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When I cook, I put in love: Michelin starred chef Viviana Varese

The co-owner of Italy's Ristorante Alice on how she adapts comfort food for a gourmet experience, the many faces of pizza, and more

Viviana Varese. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Viviana Varese. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

“This is very good Italian food. I also had Ritu’s home food. Her dal is just very, very good." This was Viviana Varese on her visit to Diva Italian, Ritu Dalmia’s restaurant in Delhi’s Greater Kailash, late last year. Varese, who visited India for the “Week of Italian Cuisine in the World", a promotional initiative that covers 1,300-odd events in 105 countries, runs Ristorante Alice in Milan; the restaurant won its single Michelin star in 2011.

While her inspiration comes from traditional Italian cuisine, the interpretation and presentation of the dishes at Alice are sharply modern and imaginative, says Varese. Take, for instance, her favourite: the Risotto al Plancton. It’s a take on regular risotto, made with plankton soup, fried squid and aioli. The rich, green risotto is served in a bowl but the plate it sits on is a carefully and deliberately chosen work of art: It has a print of the “Plankton Mandala", an image by researcher Christian Sardet of Observatoire Oceanologique de Villefranche. “So that you see what you eat," Varese says with a smile. “When I cook, I cook for me, and not for the business. Because when I cook, I put in love."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Who or what influenced your cooking style?

I literally grew up at my parents’ restaurant—I helped out there for more than a decade. It was a typical Italian pizzeria. So the sights, smells and flavours there stayed with me. But my techniques and the modern influence in dishes come from my internship at El Celler de Can Roca (in Catalonia, Spain). It was a wonderful experience. There are no particular incidents that I can point to, but every minute of the time spent there was really important for my professional growth. The three Roca brothers who run the place—Joan, Jordi, and Josep—are incredible professionals. The El Celler de Can Roca right now stands second in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (with its “modern freestyle food")…so you can imagine how fantastic they are.

Is there some particular dish—smell or taste—that you relate with your parents?

Pasta and potatoes. Whenever my mother cooked pasta with potato, pecorino and basil, she always got the exact same flavour and smell. It was never different. I usually take a lot of my childhood memories and make dishes around the concept in my head. For instance, my mother’s potato-basil-pecorino-fish pasta—I do a slightly modern take of it, with squid. But a lot of dishes, and sometimes even produce, have their own memories.

What is comfort food for you, and do you serve it in your restaurant?

My restaurant is modern in appeal, but a small place in the menu is reserved for strictly traditional recipes. So I have Cacio e Pepe (literally, cheese and pepper), which is traditional Italian comfort food. It is tagliolini with pecorino cheese and pepper. Pasta in bean soup is another. But I have to say, my favourite otherwise is just plain vegetable soup.

You may have gathered that Delhi loves its street food. What’s street food like in Italy?

In Italy, there’s fried pizza for street food: pizza, fried, with a little bit of tomato and Parmesan cheese. It’s typical to Naples. Arancini too, which is rice with ragu and peas. In Italy at the moment, street food is catching up. There’s also panzerotti (semi-circular bread pockets filled with cheese, tomato, spices, and fried), panini (sandwiches), polpette (minced meatballs).

Pizza has so easily adapted to different countries and their tastes. In New York, you get those single, large slices, and in India you get ‘desi’ toppings like ‘paneer’ and tandoori chicken...

Yes, it is such a simple, adaptable thing. In fact, in Italy, the pizza you get in bakeries is very different from what you get in pizzerias. The bakery kind is actually very street-friendly. It is rectangular and thicker. And as I mentioned, there’s a fried pizza too. But in a pizzeria, it’s what you see commonly—round, thin, cut into triangular slices. At Alice, I make a very special pizza—a pizza fritta, which is made with buffalo mozzarella, tomato confit, and tomato bavarois with basil sauce and some lemon zest on top.

What are your favourite herbs and spices?

(My favourite) herb has to be basil. And as for spices—pepper. I absolutely love pepper. In the restaurant, I use a pepper mix which is made of peppers from seven different places around the world: Timut pepper from Nepal, Indonesian pepper, Pondicherry pepper from India, Jamaican (myrtle) pepper, Java (cubeb) pepper and some more. For my Cacio e Pepe, I use my special seven-pepper mix.

When travelling in other countries, do you see a lot of difference in terms of flavour in the Italian food there?

Yes, always. In India, lots and lots of spices are used. Also, a lot of salt! I went to Korea in June for a week and I found that there was a lot of fermentation in their food. The flavours were very acidic, and they hardly used any salt.

When I cook in a new country, I try to look for a compromise between cucina Italiana and local taste. It’s important for cooking to be global also, no? I live in Milan, which has no distinguishing terroir—no sea, no river—quite like Delhi. But it has good food simply because it is a rich, cosmopolitan place with fresh produce being flown in from everywhere: Sicily, Naples, Piedmont. This is the concept that makes my cooking different—I take a pepper in India and use it, I take ginger from different parts of Asia and use it. My cuisine is Italian, but the global influence is important to me.

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