Calabria, France, Japan: the story of Simone Cantafio in a dish

The Italian chef presented it at the World Cuisine Academic Meeting. «I’ve used my brain, my heart, my memories and feelings»

08-05-2018

La natura parla, l'esperienza traduce is the latest dish by Simone Cantafio, born in 1986, chef at Michel Bras in Toya. He presented it during a Japanese congress, and it tells the story of his life between Calabria, France and Japan 

There’s onion from Tropea and Calabrian oregano, a French style pea sauce and hémérocalle, a flower picked on the beach in Toya, rainbow trout from the same lake, aromatised with wild garlic. La natura parla, l'esperienza traduce [Nature speaks, experience translates] is the latest dish by Milanese Simone Cantafio, born in 1986 (see: Lo chef che guarda il lago), since 2015 he’s chef and director at restaurant Michel Bras in Toya, Japan. There’s Calabria, his homeland, France, where Simone was raised professionally at Maison Bras and Japan, where he’s been living for three years.

The World Cuisine Academic Meeting (the World Cuisine Academic Meeting in Hakodate provided the photos from the congress)

The World Cuisine Academic Meeting (the World Cuisine Academic Meeting in Hakodate provided the photos from the congress)

He presented this dish and his story in Hakodate (a city south of the island of Hokkaido) at the 7th edition of the World Cuisine Academic Meeting, an international congress that attracts chefs from all over Japan and from abroad. It creates a meeting point for cooks, producers and farmers and offers them a stage where they can tell their story. «I received an invitation to participate as a speaker a few months ago. The theme made me accept immediately, without thinking too much. I was to speak of vegetables, wild herbs and all that is natural – says Cantafio. – It’s the cooking philosophy I’ve been applying for three years now at the restaurant of Michel and Sebastien Bras, pioneers of natural and vegetal cuisine. I immediately embarked this great adventure. For the maison I represent, this is now a real lifestyle. Michel Bras created his first legume menu introducing herbs and flowers back in the Eighties».

Simone Cantafio presented at the World Cuisine Academic Meeting by his colleague Masaaki Yokosuka of MiYa-Vie in Sapporo, one Michelin star

Simone Cantafio presented at the World Cuisine Academic Meeting by his colleague Masaaki Yokosuka of MiYa-Vie in Sapporo, one Michelin star

The young chef, who trained with Carlo CraccoGualtiero Marchesi and Georges Blanc, completed his "task" with great humility, «I had to speak from the stage but without giving lessons. I didn’t want to present myself as Michel Bras’s chef, and charm everyone speaking of the historic Gargoillou de Michel Bras».

In order to convey emotions, you first have to live them and hence for weeks Simone worked to create a dish that would tell his story. He used his head, his heart, memories and feelings, and then ingredients. «So my culinary journey took shape – he says – I started from ingredients that would represent my roots and those of my family [his parents were born and raised in Calabria]. I chose onion from Tropea and dry oregano from Calabrian forests, two ingredients that were a part of my childhood, aromas and flavours I hold dear. I cooked the sweet, sensual onion covered in bread so it lost its water and concentrated its natural sugars, then a quick chargrilling. I wanted the audience to participate in a feeling that fascinated me as a child, the strong smoked aroma of the rooms where salami were hanging and maturing over the winter. I wanted everyone to feel as if they were in my beloved Calabria, for just one moment».

Simone Cantafio on the stage

Simone Cantafio on the stage

He covered the onion with crispy breadcrumbs and oregano. Simple but straightforward. «Oregano is for me a family moment. I’ll never forget the walks in the forest with my mum and with aunt Gabry when we would pick these fabulous herbs and then tie them in string and leave them to dry slowly under the summer sun». From Calabria and his childhood memories to France, «I wanted to enclose a specific memory in a sauce. Since we’re in spring, I wanted to represent picking baby peas in Michel Bras’s garden in the years I spent at Laguiole. The balance was immediate and natural, thanks to a French style sauce of peas, with a strong and direct taste, broken by oil aromatised with pancetta, following the original recipe, through the famous lardons».

The beautiful view from the Windsor Hotel Toya

The beautiful view from the Windsor Hotel Toya

And finally Japan, the third element of the dish with which Cantafio wanted to communicate the nature surrounding him, in Toya. «Our restaurant is on the 11th floor of the hotel (Windsor Hotel Toya), on top of a mountain; the lake can be admired on one end, the Pacific Ocean on the other. All around there’s a fabulous forest. I wanted to enclose the emotions of a 360° trip between sea, lake and forest in a mouthful. Hence the hémérocalle (a flower similar to a tulip that grows in the wild, on the beaches of Toya) served with a sort of rainbow trout tartare and seasoned with light veils of wild garlic leaves, picked in the forests around the restaurant».

One story, one dish, a balance of flavours that can create emotions, without forgetting gratitude. «I ended my speech at the World Cuisine Academic Meeting with an anecdote: the first day that Bras came with me when I became director and chef in Japan, he didn’t say which recipes I was to make, nor how I was supposed to behave. He took me to the last floor of the Windsor Hotel, in a corner from which you can enjoy the best view of the Bay of Toya, and said: "Simone, you’ve worked with me in our maison in Laguiole for 4 years. Here are the keys to my restaurant. I’m sure you’ll make good use of them. I just want you never to forget one thing: my philosophy of respecting the earth, which has been a reason of life for me". We looked around. Our sight was lost in the endless nature, and in the utmost silence he added, with a smile: "Nature speaks, experience translates". If you can listen, the rest will follow».

The only difficulty, if one can consider it as such, at the World Cuisine Academic Meeting: «On the stage, I would think in Italian, speak in French, and was translated live in Japanese. So that’s it: my journey and my cuisine had a meaning».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso