Food: Chef’s kiss
Have you ever had trouble setting boundaries? Yes? Then ask Chef Adriano Baldassarre, 45, for the perfect recipe for laying down limits, which he generously seasons with a sprinkling of sarcasm.
The Michelin-starred chef has no qualms silencing guests in a restaurant, blowing out a discernible “Shhhh”, so he can give his video interview in peace, or excusing himself from the table in the middle of a conversation to ensure the dish he is about to serve is cooked to perfection. In another instance, you can observe him studying the reactions of guests as they take the first bites of his newly-curated summer menu at Perbacco, The Lodhi.
“In an Italian restaurant, if you like the Italian food, I’m happy,” he says, talking about authenticity. “If you don’t like it, see you next year after the improvement in your palate for Italian! I’m open to trying Indian food, so let’s be open to Italian, too.”
He looks around him again and says in his thick Italian accent, “I am open to complaints, but if guests tell me they want the food to be spicier, I say, ‘Please, try at least!’”
Foods of the world
Roman by birth, though his family is from Abruzzo, Italy, Baldassarre became one of the youngest chefs to receive a Michelin star when he was the head chef of the legendary Tordomatto restaurant in Zagarolo in 2007. Later, after spending two years in India between 2014 and 2016 as the executive chef of Vetro at The Oberoi Mumbai, he opened a Tordomatto of his own in the centre of Rome. By now, Baldassarre has some very cool collaborations in place, including with Giorgio Locatelli in London, Antonello Colonna at Labico, Chef Heinz Beck and the Lodhi Hotel in Delhi.
“We opened Perbacco in 2018. This time I came around the 10th of March and last year I was here in March and November. I’m always here,” he smiles.
His memories of his first visit to India are very strong. “When I arrived on 10 April, 2014, I felt lots of confusion. There were a lot of people. But slowly I became confident as I started living and moving around in Mumbai. I come from Rome, so the bigger impact was from the point of view of culture, which was completely different. I always say that, as a joke that even to say yes, you say no. Everything is the opposite!”
This is surprising since Indians and Italians tend to be considered as similar. But apparently, the similarities do not extend to food.
“There are lot of similarities and that’s because of the concept of the family and enjoying at the table. But we enjoy the table a little more with more passion. We like to talk and have a conversation!” he says.
That said, the Indian and Italian cuisines have much in common, he muses.
“Actually, all cuisines all over the world have things in common,” he says. “I travel a lot and see a lot of similarities in terms of preparation. The only change is in the ingredients. But, between Indian and Italian cuisine, there’s a nice connection because of the Roman Empire. At one time, the spice market fetched lots of money and that’s why we have lots of coriander and other spices like saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg. Besides, India has a lot of fermented preparations. Have you ever asked why? As a chef and an Italian, I’ll tell you. With so many places without power and refrigeration even today, fermentation became a natural technique to preserve food, even in Italy. We have pickles too, similarly,” explains the chef.
As open as he is to Indian food, some dishes just don’t work for Baldassarre. Lassi for one—it nauseated him. “I really didn’t like it and ran to the washroom. But when I’m in India, I eat Indian—I’m open to trying new things. Butter chicken is something I like; and I discovered Bengali cuisine to be amazing. It’s not spicy and they have good fish,” he says.
Seasoned with wit
Despite his peppery temperament, Chef Baldassarre is a jokey sort of person, never at a loss for one-liners. Given how often he visits India, we ask if he’ll ever bring his young son along, and his answer makes us choke with laughter: “To bring him here, I have to kill his mama!”
So we ask another question: Are women in Italy prettier than women in India? This has him roaring with laughter, so much that it’s now his turn to choke. “All women are pretty!” he gasps.
Given how good his mood is now, we slip in the question we’ve been dying to ask: How heated or calm are you in the kitchen?
There’s a pause as he considers the question and then Baldassarre hails a co-chef and tells him: “She has a question for me, but it’s more for you.” They exchange a glance, and the co-chef adjusts his clothing before saying: “Both. He is very calm, but if something goes wrong there’s an earthquake to bring our attention and focus back on the food.”
Baldassarre considers this statement too. “You know,” he says. “If everyone does their own job, we are all calm.”
From HT Brunch, May 14, 2022
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