It is not unusual for chefs today to be inspired by art. At the highest levels, food can also be considered as the highest expression of art and Enrico Crippa, the Italian chef of Alba based restaurant Piazza Duomo takes it to the next level.
While his primary focus has always been the quality of the produce he uses, the visual aspect is also something he attaches a lot of importance to. He even goes as far as to say that food could be even more artistic than a work of art.
“I can make a dish which you can see, turn, touch but once you taste it and eat it, it is gone for ever and only a memory remains. The experience ends once you have eaten it. It is actually more complete than any other form of art. When you look at a sculpture or a painting it is physically there so you can see it, return back to it after a day or two and experience it again maybe seeing something different. But even a simple plate of spaghetti may look the same but when you eat it, it will be different. So a dish is a work of art that is personal and you end up eating it, destroying it. It is a work of art that has been created for you. It is a concept that goes beyond art,” he says.
“For me, it is fundamental that something looks nice and it is not just good. When I think of a dish I start with the produce, the thought of what to create, how to finish it, how it will taste and also how it will look. I love to work with colours and shapes,” the chef of acclaimed Italian restaurant Piazza Duomo in Alba tells Food and Wine Gazette.
As a chef working together with the Ceretto family, he is immersed in art. For the past five years, the family that is a renowned wine producer of Barolo and Barbaresco among others, has hosted renowned artists in the month of September. “They host the artist, the artist exhibits their works in Alba and Enrico takes inspiration from the artist and pays tribute to the artist by creating dishes like the risotto that was inspired by Francesco Clemente.
This year, they will be hosting internationally renowned artist Marina Abramovic. That is an important source of inspiration and creativity and Enrico says he no longer feels pressured on days and even weeks when he is not being creative.
Over the past few years, Enrico Crippa has built a reputation as a humble chef who has grown from strength to strength and who stands at the highest echelons of Italian gastronomy.
A ‘disciple’ of Gualtiero Marchesi he says his three years in Japan defined who he is as a chef. But he only learned the lessons of this giant of Italian cuisine when he actually went to the the land of the rising sun.
We have lost the ability to listen
Marchesi was fascinated by Japan, the philosophy and the work ethic as well as the respect for those with more experience and Enrico could not understand this until he arrived there. “I did not know what he meant until I arrived there. The first thing that strikes you is the professionalism. But they also had a huge respect for produce, for seasonality and for the human aspect. You learn that you need to be rigorous, that you need to listen to people who are older than you or who have more experience than you. This is something we have lost in Europe. Our parents had this faculty to listen to their elders because they had more experience than you and therefore you could learn from them but we have lost this ability to listen.”
Like people who have experienced Japan, the Italian chef loved everything about the experience. “I lived there for three years and the experience was great. From the food point of view, I cannot remember something that was not good in Japan. I tasted everything from tradition to modern kaizeki, sushi, sashimi, tempura, streetfood, ramen. The food was always good, many times it was very good and it was also simple which is similar to our Mediterranean concept of simplicity.”
“When you eat sushi done well, the experience is something of sheer beauty. When it is hot and you eat soba noodles with a cold or fresh dashi or cold fish it is incredibly refreshing. In July you eat eel with rice and it is excellent. The level is extremely high in Japan because the Japanese are obsessed with the produce that needs to be exceptional.”
So how did the chef who hails from Lombardia end up in Piemonte? “The reason is very simple. Lombardia is a land that developed industrially but there is very little produce that comes from the earth, whether animal or vegetables. On the other hand, Piemonte (Piedmont as it is known in English) is faboulous for its produce. Here you will find the Barolo, the Barbaresco, the truffles, the hazelnuts. It is one of the areas of Italy with the highest production of cheeses. It is an area that is famous for its lamb, for its capon, for its beef, for rabbit. Coming here to work for someone who loves food is the maximum that you can reach. Another reason I came here was the phone call I received from the Ceretto family that explained their project to me. When I realised I was coming to Piemonte to work in a rich territory with a traditional kitchen I could not say no.”
From there it was love at first sight for Enrico and he has not looked back as he started to climb up and attain international recognition. As he himself says, things did not go well, they went very well.
There is no scheme when it comes to creativity
Every morning, Enrico starts his day in his garden, picking his vegetables and herbs and seeing what is ready to be served in the restaurant or not. “For me this is fundamental. Most of the ideas start from the garden. When we are planting vegetables we are thinking of our next menu. I know that we will plant a vegetable, we will pick it up and we are already thinking of how we will use it. But the garden also puts a constraint on you. If it is hot or cold, the vegetables can grow slowly or faster and then you need to ready to adapt, to change.
Enrico is a chef who is known for his creativity. So much time does he need to create a dish? “Some plates can be done in the space of a day. You get the idea, you work on it and its ready in one hour. There are other times when it requires much more time and when you never actually finish. There are other dishes that you might work on which you change three to five times but they still don’t work. You put it aside, file it for future reference. We have no scheme when it comes to creativity. Sometimes we might think of a salty dish and it ends up being a dessert.”
