Riccardo Camanini and his brother Giancarlo opened Lido 84 in Italy five years ago and it has been on my places to visit for at least three years, way before it became known.
Today the secret is out about Lido 84 but till this day, the two brothers who own the restaurant, still cannot really understand the hype about their success.
One thing strikes you when you enter the magical dining room of Lido 84. It is not the view of Lago Di Garda, which you would have soaked in by driving there or else walking from the car park. Neither are it the art pieces that have been very carefully selected by the Camanini brothers. It is rather a striking collection of books which even for a bookworm like me is nothing short of impressive.
They are not there to add to the decor of the restaurant. They form an integral part of Riccardo Camanini’s way of working.
“Saturday morning is a time of reflection for us. We wanted to create a space where our staff could take the time to read. I wanted to show the staff what has really driven me and from where I have learnt most over the past years. I have deepened my knowledge and understanding thanks to reading,” the Italian chef told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
He did not started reading early. “I started reading about gastronomy after I was 30 years old. It was a bit late because reading gives you the ability to understand what has happened in the past. Before I was 30 years old, I would buy books and go through them but I would not necessarily go in-depth,” Riccardo said.
It was this idea which comes with maturity but also reflection that led to Riccardo and his brother to give their staff the time to read, to go deep into a subject and to work on projects in teams. “Saturday morning is a fundamental time for us. Most of the time during the week, staff is focusing on doing but at this time, the focus is on learning.”
This work started last year and the results are visible according to Riccardo. “Over the past year, I had not asked that question but of course now that I reflect, I’ve noticed a difference. Many times, in conversation, during service, I realise that we make a connection between what we do and what the team has read. The reading has accelerated our learning. An example of this is our work with ice-cream, bread and even sauces,” he said.
Riccardo believes that this has also been fundamental for team work.
The Italian chef has made a name for himself not only in Italy but also outside of Italy over the past few years. The restaurant, Lido 84, has been spotted by the international jet-set and with that has come recognition and fame. It is in an idyllic location in Gardone Riviera though you might miss it if you are driving around the lake.
But despite the increasing recognition and success they remain extremely humble at times giving you the impression that they cannot believe what the hype is all about and pinching themselves from time to time to ask whether that they have achieved is true or not.
Riccardo and his brother Giancarlo had been planning the opening of a restaurant for many years. “It was always our dream. Giancarlo and I have always done things in anticipation. We are like that. We had planned it. At forty years, we wanted to give ourselves a restaurant as a present and we planned and saved for this objective. I was 40, my brother 41. We had a savings plan in place and worked towards this objective.”
Nothing had prepared them for the work that was involved though his experience working in a large restaurant was fundamental because he learned to cook for large numbers and that required a certain type of organisation. That stint at work allowed him to read and study a lot.
The search for a restaurant took long. “We looked for a place for more than a year and a half. We were looking not just on the lake but even in the city. When we stumbled on the restaurant, we loved the light which is something really distinct. We thought it was a nice space for a small restaurant.”
“However, it seemed like a challenge to us because there is a rule in Italy that once a restaurant change hands it needs to be closed. And once it is closed and reopened it needs to adher to today’s rules from hygiene to accessibility.”
They did not really think much about the fact that there needed a lot to be done since they loved the space and the light. But then they got worried because the works involved were considerable there was no heating, no windows, the toilets had just a hole like in the old days. “If the toilet was like that, just imagine what the rest was like. The place needed to be completely gutted,” he said.
The slowness of entrepreneurship is something that stresses me a lot. Sometimes I say to myself that one day I might get tired of this slowness. You waste so much time.
Another element of the dining room is the eclectic choice of tables and chairs which are different but which work wonders in the space. “We broke the rules but we did not know at the time. It was not something deliberate that we had thought about. This was our first experience as restauranteurs and and it was important for us to do it well. We bought the art work and the furniture bit by bit. The situation evolved out of necessity though it is an evolution of what we are and what we do,” he said.
As a chef, what stressed Riccardo most was the slowness. “When you are a chef you can create a dish in a day if that is necessary. But dealing with bureaucracy, meetings, collaborators, everything is slow. The slowness of entrepreneurship is something that stresses me a lot. Sometimes I say to myself that one day I might get tired of this slowness. You waste so much time. But these are things that are not in our control. We are still at the beginning of our journey, the restaurant is still young.”
