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If you have a taste for Italian cuisine, the writer suggests you to try out the cuisines by Chef Federico Michielletto. The current president of Chef Association of Malaysia specializes in Italian Cotemporary Cuisine and had been a judge to numerous world culinary competitions. The friendly and pleasant chef met with the writer at one of the restaurants under his supervision, Santini in KLCC and spares a few moments with the writer to share a few interesting stories and point of views.
Q: Let’s start with the basics first, can you tell me about yourself, your background?
A: Ok, so, I’m an Italian, born nearby Venice. I’m 39 this year. I have been in the line for almost 20 years starting in Italy, I went to school first, like everybody no, most of them (laughs) I went to Italian Culinary of Art Institute of Castel Franco Veneto, then slowly I started to work in hotel and restaurant. I did one year in the army because it was compulsory at that time in Italy and then I started to move around Italy. I came to Malaysia on 95 November 1st, And I work with a company called Modesto first then I worked here or there, on 98 I moved to Singapore, in 2000 I’m back to Malaysia, working for some restaurant, and then I started working for Sunway Lagoon Hotel and now I’m the Corporate Chef of Tai Thong Group. For now, I have about 14 restaurant under me.
Q: 14 restaurants? That’s a lot. Is it all Santini?
A: No, I have 2 Santini, 4 Francisco Steak Houses, 2 Royal Thai, Pam’s Café, 3 Bars, Caterings, 1 more in Ipoh and I have one more restaurant opening in 2 weeks time, a fine dining, plus by the end of the year I have another San Francisco Steak House in Melaka, One San Francisco Steak House and One Santini in Kota Kinabalu, and another 10 restaurant or so, by the end of the year I have 25 to 30 restaurant.
Q: So, what do you do? Do you supervise them?
A: Basically I hire the staff, train the staff, prepare the food, the kitchen, taste the food and give my opinions. I prepare the menu, and we have assistant there for some follow up, it could be a very stressful job, but it’s okay, you have fun. It’s nice to open new restaurant, and meet different people.
Q: How do you come about to be a chef? Was it your passion or was it something you happen to get into?
A: Okay, the truth, I come from a very nice countryside. I was very lucky to grow up in a kampung, a farm. So to me, it comes naturally. I did not understand until too late that I am very familiar with food. I mean, my father and Mother, they use to take care lambs, cows, we make our own wine, bread, cheese, salami and whatever they need. At that time, I disliked being there. Initially I wanted to be a ship designer. I just love ships, especially the big ones. But then, I decided to go to school, and learn cooking because I realize that you get the opportunity to travel around the world. You know, when you were young you always like to move away from your home, even two kilometers is enough (laugh). Then slowly, I find it to be a very passionate job. It is one of the very few jobs that give you the possibility to create something, in an artistic way, which is nice for your eyes, and it’s good for your appetite. Being a chef is very interesting. It is definitely very stressful, especially at the beginning but, it gives you a lot of satisfaction you know, when people likes your food, they come to your house or you get an award or some recognition. It was a very nice feeling.
Q:You specialized in cotemporary Italian cuisine, as your profile said; you integrate traditional recipes with novel flavors, resulting in new and original creations. What inspires you? How did you come out with your own original recipes?
A: To me, first is the product. You have to have a very good product. It could be from a very good tomato, to very good seafood. Then you come out with the idea or some technique to develop the taste of what you would like to have. With that you incorporate a little bit of patience, because I believe only happy chef and very passionate chef could create good food. Very sad chef and very impassionate chef is not good. If you see a sad chef, and you try the food, the food taste upset. The, you can incorporate some elements to it. You can start from a lemon to fish and then move on to some other vegetable or some other composition without forgetting the basic taste of the food. You need to always remember the basic taste. I don’t like to mix up the taste. Italian are very traditional food but a lot of new guys, new chefs, they come out with new innovation on the food. It is the same with what I would like to see in Malaysia. Maybe, it could be slowly evolving. Maybe we take the Malaysian food and lighten it up. Maybe, not too much oil, not too much Santan, and maybe better presented or the like. It’s like an old Italian saying, “the best pasta is made by our mamas”. We chef, had learnt that and we brought the food step by step forward and now, house cooking in Italy had become an International dining. Today, Italian food is the best food recognized around the world. I believe you need to learn from tradition, from your root and bring it around the world while creating something for the customers.
