From Bari, Italy, Michele dell’Aquila comes from a modest family who believed in making a living with a true craft. So it was at the age of 13 that he started working at a local restaurant. With determination and a lot of hard work, Michele started from the bottom. His career took an important step forward when he began working at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Don Alfonso. There was no looking back. He moved on to world-renowned restaurants in Europe, and he has gone as far as Bali, Tokyo and now Macau. Our chat with Michele reveals the passion and determination of a natural-born chef.
How did you begin in your career as a chef?
At age 13, I wanted to get a Vespa, and asked my father to buy me one. My father said, “Son, your mother and I both love you very much, but we just can’t buy something expensive like a scooter whenever you want. You need to learn how to earn money and learn about its value.” Then, he sent me to work at a restaurant owned by a friend of his, so I started to help out at weekends and some week nights.
My first job was to clean the floor. For a year I mopped the floor till it shone like jewels. Then I got promoted to washing up, then I went on to peel vegetables and eventually I became a chef. I just loved working in the kitchen. It felt so natural to work in the kitchen. I could spend hours experimenting and learning new cooking techniques.
After four years of saving, I finally bought my dream Vespa at the age of 17. My parents were so proud of my accomplishment, and I was proud of myself as well. I liked the attention from girls at school because I had a new Vespa.
The first steps of my career were shaped by an important teacher. When I turned 14, I knew I wanted to become a professional chef, and learn everything about cooking. I was lucky to have had one of the best teachers at school, a man with great experience working in famous restaurants and hotels in Italy. He encouraged me to aim at being a Chef de Cuisine.
After learning basic skills, I started working at Don Alfonso, which had three Michelin stars at that time. The place was four hours away from home. That was where I entered the fine culinary world for the first time in my life. From there, I went on to work at other very famous restaurants in Europe.
What motivated you to work in Bali, Tokyo and now Macau?
My motivation was my love for travel, to explore new countries, and to accept new challenges. It’s like an adrenaline rush for me, and I don’t like stopping, I like to keep moving. I had been living in Thailand for over two years after the successful opening of Mezzaluna in Dome, when I received a visit from the Vice President of Food & Beverage International of Bulgari Hotels and Resorts. They had been looking for a chef for their resort that they were opening in Bali, and they offered me a job to head the signature Italian restaurant.
Bulgari is a prestigious Italian luxury brand, so to be appointed as a head chef was an honour. I fancied the challenge of opening a restaurant on the other side of the world – at that time I was in Thailand – and implementing the highest standards of fine Italian dining, creating a venue where gourmets from all over the world could enjoy a meal.
A year and a half after the Bulgari Bali opening, they appointed me as the opening chef at both Bulgari Ginza and Omotesando Restaurants in Tokyo. Tokyo is a new capital of the culinary world and I had always been interested in working and living there.
About one year after these two successful restaurants’ openings, my wife and I wanted to go to a new location where all the excitement was happening, as Tokyo got very quiet with the recession. So Macau it was, and at the time, Altira was re-branding from Crown Macau with a new Italian fine dining restaurant.
Why do you think people love Italian cuisine so much?
After working for many years in Asia, I can see that people know a lot about Italian food, and they are familiar with the cuisine. Italian food is healthy, with natural ingredients such as olive oil, tomato sauce, many kinds of herbs, etc. Nowadays people are very health-conscious and their interest in Italian cuisine is growing even more.
Can you recommend a few summer dishes for our readers?
I would recommend Boston lobster in a tomato juice with pink grapefruit gelee, Sevruga caviar and mango (“astice in acqua di pomodoro con gelatina di pompelmo, mango e caviale sevruga”), Carnaroli risotto with bell pepper, Sicilian red prawn carpaccio and sea urchin (risotto ai peperoni, carpaccio di gamberetti siciliani e ricci di mare), Japanese sea bream, watercress consommé, Italian fava bean and Roman pecorino (Orata giapponese, consommé di soncino, fave e pecorino Romano), and coffee parfait, liquorice sauce and mascarpone ice cream (semifreddo al caffe, crema di liquirizia e gelato al mascarpone).
As a distinguished Italian chef, what is your biggest challenge working in Asia?
I don't think I am a distinguished chef. I believe you cease to develop the moment that you believe that you are a distinguished chef. My motto is to express my passion for cooking, and to teach my staff to utilize great fresh, locally sourced products, but always remember the importance of maintaining the originality of Italian food and continue to be an ambassador for Italian cuisine.
What are some of your own favorite places to eat?
I like to eat local food in different restaurants in all the countries I have lived in. I have discovered many interesting flavours in the past. I love to explore the cuisine of every place I visit.
China SUM 2010