The two brothers have achieved recognition beyond their widest dreams. A Michelin star, top acclaim in Italy by the Guida dell’Espresso, maybe the most influential guide in Italy, dish of the year at the World’s Restaurant Awards and more recently restaurant to watch in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
They are now at a turning point. We talk about Open, the autobiography of Tennis star Andre Agassi and one of Ricardo’s favourite books which could be an analogy for the working hard part of the story. “I spent three and a half years coming to the restaurant at 6am and leaving the restaurant at 1.30am Since one and a half years I start at 8am but still leave at 1.30am.”
Are you afraid that you might lose your creativity and your motivation with all this work. That it no longer remains fun. That the hard work kills the energy needed for creativity? “Yes, I am,” he confides. “But the necessity to work was there. When we started in 2014, we had just four cooks. Two were employed and two were trainees. Training took long and staying at the restaurant became a necessity as I needed to train people. It is obvious that the ability to rest is essential because you are more lucid and can be more serene at work. I need to get to that point, step by step but I love to be in the kitchen.”
The kitchen is also his gym and his thinking ground. His philosophy of cuisine is to present things in the simplest possible fashion but after having gone in depth. “It is easier to work in this way. I stay in the kitchen because I’ve also tried to create dishes in an office with a pencil and paper, in front of a computer but I don’t manage to create anything. In the kitchen, I can see an ingredient, and another and I can start experimenting, trying things out,” he said.
So with such a schedule how does he find the time to read, I ask him, given this is one of his hobbies. “My space for reading is from 1.30am to 2.30am. I stop on Monday evening and Tuesday evening and don’t think about the kitchen. Every evening I read for an hour, I always have five or six books open at the same time. I don’t manage to read just one book at a time. I take books with me whenever I am travelling.”
Over the past five years he has created nearly 300 dishes. “We have catalogues all the dishes that we have served at least for two to three weeks over the past five years. What really pushes me to create dishes is the produce. For the first time, after a previous experience working for 16 years in a restaurant that closed in winter, I could work with winter produce. It is something I had never done before. In winter, there is a limit to what nature provides but that limit enables you to research and to go deep. I could work with game which is something I had done at Gualtiero Marchesi and in France but then stopped. Over the past two years, I’ve also been able to deepen my work with organic vegetables which I buy from farmers just five kilometres away. The approach to purchasing has also changed and this has had an impact. Before, the orders were done by phone or email, here, since the restaurant is small, the purchasing is more local and this opens avenues to work with different products.”
Ricardo knows that despite his likes and dislikes it is ultimately the client who determines the success of a dish or not.
“Evolution is constant. Even for the Cacio e Pepe, every portion we serve is different. Firstly, the bladder we cook it in is always different. The atmospheric pressure also has a huge influence on the dish as does the pasta. The pasta might be the same but the grain might have changed. Dishes are in constant evolution, They have their own life. Apart from the ingredients that change there is also an anthropological reason that a dish might change. Sometimes, over the span of four years, a dish could have a different taste because of how it has evolved.”
He cites for example how people might be told not to eat something and over a span of two years that ingredient would disappear or else there is an ingredient like beetroot which everyone was using at a given time and now no one is using anymore.
Ricardo Camanini has often spoken about the egoism of chefs and the need to remember that clients have come to your restaurant and given you their time. “It is a dilemma I am still trying to understand and I’ve been reflecting on this over the past few years. To create a dish, I go deep inside my palate. It is a human approach but also a personal approach and from here you understand the taste of a dish. That dish is normally the result of an ingredient which I like. It also depends on what I would like to eat and that might not be the same for others. That is why I speak about an act of egoism. I remembered the genius of Alain Ducasse who said in an interview that he cooks for himself. When I listened to that interview, I was surprised because he was able to express something that was so profound so simply.”
“Every day, when you have clients at your restaurant you need to remember and dedicate yourself to your clients, to people who have decided to spend time in your place, to remember that people have come here for lunch at Lago di Garda. But you also need to remember the egoism of cooking a certain dish. When you are cooking a dish, you imagine that you are going to eat it. It is at that moment when you egoistically think it needs a bit more lemon or oil. You might make a mistake but egoism is also necessary because it is the fundamental difference between the work of an artisan or not.”