Q: You were an Italian and traveled to a lot of places to practice your work. So what makes you choose to practice in Malaysia?
A: A friend of mine called me to come here, to work for Modesto. From there, I just fell in love with the environment. It’s true I would like to work in Singapore, I would like to work back in Europe but I, I don’t know, it was almost spontaneous. I enjoyed being in Malaysia and teach my apprentices which I have around 150 to 500 chefs. And also to be the President of Chef Association and having so many titles, that I don’t know how many I have. I always believe that Malaysian Chefs and Malaysian people, are very nice people and they are very talented but they need someone to polish them up a little. I like the country, I like the people, even though sometimes they are a little bit stubborn or lazy (laugh). I met so many chefs in Malaysia that are very good, only they need to push a little bit more. No matter if they are Chinese, Indian, Malay or Mamak they all have a very good culture here. They are English speaker, they know basically 3 or 4 language and everybody knows a little bit of Malay food, Chinese food, Indian food and a little bit of Western and this mixture, is not easy to find around the world.
Q: When u decided to stay in Malaysia, was it a difficult decision?
A: No, it was a natural thing, since I’m easy to adapt. Since I was 16 I have already started to work at hotel, and when you become a chef, sometimes you don’t really have a house or a destination because you travel a lot.
Q: So how different does the environment in Malaysia than in your country?
A: It is very different. First of all, if you talk about chef, in Italy you have the producers and the variety of products is so much more because of the season. Italy is much more open, more cosmopolitan, more fashionable but here, people are more happy, and everywhere is beautiful
Q: What is your all time favorite Malaysian cuisine? Why is that?
A: I have a lot since I’ve been here for a long time. It’s difficult to say which one is my favorite because here you have Chinese, Malay, and Indian food. If you talk about Chinese, I like Dim Sum, soup, and I like the food in Melaka, and Penang Nyonya, Mamak, Indian, I love them all. Malay food, I like the complexity of the Sambal Belancan, the spices, I like Nasi Lemak. So, basically a lot. I don’t know which to name
Q: Do you have any plans for experimenting with local cuisine? Or have you tried it?
A: Yes, I had tried it a few times but I’m not too good at it because my palette is more westernized. And we experiment a few things, but if I were to cook the food, I will lighten it up a bit. If I go back to Italy one day, I would like to open a Malaysian restaurant; I think it would be very successful. But I have to adapt it a little bit, or maybe tune it a little bit, or when I start, I’ll start with something simple and slowly introduce more, we educate people, I mean if I have to comment, when people in London want to try Malaysian Food, you cannot serve them sambal petai prawn, they are not going to eat. You need to educate your own palette with people’s palette first. The palette education is important so people can understand a bit.
Q: Do you think Malaysia has a potential in terms of bringing its cuisine to an international level? How do you suppose it could be done?
A: I think that Malaysia have a lot of potential to bring their food outside, the only thing is they should allow their chefs to bring their own cuisine outside, and let them develop what they can do. To be very frank, Malaysian ignore their food, I mean the chefs outside do not have a lot of support to make Malaysian food. If I’m Italian, I can get all my supplies at the supermarket. If you are Malaysian, where can you find your products? Yes, they try to promote their food around with MATRADE and all. When in competition, most of the time, we have Malay food, Malaysian Chinese food as well, and people love it. So we can see that they have so much way to go, but I think they should concentrate less on Celebrity chefs, and more on what the real chefs can do for them. Nothing against Wan and all, they are good friends of mine and they are very good promoters of Malaysian food overseas but it’s just a show.
Q: On the topic on celebrity chefs, what are your thoughts about celebrity chefs? Are they all just about the fame or are they worthy of the attention?
