The Art Of Eating Well
It goes without saying that our childhood surroundings have a lasting effect on our outlook on life, the types of food we enjoy cooking and those dishes we eat when we feel down; our go to comfort foods. It is a fact that of all our senses, the sense of smell is the only one that triggers memories deep in our subconscious because smell receptors in our nose are linked directly to our brain’s highly organised olfactory bulb and the limbic system.
Our acute sense of smell and the memories it invokes was how my conversation began with the very talented Carlo Valenziano, Executive Chef at Siam Kempinski Bangkok Hotel. Chef Carlo has been chopping, dicing, boiling, frying, baking, roasting and grilling all types of food for as long as he can remember. During a break between afternoon and evening service, the amiable Chef Carlo sat down to relate his life’s story.
“For sure, where I was born has been a huge influence in my cooking, but so has my family as well. I’ve been very lucky being born into a family where food and cooking was a really important part of life; as much as the air you breathe every day. We never really had any opulence or luxury to the food we used to make, just good old fashioned, home cooking. I come from a small town near Venice and my grandmother’s country heritage meant we had bags and bags of tomatoes at home. We had a large garden with lots of berries and fruits and with the tomatoes, everyday it was something new. Raspberry ice cream or jam. This rustic lifestyle inspired me because it was part of my childhood.
“My mum became the same as my grandmother, she picked up the same skills and the same habits from her grandparents. It was something that was really part of our family. Every time I go home to visit, I always call on the family and the food we prepare and eat always plays a big part of being together. Sometimes I don’t realise when I’m cooking certain dishes there’s a link back to my past. Maybe I didn’t think about it when I was creating the dish, it just happened automatically,” says Chef Carlo.
“I think the children of today have lost something, but for everything lost there is always something gained. While many children don’t have the same bond with food that I had with my family, today kids as young as 10 are travelling to the other side of the world. That’s something I could never have done when I was young. There is a lot of reality in it [eating with family], so many feelings, lots of aromas, the colour of the food, the season. It is something you never forget.
“I think many chefs from around the world have this family connection, the abundant garden at home and the love for food. Most of the time, our passion for food comes from the family. But then of course, everything is focused around food, the conviviality. With food you can always bring people together and make them happy. Looking at F&B as a professional choice, it was really important for me to see that it wasn’t just a job but how I could bring happiness to people. You can really build solid relationships around food.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of fresh markets. Usually wherever I go in the world, the first thing I like to do is go to the local market. This is very important for me because there is a huge link between what I like to cook and the market itself. I like to follow the seasons, I like to feel it [the atmosphere]. I’ve always been amazed by markets since I was a young man; the colours, the loud voices calling out from the sellers, the smells and the overall ambience. This is a very fundamental part of my job and my career.
“As a teenager, I started working locally as a casual in a few restaurants, then during the summer season I spent two months working in restaurants. I knew before I left school I wanted to be a chef. My mother is from northern Italy so I have a lot of influence from that part of the world and my father and his sister come from Sicily. My aunt was a great cook and loved Mediterranean cuisine. So I grew up with these kinds of flavours, quite opposite flavours. One was based on heavy cooking with lots of butter and the other was Sicilian with lots of freshness and seafood.
“A chef that I really admire, his style, the way he cooks, talks about food and treats food, is Alain Ducasse. I am a big fan of Mediterranean cuisine and Chef Doucasse brought this style of cooking to the next level. I like the style in which he cooks and presents food, it is always extremely fresh, very seasonal and respectful of tradition. I would say he has a kind of very complex simplicity because he does not play with opulence. I really like this aspect to his style.
“I try to avoid waste at all costs but I see it all around through mass production. It’s nothing short of a disaster for farmers and food producers. When you have everything, you waste more. It’s automatic. I remember in the old days, food waste never happened. We would use everything. An old piece of bread became a dumpling or a breadcrumb. We learned how to create recipes out of what was left over. When you peeled an orange, we would use the peel to make a jam. There used to be a respect for ingredients because of the lack of availability. The impact of having good food at home was much higher as we paid more attention to wasting food. We need to rediscover our respect for food,” Chef Carlo tells me.
