If there is one thing that has been taken from many of us over the past year, it is the feeling of liberty. That feeling of being able to take the car, train or aeroplane and visit places that are a bit further away than your place of residence. Valentino Cassanelli, chef of Lux Lucis is no exception.
He is dreaming of that day, some time soon, when he will be able to just take the car and discover those parts of Italy he has not really explored yet, like Sicily for example. “I would like to regain that sense of liberty. I want to be able to discover some places or rediscover others. All this lockdown has made me think of the places that I don’t know really well. I know Italy but I want to delve deeper,” he tells me.
The Italian 37-year-old chef, who grew up in Spilamberto, a small town in the countryside outside Modena also relishes a trip to London to see how the city has changed during this pandemic, what has happened to certain neighbourhoods and what new restaurants will reopen after the crisis is over. But for the time being, his preoccupation is when his restaurant Lux Lucis will reopen after the winter break. The situation remains uncertain a year into the pandemic.
We are speaking over a Zoom call late last year when Valentino was starting to prepare the new menu for the reopening of Lux Lucis which normally closes between November and March. Today, he still does not know when the restaurant will reopen because the COVID-19 situation still does not allow for a return to ‘normality’.
He has had time to reflect on the future of fine dining, on what it means to cook and why he believes people will still relish those moments at table, maybe more than ever once this is all over.
“I live this period trying to see what things will look like in future. It is difficult to imagine because every day is different and when we think we are near the end, it changes again.”
His restaurants, because he is not just chef of Lux Lucis but also the executive chef of the hotel Principe Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany were open during the summer months and early autumn where he was able to experiment with different types of pop-ups because of the restrictions.
“We are lucky to have the space and we are lucky that people come here to relax, whether it is on the terrace or the beach. We have our own normality. The future will be different but there will be a sense of normality because we can make the best use of our open spaces,” he told Food and Wine Gazette.
“It might be more difficult for those working in cities. The approach may have to be different. I am sad for the very small places that don’t have the space, that are traditional and which cater for what we all want, which is to be close to each other even if we are at different tables. There could be repercussions for these types of restaurants in future. Hopefully they manage to change the system and approach to their work so it will enable us to go to them,” he tells me.
He is of the view that for fine dining, it will be different because as he says ‘people need culture’. “Fine dining is part of culture. It is something that is nice, that allows you to forget your daily life and have a magical experience with someone else. I cannot imagine a time when we will not go to theatres or that there will be no photographic exhibitions. A lot of things will need to be rethought, including the economic structure but at the same time we saw that people couldn’t wait to return back to the restaurant when they reopened,” Valentino tells me.
Before we delve into his story and his views it is worth starting at the beginning. The timid chef came to cooking rather naturally. He was always curious about food. It might sound like a cliche but his grandmother was an excellent home cook. When he was young, his parents were working and he would always try to prepare something for them during his holidays for when they came back from work. It could have been a simple pasta dish with plain tomato sauce. These early influences led him straight to cooking school. He worked in a number of trattorias before he headed to London where he eventually managed to get to Locanda Locatelli and worked with Giorgio Locatelli, already famous in UK at the time but not as well known as he is today in Italy after his Masterchef appearance there.
That proved to be his first really important experience. “In London, it was really incredible to see this melting pot of cultures, the exchange of ideas. With the rest of the kitchen team who came from all corners of the world we would talk about the kitchen, music, culture. It was an explosion and not just as a chef.”
He was fascinated by Giorgio Locatelli. “What surprised me was how well he knew the produce and the small producers. It was a simple type of cuisine but it was perfect. This was really an important step for me because I learned in London, from a distance, about how to research and how to respect produce. I am lucky today to work in a region with excellent producers but to see it at a distance was something different,” he tells me.
Valentino then went to work at Nobu in Park Lane. “I went there to eat and was fascinated by the fusion of oriental flavours. I thought it would be important to move there and for me that was an important step,” he said.
After three years he returned to Italy and sent his CV to Carlo Cracco who he believes was at the peak of his creativity at the time. “I immediately got a call because they had an open position and stayed there for three years.”
Focus should be on trying what is possible and keeping an open mind. This is fundamental because you can break something and turn it into something else with vision and taste
Valentino was immediately put to test as he shares an anecdote with me. He comes from a region which takes fresh pasta extremely seriously, you could say almost religiously. So he was shocked when on the first days he was asked to prepare a ‘ravioli’ with mayonnaise. “My grandmother comes from Emilia Romagna and I thought if she knows that I was preparing ravioli with mayonnaise and green sauce she would kill me.”
“But that experience was really important because it showed me that the focus should be on trying what was possible and keeping an open mind. This is fundamental because you can break something and turn it into something else with vision and taste. If you are capable, you can do anything though of course you need to know the traditions and the techniques,” he said.
The experience with Cracco allowed him to collaborate and meet foreign chefs which was really an important part of his career.
In 2010, he went to work with a friend in Venice and they opened the restaurant Sangal. But after a year and a half he got a call from Carlo telling him whether he wanted to collaborate on a project at the hotel. Soon after they offered him the position of executive chef for the whole company and from then there was no turning back.
“At the time, I was 27 years old, I had never worked in a hotel, had no room service experience, working 7 ways a week with breakfast and all. It was complicated at the start,” he said.
