How does one accurately describe the appeal of Italian cuisine? Some so-called fans might be surprised to learn that it's more than just pizza and pasta, and that the country's cooks and chefs sometimes use ingredients that aren't tomato, garlic or basil. In reality, it's impossible to categorise the cuisine, with each of Italy's 20 regions having its own, distinct approach to cooking. In fact, many Italians reject the notion of "Italian food". Mainly because the cuisines from the varied regions are so different when it comes to flavour, they might as well be continents apart.
It’s a point hammered home by Federico Belluco, who won his restaurant its first Michelin star when he was just 27 years old, after the place had been running for only six months. He’s still only (just) 30, and recently paid a flying visit to the Positano restaurant in the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai. He spent the evening acting as head chef for a special dining event to promote the inaugural Venice Food Festival, which took place earlier this week at the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa, located on the private island of Isola delle Rose, a short boat-ride from the famous St Mark’s Square.
The resort is home to the Dopolavoro Dining Room, where Belluco has been executive chef since April 2015. Its name translates as "after work", and the original structure of the building dates from 1923. A truly exclusive, glamorous eatery, it's hardly surprising he accepted the offer to be the man in charge – a challenge for any chef, never mind one so young. His home is Turin, 400 kilometres west of Venice, but he's quick to point out that, for him, home is really where the kitchen is.
'It is important that a chef does not show off'
“Even in the same region, you can experience totally different cuisines,” he says of his home country. “For a chef to travel through Italy, they wouldn’t really need to go anywhere else if they wanted to learn a wide range of skills. There are so many lost traditions that can be brought back; sometimes a city will have its own key dish, which is totally different from anywhere else. The fact is that over the centuries, my country was conquered many times by different nations and they all brought their own ways of cooking with them, which continue to influence us even today,” he says.
Prior to his tenure at the Venice resort, he left Turin behind and travelled, visiting and working in France, Spain and Australia. “It was important for me to go and personally explore different cultures, cuisines and cooking methods – to eventually use them and adapt them to my own style. I was curious.”
As for Venetian cooking, he says the city of Venice, being a port and one of the world's top tourist destinations, has been contaminated by so many different cultures when it comes to food. "So when I moved there I quickly delved into the history, as far back as I could research, to get to the heart of Venetian cuisine. I went back centuries and recreated long-lost recipes and methods, but started to put a modern twist on them, making them my own. Some of the dishes were very heavy, so I've lightened them up, used less pasta, and vinegar that isn't as strong in flavour as they used to; that kind of thing," Belluco says.
The chef exhibits a healthy dose of humility as he refers to his methods and reputation. "It is important that a chef does not show off," he says with a sigh. "I don't want people to make a fuss about me; what I enjoy more than anything is getting feedback from customers, or overhearing what they say as they're leaving the restaurant. To hear them say 'wow', that's what I like the best; it means our efforts have been worthwhile and appreciated."
The fabled Michelin star must be the greatest accolade a chef could hope for in recognition of their craft, but to be awarded one so early in his career must have been an intense experience. “A great honour,” he says. “It was very emotional. But the following day it was back to work on making things different and even better.” The result of such determination and out-of-the-box thinking has been further prestigious awards and a growing global reputation.
Life as a Michelin star chef
As a young(ish) man, Belluco is yet to settle down into family life, admitting there's simply no time for that right now. "Chef life is tough," he says. "Family and a home life? The staff become that. I spend so much time with them, working with them and eating with them." But when it comes to holidays, he does have the wanderlust and, unsurprisingly, it's one that's food based.
"When I visit another country, I go to where there are dishes I want to try – I don't like the sea, so I'm not one for beach holidays." Not liking the sea must make Venetian living rather irksome at times, but he comes across as proud of the city, which is made up of 118 small islands linked by canals and 400 bridges, and he's very protective of it. It's been in the headlines a great deal in recent times as the residents and governors try to tackle the devastating effects of mass tourism. "People who visit Venice need to respect the place more," he agrees.
“It is unlike any other city in the world and visitors should understand that while the economy does benefit very much from tourism, even leaving a tiny piece of litter on a wall, a tiny piece of scrap paper, requires double the effort to clean up because the city is on the water.”
And with that, the man is off to begin his preparations for a night of fine dining that’s been months in the planning. Venetian cuisine? Yes, he says, it’s exactly that. Just don’t call it Italian.