|Nicola Di Leo, chef at Zibibbo|
Interview by Fabrizio Ulivieri
Translated by Louisa Loring
I would like to start by knowing a little bit about Zibibbo's Chef, Nicola Di Leo.
I come from the deep south originally but I lived in other areas such as Bologna for years. I haven’t followed the traditional culinary path as far as training. I graduated from classical high school and then went on to graduate in law in Bologna, where I lived for six years and worked different culinary jobs to support myself while in school. After that, I moved to Florence where I started working seriously in food service, having decided I didn’t want to use my law degree. I worked in several different restaurants, including the Gucci restaurant in Piazza Signoria, but didn’t find many opportunities for growth.
In talking to not only you but also, other chefs, it is clear that a real chef is born from real experience and not necessarily a traditional form of training.
Yes, indeed. In fact, some of my past coworkers who graduated from Buontalenti, the culinary and hotel management school here in Florence, are of course, greatly talented, however, they didn’t shine or excel beyond expectations.
So you came to cooking practically by nature. Where does this natural relationship come from?
For the love and passion of eating. As my friend Peter says, you are from southern Italy, of course you love and know how to cook. And there is this sort of ritual around food in the south, even too much maybe (laughs). Growing up, it was almost a challenge between my brother and I to try and help our mother out by cooking for everyone.
What type of cuisine do you find at Zibibbo? What are your goals as a restaurant and what kind of clients do you cater to?
Here at Zibibbo we stray away from the traditional Tuscan cuisine and do other things such as livers, pasta al cacio e pepe, which we have renamed after the specific cheese we use, but there are also international dishes that you would typically find overseas such as foie gras and fish prepared in various ways. Our goal is to cook for "medium-high level clients". We don’t want to be unreachable to most people but neither put ourselves in competition with the average type of restaurants here in town because unfortunately, it is very touristy. Thus, we try to rediscover tradition and innovate by offering plates that you can’t find in other restaurants. Our main rule of thumb is to make the most possible by hand in the restaurant. For example, we don’t use any type of pre-made pasta, except spaghetti; everything is made from scratch.
You talk about innovation. What pushes and inspires you to go outside the box?
First of all, we always try to satisfy the public desire. Luckily, here, I have the chance to experiment and maybe serve something that is risky. We have, for example, various deserts like tarte tatin that was made for the first time with pears that gives a sort of sweet and sour taste that everyone might not like. Or we have something called ‘fried custard’ which is absolutely an unknown. Innovation is also rooted in rediscovering those dishes that were once considered ‘poor dishes’ that are often discredited in high cuisine but can actually be validated by giving them a new spin and reintroducing them. Italy is so rich in its different regions and thus, there is such an array of dishes. Even at fourteen kilometers away from the town where that dish was born, it becomes foreign. We also go around to different festivals where we look to make these dishes known by bringing them to a bigger public here at Zibibbo.
What is your relationship between culinary trends and your vision? Who do you look to for inspiration?
Sincerely, I believe we have made pornography out of food. What I mean is that it has become a bit too trendy. Looking at TV series, you see these shows in which chefs are trying to complicate things as simple as buttered pasta. A simple plate, though, if done correctly, is unbeatable. Obviously, the presentation is important; it is something we like and we try to include. The Chef Alessandro Borghese, who has a program on RealTime, Cucina con Ale, represents me well. He travels around Italy collecting recipes from small, old townswomen and brings them back, making them accessible to everyone. That is exactly what I admire: making things accessible. When you arrive at levels too much psychological, you loose the true sense of the food.
Yes, in fact, they say that if you want to test a famous chef, make them create a simple dish like pasta with tomato sauce. It is very hard to make well because the simplest things truly are the hardest to make.
I have had the unfortunate chances to work with people who, when presented with the challenge to cook a simple dish for the family with a baby, he or she can’t manage to create it well because they have never really learned the basics but have been overly trained in those more sophisticated dishes.
What is the hardest aspect of your line of work?
The most difficult aspect is to maintain lucidity and awareness. You spend many hours in the kitchen and one thing that is very important and difficult to maintain, is to keep passion alive. The most important thing is to always be enthusiastic about what you are doing.
From what I know, one of the hardest things is to form a team. In your opinion, how can you form a good team?
After having a group of people, the most important thing is for the leader to understand the potential in each person. He needs to try to push them to arrive at their maximum potential without having to ask above and beyond. At that point, it is his job to help them grow and make each member feel a part of a greater whole. By making the line cooks feel like what they are doing is just as important as the work of the su or master chef, it creates the feeling of indispensability and of harmony, which comes through in the dishes.
What are the difficulties and delights of working in Florence? How can this be helpful or how can it complicate things?
I adore Florence; it has given me everything. I think it is a luxury to work in Florence and every chef has a dream to work here because of the beauty in just arriving to work in your bike, as I do. The hard part is the masses of people, which, however, keep this city alive even in hard economic times. There are pros and cons, like with everything but there are so many pros in this case that it would be the best if we could learn to infiltrate these tourists with the Florentine culture.
Finally, do you have a piece of advice for someone who wants to enter into this line of work?
I would advice to start working seriously as soon as possible. Be humble and don’t become stuck in any role or job. Be conscious of your capacity and believe in yourself. Always try and obtain a goal and express yourself.
|Alessandra, head hostess and waitress at Zibibbo|
What is the most challenging and best aspect of this type of work?
We aim to make our patrons feel as if they were at home, which means making them feel welcome by introducing them to new things and making them feel comfortable by being disposable to them. The most challenging aspect is to find the balance between being friendly and allowing people their privacy and comfort.
What must you have to do this work? What do you do to prepare your employees to be successful?
Communication is key. Communicating with the clients and showing that you believe in the food and restaurant you work for makes a huge different. If you believe in it, they will believe in it too. It is also important that all our employees understand how dishes are made and what they taste like so they can better guide our patrons and help them choose a dish that they will like even if they have dietary restrictions. In this way, we can communicate better what our food is all about, including information about where ingredients come from, what the process is and what the end result is.
What is the main distinction between the two main types of clients that come here, intending tourists and locals?
With tourists, they eat here because they know they are looking for this specific kind of food and service. It is unlikely that he or she will leave feeling unsatisfied because they came with a certain expectation that was met. With locals, they come based on word of mouth or suggestion and it is natural that not everyone can like the same thing. In this case, some people may not be satisfied because they don’t understand our philosophy or our mission.
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