In 2012 he opened Lux Lucis which was awarded a Michelin star in 2017. “I like to think that it is my free expression of Italian cuisine. Together with my team we work on studying what’s new. We are curious about techniques and what’s happening but we don’t follow trends. My food is free from fashion and trends. It is our interpretation of the territory that goes through our hands and palates,” he said.
Together with his team, they are now in charge of three restaurants in the small boutique hotel. “We also have Dalmazia which is a restaurant on the beach serving traditional cuisine. “We use the same produce so you can expect the same produce in terms of quality but it is more traditional and the aim is to intervene the least possible,” he said.
Lux Lucis is the rooftop restaurant and it is here that he expresses himself to interpret Italian cuisine. “It is Italian cuisine because we are proud of where we come from and of our small producers from across Italy. But there are also aspects from my passions and my travels which I bring back to the restaurant. For example there is the red mullet, a very local product but which we work with flavours and techniques from far away. It is also a way to travel. It is our idea of creating an experience,” he said.
Valentino loves travelling and the past months have not been easy. “The fear of not being able to travel is incredible. My last big trip was in India and it is incredible to think how different the world is today. To think that we could explore everywhere in the world and now we have to wear a mask even to go to the centre, that we try not to touch anything because we are afraid is incredible, even surreal. There is this feeling of emptiness. The idea of liberty alone is incredible. Knowing that you can just travel, that you have the freedom to go anywhere is an important sensation. I am not criticising the restrictions but rather it is the feeling of not being able to do something which is bad.”
When they were allowed to reopen after the end of the first wave, Lux Lucis, the fine-dining restaurant popped up at Dalmazia by the sea. “We used the potential of being by the sea to upgrade the menu of Dalmazia but also to have a pop-up of Lux Lucis which was more relaxed than the usual experience on the hotel terrace,” Valentino said.
“Our cuisine was experienced in a different way. It was still refined and elegant but more minimalist and also more relaxed. We did not have designer chairs or tables but rather tables and chairs that you are accustomed to find by the sea. I think it went well because clients who had already been to the restaurant experienced something different
The new menu when the restaurant reopens will concentrate on the experience. “When I go to the theatre, I go to experience the artistic expression of the actor, the director. I think this will need to be more emphasised after the lockdowns. I think that fine dining will be more about the expression of the person but also of the territory. We should not just speak about the produce but also about the people who sometimes sacrifice everything to do what they do. A restaurant is the final part of the chain but we are just part of this social fabric that binds us together.”
He is of the view that the people who visit him should be able to experience the perfume, the culture of the place. “I think that a lot of my colleagues have taken this approach. It is the way to ensure we can make the territory grow. There is produce that we don’t necessarily treat well. Take Aceto Balsamico as an example. We know it is an excellent ingredient but do we need to use it on everything? We need to respect the ingredient, knowing what is around us, when to use it. This is also a part of creating an atmosphere.”
Valentino has been working on his new menu for nearly five months now. “We have continued to work with the same philosophy but what I want is to be able to guide clients from the moment they enter and made to feel welcome. We need to think of how to share an experience and be social even if it is only for two, three or four people. We have the space to adapt but I think the next period will be one where the social element will be extremely important because we have been deprived of this for a long time. I hope that we can return to a sense of normality. We want to be able to go out without fear, to be able to enjoy a cultural experience with others. It is for this reason that we cook. When we speak about transforming a tomato into something else, it is because we want to share this experience,” he tells me.
The Italian chef believes that before the COVID-19 crisis, Italy was passing through a bright patch. “If we are to forget the pandemic for a moment, we are in a good position. We have the tradition, we have great produce, innovation and people thinking about the future, what we are and what we want to be. There are many youngsters, some younger, some older who are not maybe recognised internationally yet who are really sharing their vision but all with a common objective, that of using the best possible produce,” he said.
“There are of course many great masters who have paved the way but there is also this new wave of chefs who are working a lot with produce and showcasing their territory. They are part of this new ‘avant-garde’ Italian cuisine.”
Valentino hopes that the pandemic will not create many casualties when it comes to restaurants particularly those that have invested a lot to ensure quality. “It will not be easy but we are all hard workers and we will pull up our sleeves to ensure that Italy retains the position it deserves and be a gastronomic hub,” he said.
With light emerging from the end of the tunnel, Valentino is of the view that Italy’s good moment should continue into the next decade. “Our potential is immense because it starts from a culture of food that has been created over the centuries. We need to continue on this road of respecting each other’s work, of being united in our approach to focus on produce. We being united in this approach to focusing on getting the best out of the produce.”
He warns against resting on one’s laurels. “In Italy we have a saying (dormire sugli allori) which means to be complacent or to rest on our laurels. Even when it comes to art or architecture we think that tourists will continue to come without effort. What was created has taken centuries of effort. We need to do our part. We need to aim higher. It may be utopic but if we all do our part, the whole world will be better.”
Valentino says awareness is essential. “Being conscious is really important not just for my work but as a person. Knowing your potential and limits enables you to focus. So the objective is to safeguard what you have and try to move one step forward.”
In these times, there isn’t a better message to close our conversation with.
All photos by Lido Vannucchi