Chef Carlo’s culinary journey has so far taken him from his European roots to Australia, Russia. Ireland, Switzerland and now Asia. However, it was his travels to Sydney that really brought him into contact with very different markets, cooking styles and Asian cuisines. He says he experienced his first Thai meal in Australia and this was the doorway to Thai ingredients and the way of life here.
“When I came to Thailand, it was a full immersion into Asian ingredients and markets. The market is a very important part of life for people in Thailand. Another reason why I like to visit different markets is because they are an integral part of the culture and this helps me understand the people and how they live. Looking at how they eat, what they eat and when they eat. It is something that always amazes me. It gives me a different connection between myself and the population I am interacting with right now.
“In my spare time I like to go fishing. Seafood is one of my favourites because it very versatile, fast cooking, and you can do a lot of things with it. Vegetables too, you can do anything you want with veggies. They are very healthy and I love the flavours you get each season. It’s very playful. When I’m done at work, the first dish I like to cook when I go home, depending on the season of course, is artichoke. It is one of my favourite vegetables.
And how about your signature dish, what dish really defines your cooking philosophy and style?
“My signature dish is very difficult to pinpoint, but I do like tartare. I don’t know how many different tartares I’ve made in the last ten years, but it is quite a lot. I like this dish because it is very adaptable and you can play around with many ingredients. Seafood or meat tartare – even a veggie tartare – you can mix different textures. Salmon and green apple, for instance, gives you sourness and crunch from the apple. It is very refreshing and the salmon is a fatty fish so you have a nice balance. It is the same with meat, I like to mix nuts and a strong sauce. This approach give a different kind of infusion with olive oil or herbs. It is something I enjoy playing with,” he adds.
With so many ingredients now available to chefs, the world’s supply chains are constantly being updated so no matter the season, virtually everything used in a kitchen can be on the menu year-round. I ask Chef Carlo if he follows any of the fads which are constantly popping up; from farm-to-table, plant-based foods and so forth.
“The trend at the moment is healthy and positive for the environment, and I’m fully behind it. Look at farm to table, it’s an expression that’s a little overused, like organic, but it is not a negative trend, it’s positive and so the message is positive. We are doing all we can and from that we now have our own herb garden at Siam Kempinski Bangkok,” he says.
“I think farm to table is something that should be developed because it can bring us back to the old days. I think in principle it is a very healthy practice and of course we put a lot of useless transportation and waste of energy between us and the farmer,” he adds.
As our time begins to run down, Chef Carlo’s mind obviously turns towards the evening’s menu, but he assures me we still have time for one or two more questions. We’ve covered all the subjects I set out beforehand but I have a question I’ve never asked a chef before. I say this may sound stupid, but what three items could you not do without in the kitchen? A big smile fills his face and he is quick to respond.
“Now, that’s an easy one. First and foremost my knives. Then, I would say a blender or a Mortar and finally a good pan.”
As the seasons change, so does the menu at ALATi and as we move from autumn to winter, so the menu switches from Italian to Spanish. For most people, the best-known Mediterranean countries are Spain, Italy and France, but the Mediterranean also touches Greece, Turkey, Levant, Jordan, Lebanon and north Africa. Therefore, Mediterranean cuisine spans many countries and cultures.
“We’ve sampled Italy, now we move to Spain and soon it will be France. ALATi is a casual restaurant that serves simple food that’s exceptionally fresh. We don’t go in for heavy cooking so we can really present what Mediterranean food is all about. A big part of our menu is the vegetables we use. I can choose the best for the concept we have at ALATi. As my mentor taught me all those years ago, it is knowing what to buy, when to buy and from who,” says Chef Carlo.
ALATi is open for lunch and dinner from noon – 10.30pm, Monday – Sunday. For more information and reservations, call ALATi at +66 (0) 2162–9000 or email:
Source: Punch Media Digital.