Riccardo Canella, the Italian who charmed Rene Redzepi

Profile and emotions of the 31-year old Venetian, for over one year a sous chef at Noma in Copenhagen. Soon to speak in Milan

Riccardo Canella, from Mestrino (Padua) in Veneto,

Riccardo Canella, from Mestrino (Padua) in Veneto, since September 2014 in the staff at Noma in Copenhagen. The restaurant will be serving its last meal on February 24th. After starting as an intern, he was soon promoted to chef de partie. He’s now sous chef in the service kitchen. Canella will hold a lesson at Identità Milano in Sala Blu 2, on Sunday the 5 March, at 10.40

«Welcome to Noma!». Ever since it opened in November 2003 every day all the cooks line up to welcome the guests right behind the glass door at number 93 of Strandgade in Copenhagen. One week ago, the welcome was given by all except one, Rene Redzepi, who was engaged elsewhere between a private event in Nashville and the preparation of the pop-up in Tulum, Mexico.

«Benvenuti!», we heard a moment later, in Italian. The voice belonged to Riccardo Canella, from Mestrino, near Padua, 31. For over a year now he’s been a sous chef at the Danish battleship. Right behind him, 23-year-old Jessica Natali from the Marche was smiling. The chef de partie already told us her story. Then in turn, when dining, the dishes were presented by Edoardo, Francesco, Giovanni, a different Riccardo and Stefano.

«We used to work at Noma», these guys will sigh in a few years time, joining all those who are already said so. There have been plenty of Italians at the court of Redzepi. Like Matteo Aloe and Alessandro Proietti Refrigeri of Berberè, Marco Ambrosino of 28 Posti, Ludovico Di Vivo of Capofaro, Fabrizio Ferrari of Porticciolo 84, Entiana Osmenzesa of Gurdulù, Floriano Pellegrino of Bros, Oliver Piras of Aga. Not forgetting Christian Puglisi of Relae, a pillar in the early days of Noma and now the successful patron-chef of multiple restaurants in Copenhagen. And we’re forgetting many more.

«We used to work at Noma» is the new «We used to work at El Bulli», a generational shift that implies some remarkable differences: Stefano Baiocco, Massimo Bottura, Moreno CedroniEnrico Crippa or Loretta Fanella arrived at Cala Montjoi when they already had a sound training, in some cases a Michelin star. Today, many Italians fresh from catering school want to go north immediately, without having acquired real experience in the kitchen. And if they ever manage to do a internship at Noma, they find themselves working 15 hours a day on a spaceship that has banned pots and pans and where dishes are almost never hotter than 60°C.

The traditional welcome given by the cooks at Noma, a trademark for the establishment that was number one in the World's 50 Best 4 times (in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014). In the centre, Riccardo Canella

The traditional welcome given by the cooks at Noma, a trademark for the establishment that was number one in the World's 50 Best 4 times (in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014). In the centre, Riccardo Canella

«At first it was traumatic», says Riccardo Canella at the beginning of a long chat. He’s been at Noma for almost 3 years now and is the first Italian after Christian Puglisi to reach the role of sous chef, «Every time it’s like a Champions League match, a high speed train, a crazy run you must not let overwhelm you. I arrived as an intern and didn’t know what to expect. I had to overcome the prejudices we were subjected to. They say Italians are indolent and don’t want to learn English. And they’re often right. I wasn’t confident about my English but I worked hard from the start».

Most of all, Canella already had a strong cooking background: «After catering school in Abano Terme [the same as Massimiliano Alajmo], I worked with pastry chef Luigi Biasetto for a long time, beside his chief of operations Ivan Centeleghe, who was also head pastry chef with Gualtiero Marchesi in the early days of Erbusco. At 19 I was at Albereta, beside Fabrizio Molteni, who’s one of the greatest professionals I’ve ever met, technically speaking».

