Niko Romito: my innovation is a new Italian model

The chef from Abruzzo replies to Ferran Adrià’s statement: «Italy should play its cards by blending fine dining and trattorias»

11-09-2018

Niko Romito maintains, when commenting the biting words of Ferran Adrià («After elBulli, there’s been no more innovation in the kitchen»), that surely nobody has been and is capable of revolutionising all the major aspects in the restaurant business as much as the Catalan.

Niko Romito also maintains, however, that this doesn’t mean people are standing still; he feels that saying that «Today there are very capable chefs, but they are satisfied with doing what I call amiable creativity» (Adrià) is a little unfair.

Niko Romito maintains that innovation in contemporary fine dining can be based on different parameters. And that for instance trying to create a new connection between fine dining and popular cuisine, almost blending these concepts and overlapping their borders so as to make them impossible to distinguish, is very innovative. Incidentally, this can even create a new restaurant model tout court, something finally and completely Italian, because innovative, yet also strongly tied to our tradition.

Niko Romito maintains all this, starting from a clear provocation, that he made a few days ago, at Casadonna: «The restaurant offer here at Reale has never been as close to that of a trattoria». Bum! A clear provocation: because it’s not a sudden thought, but the result of a well-thought reasoning, an idea whose paternity the chef from Abruzzo shares with a great gastronomic thinker, the late Bob Noto.

Bob Noto and, from behind, Ferran Adrià

Bob Noto and, from behind, Ferran Adrià

Niko Romito says: «A long time ago Bob, at the end of a dinner, asked me where I got the inspiration for my dishes. It turned out it was a sort of test, he already knew the answer, he just wanted to know if I was also aware of it. I told him my main source of inspiration was home cooking, of course elaborated so as to create a style with a strong identity, like my own. He nodded, said he thought the same. Reale was born, he thought, from a sort of fertile short-circuit: fine dining based on trattoria, osteria, home cooking ».

Niko Romito points out that this specific genesis is the foundation of all he later created: «I don’t know if I would have managed, had I thought to present other types of dishes». He points out that in this exchange between high and low there’s the essence of his pyramidal system of restaurant business (see La piramide del brand: bistrot e cloni gastronomici, by Fulvio Marcello Zendrini); and at the same time one can see the bud of a possible Italian model for fine dining: original and free of the models offered in the past few decades, the French, the Spanish, the Nordic.

 

Rene Redzepi, the inventor of the Nordic model

Rene Redzepi, the inventor of the Nordic model

According to Niko Romito in order to create an Italian model, we should set some shared parameters; and this work should necessarily imply a categorization of recipes. Only this way a new Italian cuisine can be communicated abroad, and thus be recognised all around the world, and acquire a definite character. He says this idea is founded on a fact that he exemplifies with an anecdote:

«When travelling around the world, I realised how Italian cuisine is still associated with dishes from the Seventies and Eighties. I found this frustrating: today we have dozens and dozens of wonderful restaurants; the food is marvellous, as good as ever; but we’re still mostly perceived based on an old cliché from the past. We’ve made huge leaps, but this growth is not largely perceived. I wondered why, and the reason I found is that those 8-10 old yet commonly known dishes, were somehow, indirectly codified, and thus still make the main image of our cuisine, because there’s no such thing as an alternative, contemporary categorization. So Italy needs a manifesto and a categorization that can make the principles of the Italian contemporary chef understandable and thus replicated all around the world».

 

According to Niko Romito it would be a mistake to think that this insisting on a categorization is an obsession. Indeed, it is on this concept that he’s founding his system: «Take the work I’ve been doing in the past few years. With Bulgari, for instance, we’re doing a huge work of categorization of Italian cuisine, by ourselves, starting from tradition and making it current. We’re enjoying it greatly, and it’s a work that can be replicated all around the world. The hardest part is indeed this work  of categorization: but once it’s completed, it can be communicated, which is essential».

Niko Romito points out that establishing shared rules is not a limit to a chef’s creative freedom. Categorising, for instance, the recipe for lasagne, does not mean you must explicitly state which ingredient should be or should not be added, one can still choose to make the traditional or less traditional version. «At Bulgari I considered various processes when making a specific dish, and I made my choices, even mixing the various versions. The detail of each recipe is not what establishes its quality; categorising means creating a model, and then we’re all free to change it following our whim. It’s the basic model that’s kept unchanged, based on parameters that I would like to be shared, and thus communicated so that they can be established widely».

