I had lunch with Two-star Michelin chef Claudio Sadler and interviewed him in my very poor, long forgotten Italian (the regret is all mine as I skipped all my classes in Treviso to go eat and drink instead). Our three course meal turned into six as he continually sent food back into the kitchen while he gave me a lesson on how to judge good Italian food. I also asked him about his stint making sandwiches for the opening of Macdonald’s in Milano just last year.
Nevermind the bad hair day, I had a culinary lesson of a lifetime. Chef Claudio’s approach to food is quite different from many chefs as he begins by making drawings of his new dishes. He then colours them in his office before heading into the kitchen.
I love this presentation—it’s almost magical. The name of the dish however is very long.
Calamari farciti di stoccafisso in crosta di pane csereccio insalata di broccoletti e vinaigrette di barbabietole—because of my embarrassingly poor Italian—all forgotten, I cannot translate it. Calamari with a little broccoli salad with vinaigrette of something?
Anyhow, here is a loose transcript of our Ital-anglo lunch conversation:
How do you judge good food?
I like clean food that don’t confuse. For me, the presentation is very important. I like colours and textures. I work with colours like greens, pink, red, black—clean colours that complement each other. You can eat with or without the sauces. In a plate, the most important is the centre piece. The subject is usually the meat. The other things on the plate are complementary elements that help to compose the whole picture. All our sauces are made with the bones of the meat, for fish, beef, pigeons etc, we use the bones to make the sauce.
Where do you get inspiration for the plating and the selection of complementary vegetables that help decorate the dish?
In a dish, there’s a complexity of texture and tastes. I like artichokes a lot, because they taste rounded, onions are acidic and my sauces are always made with the bones of the meats. Designing a dish is like art. Before I start on a dish, I make a drawing with a pencil and then I colour them in my office. So in my mind, I have an image of the dish I am going to create before I go into the kitchen for the next step. Certain ingredients are a perfect marriage with each other. There are certain rules for these combinations. Cooking is also a little like mathematics, you can illustrate it in a Venn diagram where certain ingredients overlap in the circle and others don’t.
Wow. Mathematics. (I’m thinking a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing with the man in that circle.) Could you tell us about your decision to venture into China?
I was approached to open a restaurant here in China. Roberto, the director invited me to Beijing to have a look. I thought it was an interesting challenge, so I decided to give it a try.
Last year you attended the opening of Macdonald’s restaurant in Milano and created sandwiches for the event. What is your opinion of fast food and eating habits of today?
Yes, I was invited by the President to make some gourmet sandwiches. It is very complicated. Fast food is like a social service. Everyone has the right to eat however they want. And a lot of people don’t have time to eat well—they don’t want to spend too much time or money to eat, so fast food seems to be a good solution to not so much nourish but to feed yourself. I think Macdonald’s is a good experience if you don’t eat it often. I’ve told people that they cannot eat at a fine dining place everyday. It’s a celebration for special occasions. You have a choice of what you want to eat and it’s important to have a balance.
You’re best known for creating nouva cucina (new cuisine) of fusing the old and new in your cooking, what are the fundamentals of Italian cooking?
Yes that is my specialty. Pasta and pizzas are known all over the world, but Italy is country that is very rich in recipes. You can be in different parts of Italy and every region has its own specialties. Sometimes, in the same region and in different towns, there are different specialties. In the north, gnocchi is served with ragu or gorgonzola, in the south and centre, they cook it with tomatoes, pesto or black truffles. The tastes and textures are different. This is fantastic because every town has its own cuisine. It’s easy for me to make my menu. I like to take original recipes from all parts of Italy and add spices or use new methods to cook these traditional dishes. I work on drawings of the colours and presentation before I start working on them. This is my method for cooking. I pay a lot of attention to the seasons and the ingredients for occasions. For Easter, Italians like to eat chocolate cakes, lamb and artichokes. We have very hot summers and cold winters, not unlike Beijing. If I decide to concentrate on one region, for example Puglia, I would take the recipes specific to the region and add little touches to it. I’ll make a yellow risotto à la Milanese, but I would add a blossom of Sichuan pepper, for the numbing spicy taste. The presentation changes a lot, but the taste doesn’t change very much. I like serving lighter food as people’s lifestyles and eating habits are changing.
As the culinary scene is constantly evolving, how can the new generation of chefs work towards achieving/maintaining a Michelin-star rating?
At the moment, the career of a chef is very appealing and interesting. Young people are interested to be a chef because it is a career path that can lead to celebrity status and these days the media pays a lot of attention to the culinary scene. Yet, to arrive at that level, it’s very difficult. Not everybody can reach that level. If you’re a really good chef, you can, but it’s not easy process. The young chef has to learn the classical cooking techniques at the start. It’s like being a musician—learning the classics first, to read notes and harmonise cords before they can experiment with creating new music. It’s exactly the same for chefs. It’s very difficult to achieve equilibrium in cooking. I started my first restaurant when I was 27 and I started cooking when I was 15.
What are the different challenges that you face in your restaurants in Tokyo and Beijing?
I had a restaurant in Tokyo for five years and we closed it last year in 2008. The rent of the new location was impossible and then the financial crisis hit, so we decided to wait for another opportunity to reopen in Tokyo. Back in Italy, I have four restaurants. I have two in Milan where I’m personally there and cooking, a trattoria and a catering service.
Ristorante Sadler Pechino
Ch’ienmen 23, 23 Qianmen Dong Da Jie, Tian’anmen, Beijing 前门东大街23, Tel: 6559-1399
As I write this post, the chef is boarding a flight to Singapore for the World Gourmet Summit. Sigh, I miss home and oily treats.