My fear is that I think I’m right and that clients don’t understand. I need to remember that I cook for someone else, that I cook to give joy and that this is what’s important
But what if your palate is different to someone else’s I ask him. Aren’t you afraid? “The fear is different. I always go around the tables after service. Thanks to our staff I also know whether clients have liked a dish or not. I want to understand and I want to be able to change. But my fear, from an egoistic point of view is that I have an opinion that is mine alone. That can be dangerous. That is my fear. I’ve never succumbed to it but my fear is to say that I’m right and that the clients don’t understand. I need to remember that I cook for someone else, that I cook to give joy and that this is what’s important.”
One other striking element of the restaurant is that the prices compared to fine dining restaurants are very good value. “We’ve done this deliberately because our restaurant is artisanal and we need to have people. We looked around and we are not in Milan but in Gardone Riviera. The choice of ingredients is also deliberate in this regard. We have a very young audience in the evenings and that is great because this is also the future. We want to be able to give people the possibility to experience the restaurant and our cuisine,” he said.
Ricardo has reached the pinnacle in Italy but the restaurant still has one Michelin star. Is he afraid of achieving a second Michelin star and having to adjust to a certain stereotype. “I don’t know. I’ve thought about it but have never had two stars so I don’t know what it would be like. I think we will remain tied to our concept even if we receive more recognition. We will not change to add more zeros to the costs or the bills. We hope to invest, to improve the gardens. We need to spend a lot more money and for us what’s most important is the continuity. So I am not afraid of these ‘fears’,” he said.
The Camanini brothers and their restaurant have become famous around the world despite the fact that most of their dishes use the simplest ingredients possible. “To be honest, we are very surprised by all this attention and sometimes there is too much attention on what we are doing. There are a number of things that create a situation where people think something good is happening there. But we remember that this is our first experience as restauranteurs and over the past five years we’ve experienced how difficult it is to run a restaurant. When you are a chef you need to think about 10 things, when you are the owner you need to think about 100,” he said.
Ricardo has world famous dishes like the Cacio e Pepe but also a very simple dish – spaghetti with butter and yeast which has made it to Alain Ducasse’s menu at Place Athénée. “I was intimidated because I had to meet him in Paris before he put it on the menu and I remember I was very agitated. I know it is a good dish but I don’t believe it is that good. It is the same thing when people tell you you are good but to be honest, you don’t really think that. Maybe, you realise you are improving but you still don’t think that the restaurant is so good.”
Ducasse told him he wanted to push the dish on the menu a year before. “I told him thank you and was pleased and didn’t think much about it much but then he explained why. He remembered that when he was working with a chef, that chef had gone to eat at Roger Vergé and had eaten a dish of fois gras with roasted apricot which was amazing. The chef had told Alain to go and try it. Ducasse had gone and returned saying the dish was really great. The chef told Ducasse he wanted to help the young chef by giving him visibility so he put it on his restaurant’s menu. Ducasse told me that this really left a mark on him and it was the first time he was doing it himself and wanted to start with me. It was a very generous gesture. I personally can never imagine a cuisine in terms of a table of standings or something that is the best in the world.”
Ricardo explained how the dish came about. “When we opened the restaurant we had a simple spaghetti with butter and anchovies. In March and April we added some lemon and in May, given it was camomile season we made it with camomile. We realised that our guests, whether they were German or Italian loved the spaghetti with butter. I tried it with fresh beer yeast and it was really bad. It was acidic and pungent so I stopped trying and put the yeast in the fridge. The flavour changed completely. It became less acidic. I tested it in the oven and when it became dry and placed on the pasta it tasted as if you were eating bread and butter. When I created this dish, I never had the sensation that it would last so long. I thought to myself that if it does not work, I will remove it from the menu within a week. But then Andrea Petrini (a food writer and leader of GELINAZ!) came after a month, tried it, loved it and wrote a lot about it. I have to admit that there are people who don’t like it and might prefer other dishes.”
I ask him where he sees himself in five years time. “When we opened the restaurant five years ago we never imagined where we would be today. Before we opened Lido 84, I was a cook. No one knew me at the time and I thought that was my level. I think it is more absurd today that I am known so I don’t know where I will be in five years time. I hope to be well, to be happy with what I do and to be serene. We are two simple people and we will see what happens,” he said.
With that attitude, and having kept their feet to the ground. they can only go further. Much further.