What makes a chef serve a floret of a cauliflower in a three Michelin star restaurant as a centre piece without any additions except for a touch of olive oil infused in garlic?
It is the knowledge that what he is serving has the necessary complexity and flavour to shine in a three star restaurant. That is exactly what Niko Romito has been doing since he started focusing on vegetables as centre-pieces. Is it the sense that he has attained perfection with a dish, one where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole?
To get an understanding of what is happening at Reale in Castel di Sangro, in Abruzzo, Italy you need to look at the chef’s work with vegetables. Because it is here that the philosophy of the chef boils down to its essence.
“I have been focusing on vegetables for the past three years. I started with the artichoke, then I worked with the cabbage and now the cauliflower. But I do not have an idea which vegetable I will be working with next,” the chef told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
“The most interesting thing about the cauliflower, and this is not the same for all vegetables is that it has the perfect mix of sweetness and acidity.”
But you would not notice this if the cauliflower is cooked in the normal way, that is if it is boiled or steamed. “Vegetables have the tendency to retain the same flavour from the first bite to the last,” Niko said.
“In my cuisine, however, each bite is different. You get the competing flavours, the acidity, the freshness and the sweetness in every bite you take. You expect the flavour to be the same but it is not. And that is why you have to eat it because otherwise you will not realise that every bite is different.”
“The first impression you get when you taste the cauliflower is acidity, then you get the sweetness and finally you get anise notes. The flavours depend on the maturation of the vegetables,” Niko said.
He is not fermenting the vegetables but rather maturing them because fermentation needs oxygen and in his case, he prefers to mature the vegetables by getting rid of the oxygen. “In my opinion, maturation makes the taste closer to the original produce because fermentation adds a lot of acidity but the flavour of the vegetable then remains the same from the first bite to the last. With maturation you can get the taste of the ingredient but also one which slowly starts to change,” Niko said.
The beauty of this preparation is that the cauliflower can be served to people who are following a healthy diet or who are even on a diet even if this is a dish that is served in a three Michelin star restaurant, is considered the top restaurant in Italy in many Italian lists such as Gambero Rosso and Guida del Espresso and has last year entered the World’s 50 Best list.
So how does Niko go about preparing the cauliflower and how long does it take to prepare? “Every vegetable is different. I’ve discovered since around 2 years ago that if you remove oxygen from a vegetable, this starts to develop complex flavours and also to mature. The cauliflower only needs four to five days for this maturation to take place but a cabbage for example needs between 30 to 40 days.”
“I cook the cauliflower in the normal way, steaming it at a precise temperature to respect the flavour and texture of the vegetable. Once it matures, I blend the bottom part of the cauliflower without adding anything and it becomes like a cream or mayonnaise. From this dense cream, I distill the water from the cream and given that it has matured it is already complex in terms of flavour. I then reduce this at boiling point. Every vegetable has glucose which caramelises at a certain point even if it remains 100 per cent vegetal. The liquid becomes dense and also a glaze at which point the first process is ready.”
The next step says Niko is to take a raw cauliflower, cut it very thinly and toast it in a pan with the water of the first cauliflower. This is blended and once ready resembles breadcrumbs. The idea is to make it look like the vegetables are cooked with a gratin of breadcrumbs. “It is like how our grandmothers and mothers used to cook vegetables adding cheese or bechamel. For me what is amazing about vegetables is that when you go to the heart of the produce, you discover flavours that are different from the original flavour such as liquorice, anise, mint. The cauliflower actually has back notes of star anise,” he said.
Niko also prepares an olive oil with garlic which works perfectly with the cauliflower. “I just macerate the olive oil with the garlic for which we are famous in Abruzzo. We keep the garlic for three to four days and then filter the olive oil.”
Niko takes the cold cauliflower and wets it with the water that has been distilled and puts it in the oven as if he is making a gratinee. “When we are warming the cauliflower, it becomes slightly browned on the outside which gives it its a smokey flavour. At the base of the plate they place the ‘breadcrumbs’, then the cauliflower, the glaze of the cauliflower and finally the oil and it is served alone.”
To believe what can be done with a cauliflower you need to state it. The work the chef is doing with vegetables is worth the trip by itself.
This work forms part of what he calls nutritional intelligence where he wants to show how you can serve excellent and healthy food even at scale such as in hospitals, canteens and airlines.
He has started with hospitals and while he is conscious that the cauliflower is not a preparation that can be served in a hospital he believes that these experiments helps him to focus on ingredients and also find ways to extract the best flavours without impacting the nutritional aspect.
He tells me that when he serves a vegetable in his restaurant he wants the customer to chew it. “They will have to use a fork and a knife. It is not the traditional way of serving vegetable or salad. With this type of vegetal cuisine, you can chew on something that can replace a piece of meat or fish and you would not be disappointed if it happened.”
Is this the future I ask him? “Of course we are moving towards using more vegetables but it is not for me to say this because there are some incredible studies on the subject. But I am discovering that vegetables have incredible flavours that you cannot get from fish or from meat. “Of course, it has to be prepared in a certain way because if customers go to a restaurant they want to have a great taste, to feel an emption to be happy with what they are eating. But treated in the right way, vegetables allows you do things which other ingredients don’t,” he said.
Today, Niko is working with the cauliflower but before that it was the cabbage which he serves alone like a fillet of meat. “We worked on more than a year on the cabbage to get to the end result. We had started with wanting to create a soup and had no idea which direction to take. “When we are working creatively we carry out tests which can be even completely absurd. If we normally cook an ingredient in one way we might try to do the exact opposite. This means there are a lot of errors in the process.”
Those errors are what makes Niko so unique. Because it is from these errors that he learns and finds out new things. “The most important thing is to work because only by working can you discover new things.”