At 23, the turning point at Le Calandre: «I did a 3-month internship and then 3 months with the Alajmo family in Rubano, which is 3 km from my hometown. Massimiliano taught me a lot. He has a playful and very personal way of approaching cooking. He’s against superfluous things, he goes straight to the point. His dishes are not born from an idea but from an emotion». An enlightening meeting, with a curious sequel 8 years later in Copenhagen: Canella was for a day the right arm of the master, who cooked at Noma within Gelinaz.

Many small adventures later, and right before the Danish experience, Riccardo was offered to work for 3 months in a bistro in a Norwegian fjord south of Oslo, «It was a beautiful house in the middle of the woods. I’d prepare lots of salmon with dill. I put aside the money I would have spent in the first 7 months of work in Copenhagen». He arrived at Noma as an intern in September 2014; «I felt I was trained as a chef but I still missed an important experience abroad. At the time, I had another passion: I played the drums with my twin brother, who worked with the synthesizer. We did experimental music. I recalled something Gualtiero Marchesi said: ‘I first started working seriously in the kitchen when I stopped playing the piano’».

Canella presents the fermentation laboratories outside the restaurant. Noma’s concept does not imply pots and pans

Canella presents the fermentation laboratories outside the restaurant. Noma’s concept does not imply pots and pans

He struck the right keys when, after the stage, Noma moved to its first pop-up, in Tokyo: «In order to follow them, I paid my stay in Japan myself. A few days later they asked me to cook because they knew I worked as four people together. It was the hardest experience in my life: wake up at 5.30 and then in the kitchen, every day until midnight. But I was part of a memorable team: Rene, Rocio, Lars, Tomas, Kimi, Daniel, Benjamin, Kristian...». Then after putting the last ants on the shrimps – Ants on a Shrimp is a brilliant documentary on that lucky trip – and the awaited news arrived: «Rene hired me: I was chef de partie of section 1, managing dishes with cold proteins, beside Jessica». Two Italians shaping hundreds of Crispy cabbage sandwiches with saltwort and Nasturtium and prawn ravioli.

One of Noma’s secrets, however, is that it never leaves its chefs in their comfort zone for too long: «In September 2015 they moved me to section 3, the snacks one, without any notice. Panic: I knew nothing of the mise en place. It was like getting slapped in the face, again and again. It was very hard but I slowly acquired confidence. On the 28th December 2015, after a dinner at Arpege, Rene called me: ‘How did it go with Passard? Would you like to be a sous chef next year? I like your palate and leadership very much. You could be a chef de partie in all the restaurants in the world’. The last day of the service of the pop-up in Sydney he made my promotion official in front of 60 people. A moment I’ll never forget».

What does a sous chef at Noma do? «In the hierarchy, the head chef is on top of all, at the pass [now it’s Canadian Ben Ing]. Then there are the sous chefs, currently 5, each with different tasks. Some take care of fermentations, some of the production on the top floor, some of the service kitchen on the ground floor. I started with production, managing dozens and dozens of interns. But I was too 'old school' for that task, to strict with the guys. Because I believe the kitchen is sacred place: I got angry too often. So they thought that role was more suitable for a more patient and attentive person».

King crabs, sea urchins, oysters: Canella displays the seafood plateau on the table. We’ll return to this

King crabs, sea urchins, oysters: Canella displays the seafood plateau on the table. We’ll return to this

Being the sous chef in the service kitchen, however, is hardly a joke: «I’m responsible for all the garnishing in the main course, I must make sure the quality of all the raw materials is irreproachable. If the test kitchen makes a dish 10 times, Rene then tastes it and I have the task of finishing it and repeating it always perfectly. I’m a kitchen manager. I must have a global vision of everything, so as to solve any problem fast».

How about the future? «According to the contract, a sous chef must work for at least 3 years. The first has passed. Now there’s Mexico, the lesson at Identità Milano, and then the opening of the new urban farm, which won’t be before the end of the year. In theory, we’re free until October. Who knows who will travel and who will work». And after that? «As all chefs, I’d like to open a place of my own. To make use of all I learnt with the fantastic Italian raw materials».


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world