A: Celebrity chefs are definitely good chefs. To be called a chef by other chefs, you need to have some kind of respect. There is no one and no school that is giving you a diploma of chef. To be called a chef, the people must have respect for you in the area. To me, some of them are really good at cooking and some are really good on show. So, there are TV personality chef and chef. I understand marketing is a very much part of everything. I mean, the world know of Malaysia, they did a very good job of promoting the tourism, like if you go to Europe and ask about Malaysia, they will say ‘Truly Asia’. They did a fantastic job at that. No countries had done what Malaysia had done. They try to promote the food, but the problem is they don’t give a platform for their chefs to develop their own product. The funny part is, let’s say you go to Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai, Macau, not too far away, most of the chef, 20% of the board of chefs are Malaysian. Of course, they work at other countries because of better prospects, but it is difficult for them to introduce Malaysian cuisine at other country, or in their companies. Maybe Malaysians should go back to the Italian way. When we immigrate, we open a small restaurant, a parlor, and we soon have supporter. In the case of Malaysia, it is difficult to spot Malaysian food outside. Malaysian food is not too familiar among the people. There are a lot of things or elements that that does not or prohibits the representation of the food in Malaysia. Example, a lot of people know the chef, but no one knows of the food. If you go in Italy, if you ask around town, to name me the chef, they tell me Chef Wan, or Chef that but ask them to name 10 Malaysian food, they don’t know. If you think about Italian, you think about Pasta, Salami, but If you think about Malaysia you think about ermmm Asia. So it’s not a food destination. If you think about France, you’ll think of Channel your bags, the brand. Even in the advertising, 75% of the ads will include the wine, the product of the country, But if you see the Malaysian ads, you see the twin tower, you see the beauties of Malaysia, but you don’t see anything about food.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about your book. “Pasta from My Italy” was basically your child brain. Tell me a bit about it.
A: It was a very simple thing. There was a Marshall Cavendish who was looking for a creator for pasta book. They ask me to produce this book. I want to create a book that can be understood by the people. I would have not done the book this way in Italy because people know more about the food there and they have different products. Basically, I wanted ti create the book that is suitable here, with the products that can be found here so it would be easier for people. The only thing about the book that makes me happy is that I leave something for people to learn. The book gets some award, but to me it’s just another certificate to put in the box, but the thought that I can leave something behind, for people to refer are priceless.
Q: You have been the jury in numerous cooking and cuisine competition. In your opinion, what is the making of a good chef?
A: Simplicity. I’ve been tasting food around the world, and at some of the best restaurants in the world. The way they presented and produce the food was very sophisticated but by the end of the day, a clam taste like a clam, a tomato taste like a tomato, if it’s a chicken, it’s a real chicken unlike the ones we find in supermarkets. It’s all about taste and concept. Let me give you an example, the dish can be very sophisticated, it could have so many things, but having the simplicity like you want to serve a chicken with bread, is not as easy. If you simplify the dish and create other things, it’s very good. In terms of personality, I could say there are no particular traits for a chef. I have met from the craziest chefs to the most introvert chef. No matter what is their personality is, when in the kitchen, most of them are serious. Because to them, it’s a mission that they need to accomplish. And they are proud to be a chef.
Q: If given the chance, what would you like to say to the new comers?
A: I see a lot of boys in Malaysia nowadays, who studied hard, and went for their training and they want to become chefs at very young age. Yes, they can be a young chef because I was lucky myself to be a chef at around 22 or 23. They are talented but, they need to understand that there are certain procedures. They have to learn everything step by step. They need to understand the ingredients, they must be willing to learn and not be shy to ask. They need to know that the food is always evolving. They should also be passionate. They have to, or there is no point of it.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: Definitely I may open a restaurant myself one day. But currently I am busy with my company and CAM. In the nearest future, by the end of the year, I am opening another 78 restaurants, upgrade what we are already doing, and introduce new standards and so on. I am also training the new chefs in hopes to slowly bring the Malaysian chefs a step higher.