 

Niko Romito says: «We need a manifesto to set these specific parameters. In fact, I’ll put it clearly: let’s create a manifesto that gives us guidelines to define the codified recipes of Italian contemporary cuisine. But please bear in mind that when we speak of models, we cannot neglect the fact that if there is an original invention in our restaurant industry, it’s trattorias, osterias. This is what makes our identity, and has a clear and acknowledged personality».

Niko Romito believes a (codified) model of Italian cuisine should necessarily be the result of blending trattoria’s tradition with the innovation available in our fine dining; and the already established image of Italian cuisine around the world, with the creative novelties established by the techniques, ideas, and research of our contemporary chefs. A direction which he took a long time ago, so much so he’s already created the happy paradox that Bob Noto noticed. «We start form a de factocodification, which has already taken place, and from traditional trattorias. We must try to recodify and blend the concept of fine dining with that of trattorias».

Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura

Niko Romito continues: «Today Nordic cuisine is the most imitated in the world, in terms of appearance of the dish… Many young Italians are being influenced by this model too, perhaps because it’s so often featured, perhaps because they don’t have an Italian alternative. Luckily we have Massimo Bottura, who with his extraordinary work, with his great strength, his capacity, has limited this problem and without having a pre-existing reference system, he prevented this model to spread further. But his work is incredible, also because he works a bit like a solo, if you know what I mean. But this can’t be enough, we cannot just enjoy the beneficial effects of his energy: we must give answers».

Romito’s Bomba 

Romito’s Bomba 

Niko Romito says his answer is to create a connection between high and low, between fine dining and osteria. «My innovation is about making quality democratic. Take Bomba, for instance, a project I’m doing with Autogrill. There’s a starred chef collaborating with a group that works with very high numbers, presenting traditional food, which is also the result of a long creative process and of technological research to make a product that’s good, popular, has an identity, it’s Italian and most of all healthy, at an accessible price, and replicable everywhere. This is, in my opinion, the goal: blending past and future, removing the distance, adding innovation in tradition. The same applies to Intelligenza Nutrizionale, where I use high technology in catering. O to Spazio, which is my "cucina di mezzo": in Milano, where we are more established, we serve some 39-40,000 meals per year, with an average bill of 50-55 euros and a simple approach behind which lies the finest technology. It’s the great research on which it is founded, that allows to create a precise economic model, capable of large numbers. And this process starts in Reale, where the initial inspiration starts from the bottom, it is raised thanks to innovation to reach fine dining standards. From Reale, the concepts defined according to set parameters are then used in all the other kitchens based on a pyramidal model, arriving in the more accessible locations. This dialogue between high and low is constant. The latest example is Pane: the same bread, made after two years of experiments at Reale and for Reale – a place for the elite, expensive – will soon be accessible to all, in the same format».

 

Cavolfiore au gratin, a (fantastic) dish at Reale. We spoke about it here: The Niko Romito system: human factor, research, codification, multiplication

Cavolfiore au gratin, a (fantastic) dish at Reale. We spoke about it here: The Niko Romito system: human factor, research, codification, multiplication

Niko Romito agrees that nobody can match the work of Ferran Adrià in terms of innovation: «he’s ranged in every area of the restaurant industry: in codification, in the business model, in the approach to service, in his collaborations with the food industry, in his philosophy, in conveying knowledge, and even in the concept of cuisine congress».

Still, says Niko Romito, «innovating today is about making something democratic, making high and low meet. Making a high quality offer accessible on all levels, from bread at Reale, to fried chicken at Alt, to Bomba, and the food at Spazio. This is my innovation. I believe the turning point for Italy is to work hard on more inclusive, popular models. I do it at Reale, serving clearly Italian food which is a strong evolution of a trattoria. I believe that if my Cauliflower au gratin, or Cabbage and potatoes, or Tortello with chicken, were served in any osteria without guests knowing the huge amount of work that lies behind them, they’d call the patron, congratulate him without realising it’s fine dining». With a corollary: «I believe fine dining and trattorias must meet. But we also need a new model for a Trattoria Pura. Something that takes the research from fine dining while remaining faithful to tradition and to the concept of comfort food».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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