Seasonal ingredients key for this Italian chef

Issue Number: 
Valeria Paykova

Chef Attilio Di Fabrizio is known for his earthy and back-to-basics approach to cooking. Di Fabrizio has been keen on cooking since he was a small child; born and raised in Italy in a large family, he enjoyed home-cooked food throughout his childhood. After years of culinary practice all over the world, Di Fabrizio finally made up his mind to settle down in his native Italy. Since 1987, he's been chef of the Hotel Villa San Michele, and since 1994 he's also been head chef at two of the best Orient-Express hotels in the world: Splendido and Splendido Mare in Portofino.

LifeStyle caught up with Di Fabrizio during the Hotel Baltschug-Kempinski's recent Italian Food Week.

When did you first develop your interest in food?

In Italy children like to watch their mothers when they're preparing food. Food's always been my passion. Like most people, I learned from my mom. I was always hanging out in the kitchen, which was the center of all the goings-on in our house. There are six children in our family; three of my five brothers followed my example and became chefs, too. Our house was always full of various cooking smells that always got my appetite going, making me permanently hungry. I remember my mom cooking a typical fresh pasta dish with a very rich sauce based either on lamb or beef. When my mom prepared her dainty dish all the kids gathered together watching her. It was like a theatrical performance.

Do you somehow change your menu in winter due to the fact that there's a shortage of fresh produce at this time of year?

Italy is not famous for frozen food, you know. This is what makes our cuisine so delicious; we only use the ingredients that are in season. For example, we wait for asparagus season to prepare risotto or pasta with asparagus, or wait for the artichokes to prepare dishes that go with it. The use of fresh ingredients is a key to understanding Italian cuisine. What you always have, whatever time of year, is meat — and we use rabbit, lamb and a lot of veal.

Can you guarantee your guests that what you cook at the Baltschug during your short culinary visit tastes exactly the same as what you cook in Italy?

Good question. Quite frankly, what we cook here in Moscow, may not taste exactly the same as it tastes in Italy for one simple reason: Very often we have to use frozen produce because Moscow has this "little problem" we've never had in Italy. The veal we use here comes frozen. Freezing does not totally change the taste of meat, but fresh meat and frozen meat are two different things.

Do you have a favorite culinary region?

I come from the Abruzzi region, which is known for its rich culinary traditions. I went to the best culinary school in Villa Santa Maria, near Chieti; a number of prominent Italian chefs went there. After several years of apprenticeship in Italy I worked in France, Great Britain, Switzerland, North and South America. But when I look back on these long years of culinary experience, I can say that I appreciate all foreign cuisine — but my Swiss training was probably the most positive of all. When you travel around the world you get ideas from different cuisines.

Here in Russia I went out a lot to eat nothing but Russian food, not because I'm going to put Russian dishes on my menu, but because any country gives me new culinary ideas I can mix with my specific Italian creativity.

Does a good chef have to feel patriotic about his or her native cuisine?

I don't think so. Any sense of patriotism would limit his productivity and creativity. Chefs often feel nostalgic when they work far from their homeland, but that doesn't mean they should focus only on their national cuisine. A talented chef must be always ready to grasp new culinary ideas, trying to broaden his or her culinary horizons. As for me, I feel culinary affection for Italy, which has always had a rich and varied food culture and is known for its thriving and bustling restaurant scene. •