Chef Valeria Piccini from Da Caino restaurant in Montemerano, Tuscany had never been to Asia when she got a call from Angelo Agliano to be the first of five female Italian chefs to cook at Tosca di Angelo at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong.
She immediately accepted because she is always of the view that she can always learn something from such events.
But the shock of the first few days in a new continent and a new reality was very evident. “I am not used to the chaos of the city. I come from a tiny village where there are probably more chickens than people. It is chaotic but you could say the same about Rome, Florence or any other city in the world particularly when you live in the countryside,” she tells Food and Wine Gazette.
Valeria is a self-taught chef having studied sciences and has a degree in chemistry. But she was born into a family of lovers of good food, her mother and grandmother used to cook for pleasure. And it was her mother in law that gave her the opportunity to cook in a professional kitchen and in 1987 she was given the reigns to take over the kitchen.
Valeria has a motherly figure, and she is a legend of Italian cuisine. Her lack of English knowledge means she is little known outside Italy but her knowledge, her cooking, her sense of the need to preserve tradition while learning new techniques and keeping abreast with what’s happening in the food world are second to none. It is no wonder she is considered one of the great chefs in Italy.
With a degree in chemistry I was wondering whether that would have impacted her way of approaching the kitchen. While there are some professionals who turned to cooking and used their academic background to bring something new, Valeria said that with industrial chemistry, it was not like she could bring it into the kitchen. “The only thing that I have with me is a pipette. Even when I write recipes, I write three drops of this, five drops of that. That is how I work.”
But of course that academic background means that she knows the value of studying, reading and constantly learning.
The chef is very attached to traditions. “Of course I study modern techniques and we can do things that feel really modern but what is essential in cooking is that you don’t ruin the produce you have. Technique is accessible to anyone who wants to learn, anyone can make something if they read or or shown how to do it,” she said.
In her village in Tuscany in the Maremma area on the border with the Lazio region, Valeria is far away from the modern world. “At times it is difficult to think about how quick the world is going when you are in the countryside. I have things that have always been available for me, my suppliers and producers that provide me with all the bio food I need. People who come to the restaurant come to enjoy the terroir and not to see me cook with soya to give an example. My kitchen however is not necessarily traditional. You will always find dishes that are new on the menu but they will speak of the terroir. I may use techniques but I have to be capable of never ruining the produce,” she said.
She speaks about her experience in Hong Kong. “It was excellent. I am really enthusiastic about what I’ve seen, what I’ve tasted, the welcome and seeing the work in the kitchen. Angelo is really a special person but I realised the first time I spoke to him. We discussed the ingredients, what quantities I needed and he told me not to worry, he would handle everything which was what he did.”
Valeria brought some classic dishes with her for the collaboration dinner, one of which was the star of the show, a ravioli dish called cacio e pere or cheese and pear which has been on the menu for 35 years. “I’ve never removed it from the menu. It is done at a certain time when the pears have a certain ripeness to them. Where I am in Tuscany this is normally in summer,” she tells me. The ripeness of the pear and the mixture of sheep ricotta and pecorino and the lightness of the pasta make this dish one that fits perfectly in today’s contemporary way of cooking. It is a dish that is both classic and modern at the same time with a lightness that represents today’s cooking more than that of the 1980s.
We walk with Valeria around the food markets of Hong Kong, to try snake, Peking Duck and lacquered goose among others. She, together with her two assistants Guglielmo Chiarapini and Andrea Bertolino are absorbing as much information as they can, fascinated by the ingredients and techniques they were discovering.
“What really fascinated me was the lacquered duck and goose. I have a pigeon dish which can never be removed from the menu and I’m thinking whether I can do something similar with pigeon,” she tells me.
There are clear differences between the kitchen at Tosca and the kitchen at Da Caino. “The brigade here is very French style and that comes from Angelo’s experience from Robuchon. I am more of a mother figure with children. Of course I am the chef but here there is clearly more discipline. Still Angelo really has a great team,” she said.
She believes that Italian cuisine at the moment is very open to the world. I ask her if this is the best moment for Italian cuisine? “For sure it is a good moment, but if we can do better that would of course be great. But there are many youngsters who are really trying hard,” she said.