Isolated, confined, on house arrest: the hard life of Italian cooks in China

Segregated in the feared temporary hospitals of Shanghai, stuck for two months on tropical islands, far away from their partners... Six stories from the current lockdown

Acrobatics to buy food in Shanghai, today (photo R

Acrobatics to buy food in Shanghai, today (photo Reuters/Aly Song)

While in Europe people are abandoning masks, green passes and the pandemic-fear, there’s a corner of the planet where the situation is even worse than the malefic outbreak of early 2020. We’re talking of China and, in this moment, of two important cities: Shanghai and Beijing. The former is experiencing a strong lockdown since late March; Beijing has instead entered this whirlwind in late April. This resulted in closed restaurants, hotels in precarious balance, products stuck in containers on ships outside the ports for weeks and the stories of many people who were caught off guard while they were running their everyday life. Stories sometimes almost tragic, sometimes funny, stories of people who are inventing a new life and of others who have found the opportunity to help others.

Focusing on the restaurant industry, the record of bad luck goes to Claudio Prataviera. He’s a lively and fun man from Torino, restaurant manager at The Fellas, a famous meeting point for Italians in Shanghai, owned by an Italian group with outposts from Bali to Boracay, and China (what with cocktail-bars and restaurants). On the 26th of March he was getting ready to go on holiday on the beaches of Sanya, on the island of Hainan. The company had awarded him to get some fresh air away from Shanghai where infections were spreading. He took the ritual test before taking a flight. He came home to prepare his luggage. The morning of his departure, a call: «You’re positive. Prepare your bags, we’re taking you to the hospital».

Claudio Prataviera, The Fellas, Shanghai

Claudio Prataviera, The Fellas, Shanghai

Mauro Aloisio, Niko Romito, Bulgari Shanghai

Mauro Aloisio, Niko Romito, Bulgari Shanghai

From what was meant to be a couple of nights’ stay, with pyjama and toothbrush, Claudio became the first Italian to enter the feared isolation mega-centres for sick people: conference centres, or stadiums, or huge spaces, that host hundreds and sometimes thousands of people both positive or on the way to becoming negative. He spent two weeks what with isolation centres with the lights on 24 hours per day, chemical bathrooms, local cardboard food and lots of time to ask himself lots of questions. After 75 days Claudio was still in quarantine at home.

By a joke of destiny, a story of coincidentia oppositorum happened to Mauro Aloisio, executive chef at the Niko Romito’s Ristorante in Shanghai. Soon before the lockdown in Shanghai on the 27th of March, Mauro, unaware of what was going to happen, decided to go on holiday in Sanya (which as you might have guessed is the only place where westerners go to the beach in China). Unlike Claudio Prataviera, Aloisio did arrive to destination with his negative test. A happy tale. What Mauro didn’t know, and couldn’t know, however, was that Shanghai was to be temporarily close to the outside. Since then, the good chef who confirmed the Michelin star, earned the previous year, has been stranded on the tropical island waiting for Shanghai to reopen ports and airports.

Talking of the tropics: Andrea Botti, chef at BellaVita Bistro in Shanghai, a few years ago met the woman of his life at Cheval Blanc in the Maldives. He was the chef of the LVMH resort, she was a beautiful Malaysian woman who was in charge of the VIP customer care in that same place. In 2021 they separated geographically because he was offered a job in China at Bella Vita, another meeting point for Italians and fashionistas in Shanghai, while because of bureaucracy, she went to her area of origin, Labuan, in Borneo. Since then, they were finally to meet again in March this year. Like in Christa Wolf’s “Divided Heaven” there’s still a wall separating them.

We’re not in Berlin but in Beijing. Late April: Marino D’Antonio, excellent and experienced chef in China, was having coffee at Starbucks inside Guomao, where there is also the famous Hotel Shangri-La and its splendid restaurant Giada garden (of Chinese fashion group Red Stone which also owns fashion brands GiadaCurielColangelo and others). Marino for years had been one of the pillars for Umberto Bombana (the come from the same village near Bergamo) and has worked on different occasions with Hong Kong giants from the Swire group, until he landed, one and a half years ago, at Giada Garden. That espresso must have been particularly bitter because the following day he got a call: «You’re a close contact with someone who tested positive». Since then, he’s stuck at home. The restaurant reopened a few days ago and it can only deliver simple meals for now. Of the 36 employees in the kitchen and dining room, six are at work, with mandatory molecular tests each day.

Andrea Botti, BellaVita Bistro, Shanghai

Andrea Botti, BellaVita Bistro, Shanghai

But perhaps the one who has perfected this approach the best was Stefan Stiller, the chef with the highest number of stars in China, and Michelin surprise of 2021 (three stars at Taian Table in Shanghai, and two stars in Canton). Stefan has produced many videos from home, with mostly German inspired recipes (which is where he’s from after all). What separates Stiller from others is for sure a special formality in his work, as if he were at his restaurant (dressed with care, including gloves) and a degree of sponsors that even Niki Lauda didn’t have when he was interviewed: «I’d like to thank this person for the meat, this other person for the vegetables...». After all, it’s a known fact, Italians are good but they’re also messy, Germans are always perfectionists...

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

China Grill

Tasty reports from China and the Far East from our collaborator Claudio Grillenzoni


Claudio Grillenzoni

A journalist with the bad habit of xenophilia (natural, he's a Germanist) and food (he's from Modena ), he now lives a happy life in China, in Shanghai, building connections between East and West 

Author's articles list