Thomas Piras and the dream of a restaurant without menu

Behind the success of Contraste there’s a method focusing the attention on the client. With radical choices, as the maître tells us


Thomas Piras, 32, maître and sommelier at restaurant Contraste, Via Meda 2 in Milan, tel. +39.02.49536597. It opened on the 1st September 2015 and now you have to wait one month for a table (photos by Guido De Bortoli)

The format at restaurant Contraste is known since the 1st September 2015, the day of the opening: the 3 operative partners – cooks Matias Perdomo and Simon Press and maître Thomas Piras – want to put the client back at the centre of the universe, moving the ego of the chef to a satellite position.

This is why the first question the waiter asks each night to the table is: «What do you fancy today?». Which means: «What can we do to make you enjoy yourselves?». This is not a revolutionary concept because it’s the same task that was once given to the host: look after, intercept desires, warm the client regardless of technique and any creative-powerful performance of the chef, habits that over the past two decades have prevailed.

It’s a question of renovating the concept of refreshing, of offering once again ancient habits in new ways. As in the case of the Riflesso option at Contraste, a menu non-menu in which the only piece of paper clients are invited to read are they own impulses, their current desires. A prelude to the progressive disappearance of paper, the radical goal of these guys, «a removal», says Piras at the beginning of an interesting chat, «that is not yet complete because you need to move one step at a time. But this is the dreamt-of direction».

Has the menu changed in these first 20 months?
Initially, we gave clients 3 options, Riflesso and two written menus, a small à la carte menu and a 6-course tasting menu. The à la carte menu was never successful, so we removed it. Initially half the guests chose Riflesso, half the tasting menu. Now the proportion is 90% and 10%. We’re getting ready for the last step.

You’d be the first not to have a menu.
We’re not interested in first places. But we’ve noticed that this approach of paying attention to guests without impositions – come to think about it, it’s the simplest thing of all – is more and more popular and we’re glad.

Beside the maître, dressed in white, the two chefs at Contraste, Matias Perdomo and Simon Press. The three were already working together at Pont de Ferr

Beside the maître, dressed in white, the two chefs at ContrasteMatias Perdomo and Simon Press. The three were already working together at Pont de Ferr

How do clients react when asked «what do you fancy»?
At first they were caught unprepared. They were so unaccustomed that it would take us a while to explain what we meant. Over the past few months it’s been easier because there’s been a strong fidelity: today many know what awaits them and arrive prepared, with more or less detailed requests, which almost always fit the boundaries.

Yes, the obvious identity boundaries of our cuisine. For instance, we’ve had some extravagant requests like ‘I fancy Indian food’. Or ‘I’d like to have only raw dishes’. In these cases dialogue is important: I can tell you that we have various dishes in which we use turmeric or coriander, or that we have 3 raw dishes. But this isn’t a supermarket, nor can we change our nature. However, come to think of it, we have accepted some rather complicated challenges.

Such as?
They’ve asked us dishes like amatriciana, at the end of the meal. If they’re patient enough to wait 25 minutes, the necessary time to stew onion, we’ll serve it. Someone else asked us a menu with just pasta: we satisfied the request and in the end we checked if the client was till alive. To those who only wanted offal, we gave Diego Rossi’s phone number at Trippa. The secret is to always play it down.

Boundaries or not, you still need to manage 30 orders, each one differing from the other. 
At first it was very difficult and complicated, both in the dining room and kitchen. A remarkable stress because you didn’t know what they’d ask until the last moment. The contrary of what happens in restaurants that only have a tasting menu. We like craziness: in general, people risk too little in the restaurant industry, but we find it’s vital. As long as you have an efficient organisational model.

The dining room at Contraste, seating 30 people

The dining room at Contraste, seating 30 people

What’s your model like?
The Riflesso menu, on average, has around 15 courses. But every night there’s a range of 45 options from which to draw: 5 or 6 classic dishes, unmovable and unrelated to seasons [such as the famous Donuts alla bolognese, Cacio e pepe mussels or Rabbit kidneys] and other 40 that change according to season. A rather wide range that allows us to face any possible preference without many difficulties, even the most extreme, as with those who don’t want dairy products, gluten, and so on. A work of around 600 dishes per night. A system based on a long preparation.

What kind?
Service is only the last link in the chain. Every client, for instance, has an entry in our database: we know what each client ate the previous time and what their preferences are like. And we always ask twice – when they call us to reserve a table and on the day of the dinner – if they have allergies. As our chef often repeats, only those who are well organised can afford to improvise.

Speaking of allergies and dislikes, what’s the tendency in the clients?
70% state small or large limitations, a high and constantly growing proportion. It’s funny that we ask what they’d like to eat and very often they answer with what they do not want: oysters, gluten, animal proteins… But this uncertainty is an advantage because it stimulates us and improves our cuisine. We served a vegan client a dish - Onion, almond milk, mandarin and vegetal dashi – that he liked so much we later put it in the menu for everyone.

A mirror, the emblem of Riflesso

A mirror, the emblem of Riflesso

Given this format, the dining room staff acquires a great importance. Is the maître the only one to take orders?
Initially, yes. Now we’re gradually delegating to all waiters because even in this case you must standardise orders so that everything can run smoothly. Service is essential and this importance has been slightly forgotten. But 30 years ago it was the host who went grocery shopping and then told the guests about it. Then came the time of the chef/patron. Today we need the two roles to collaborate more, so that they can share the same amount of responsibility. This is why I work a lot with Matias and Simon even in developing each dish.

What lies ahead?
Consolidating Contraste and opening new places under the same philosophy. A wine bar, a bistro or a gourmet restaurant with a completely different concept. We have plenty of ideas.


Zanattamente buono

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