbai’s premier European fine dining eateries — is not an easy task. There is a multicultural staff to work with, discerning customers to handle and high standards to be maintained. But Vetro’s menu is now new and improved, taking the restaurant to a whole new level. “I have added 25 dishes to the menu, with a priority on freshness. I am using more fresh herbs like marjoram, thyme and basil. A simple salad with bell peppers, rosemary and spring onion can start off a meal on a wonderful note,” says the chef.
Talking about this reinterpreted menu, Stefoni says, “I have added my ideas into the dishes. These days, there are too many dishes with too many ingredients. I am going back to the basics. Simplicity is the key to fine dining. I refuse to contaminate dishes with an overload of ingredients. If you eat chicken, that’s all you should enjoy. You don’t want to overdo it with salt, paprika, aniseed and the works. For me, haute cuisine would mean four ingredients, or five. I am simplifying the menu, thereby adding refinement.”
The highlights of the new menu include delicacies like Linguine with Sea Bass Ragout, where the fish is prepared not on the fire but cooked with the heat of the pasta, thereby packing in all the flavour. Similarly, the tuna used in the risotto is slow cooked and then placed on the rice. The burst of flavours that follows is exquisite. The chicken pie, which has been slow cooked in a vacuum bag, features a beer reduction, made with Italy’s iconic Peroni beer, adding some interesting bitter notes.
Catering to his discerning vegetarian diners is a “pleasure” says the 33-year-old chef. “There’s so much variety and flavour in the vegetable world, and you can make such wonderful dishes for vegetarians. The possibilities are endless. You cannot possibly make an entire menu with only meat and fish. The vegetarians have it much better if you ask me, barring the lack of protein,” says the chef laughingly.
So what’s it like running a fine dining Italian kitchen in India, where sourcing and maintaining the quality of ingredients is not always easy? Chef Stefoni is devoid of any cynicism when he says, “It’s pretty simple, we import some ingredients from Italy. For a traditional Italian recipe, I use parmiggiano, pecorini, mascarpone, olive oil and ham from Italy. But as far as possible, I try to use locally-sourced ingredients. You can’t always make a good dish with an ingredient that has travelled thousands of kilometres just to get here. The meat, seafood and vegetables are from here.”
There is an interesting observation to be made on how chefs source ingredients in India and in Europe. Chef Stefoni explains, “As a chef in a big Indian hotel, I don’t get to speak to suppliers. In Italy, on the other hand, even the biggest go into vegetable and meat markets to taste the ingredients and interact with their suppliers. I would like to establish a good supply chain here for my restaurant. It would be nice to bring in some burrata cheese (one grade higher than mozzarella) and maybe even some fresh Italian truffles.”
How does he plan to work his magic at the restaurant? He concludes, “I’d like to promote my brand of contemporary Italian cuisine. I don’t want to go crazy making a Michelin-star menu. All I want to do is to add simplicity and finesse to the fine dining experience.”
For now, it is safe to say that he’s been more than successful.
Chef Stefoni’s additions to the menu at Vetro:
■ Tenderloin Carpaccio with Chickpea Salad and Parmesan Cheese
■ Glazed Pork Belly with Alpen Muesli and Yoghurt
■ Vegetable Terrine with Pesto
■ Linguine with Sea Bass Ragout, Pecorino and Cherry Tomato Sauce
■ Risotto with Nduja (soft sausage paste) of Tuna with Mascarpone
■ Lobster and Red Pepper Stew with Almonds and Saffron
■ Chocolate Sponge Cake with Olive Oil and Orange Marmalade