He has no particular routine when it comes to creativity. “We work and during our work we find the time to think of new dishes. Every time is a good one to have an idea and to write it. I have many notebooks which I keep and there are many ideas and thoughts which have been jotted down but have never been executed.”
Apart from cooking, Enrico Crippa loves cycling and walking around in Alba and that’s also where he sometimes finds inspiration. “I can find inspiration going for a walk in Alba, I can see the colour in a shop window, a column, a wall, or I can be cycling in the afternoon. I go on the hills, I can find a shape of a hill that is interesting or a vine that makes me think. When he is not working and he is outside the kitchen, he has no scheme but lets inspiration come to him from anywhere.
The Italian chef reveals that he used to get nervous when he could not come up with new ideas in the past. “I used to ask myself why did I not have ideas. Today, with experience, I know that it does not matter. There are days when you don’t find inspiration. A week without ideas is not a problem because ideas will come eventually. If they don’t come the following week, its also not a problem. I am no longer afraid of the moments when I am not creative. I know that when creativity strikes, there are normally many ideas to work with. Sometimes, in moments of huge creativity you can create five dishes and you need to put them in a file so that you can use them when you are less inspired,” he says.
People who travel here have great expectations. I want to not only meet their expectations but to exceed them
With three Michelin stars at his restaurant and constantly climbing the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (he placed 15th this year) what else does he want to achieve? “I do not have an objective to be the first, second or third restaurant in the list. I like doing the things that I am doing. For me, what is more important is the satisfaction of a client that comes here either having travelled many kilometres by plane or car. What interests me is that if someone comes here and excepts a certain level, I want to not only have met their expectations but also exceeded them. That is what is fundamental to me. This is what I strive for this is what I want to do.”
Enrico does not use social media. He is one of few top chefs who is not on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. To provoke him I ask him if this is an advantage. “For me what is fundamental is to be original, to be myself. I would prefer to have something that is mine even if it might mean that its of a lower level. Sometimes I get a young cook in the kitchen who shows me something and I immediately realise that it is not their creation and tell them. For me, I cannot do something that someone else has done. What I am interested is that the idea is ours or mine. That is has the style of what and who we are. Not being on social media may therefore give me an advantage. But I am also not on social media because I have no time. I am too busy during the day and when I am not working I do not want to be controlled by social media. If I am not working, I want to be completely free to go for a walk. I understand that it can be interesting and also important for the restaurant but I prefer it the way it is,” he said.
Enrico wants to dedicate more time to the garden which has become central to the restaurant. “Our cuisine has already changed since we have the garden. The majority of dishes now contain more vegetables than protein. But we also need to remember that the region, Piemonte, has a very rich history of protection that we cannot really abandon because we want the people coming to our restaurant to also understand our territory. Before we had the garden we would think about what to serve pigeon or any other protein with. First we would think of the sauce and then what vegetable to go with in. Now we think about what vegetables we have first and then we start to build around the vegetables. Things have changed completely. I also want to start selecting the best crop that is produced and use its seeds to plant them again because this is something that we have lost. The first tomato, the first aubergine is normally the best one and the strongest. Farmers used to plant and reseed it and its a cycle that was repeated year after year.”
He also wants to understand better the herbs he grows better including the best time to use them not only in terms of season but also when is the right time to use it. “It is a very difficult task because we have hundreds of different varieties of herbs but that is something we are studying.”
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about French cuisine, Spanish cuisine, Nordic cuisine and even Peruvian cuisine to give a few examples. I ask Enrico what is lacking in Italy, a country which has such a reputation for top quality produce and top quality ingredients. “We do not even know ourselves what is lacking. Maybe what we are lacking is the pride to believe in what we are doing, a pride in our nation and in our capabilities,” says Enrico.
“I think that we have never eaten so well in Italy as we have been doing for the past five years. Apart from the likes of Massimo Bottura, Nico Romito and Massimiliano Alajmo, there are many youngsters who are doing great things. We need to believe more in what we do. We chefs believe in the potential that there is. Maybe it is in the politics and the state that they do not believe that there is potential. The state needs to invest in food because this is something that helps our economy. We believe in the potential which is incredible and we do not understand how politicians don’t go about investing in promoting it. We have gone to Rome as chefs to speak about the potential to use food to also come out of the crisis. Italy is known world-wide for its food. Wherever you go, there are four kitchens which you will find anywhere in the world, French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. We have the advantage that we can do great simple things. With some oil, a few herbs, a tomato that could even be dried you can create something that is good. You cannot do that with French cuisine where you need to always think about a sauce,” says Enrico.
The Italian chef believes in the importance of teamwork and says it is fundamental. “The team I have are enthusiastic and also able to be creative. You can be the most creative person in the world but you cannot work alone,” he says.