Gennaro Oliviero, an Italian restaurateur in Finland, in the days of Coronavirus

For the past six years he’s been running Toca, a successful restaurant in Helsinki. Today he tells about the situation there and the reactions to the lockdown

Gennaro Oliviero at work in the kitchen of his re

Gennaro Oliviero at work in the kitchen of his restaurant, Toca, in Helsinki

His name is Gennaro Oliviero, and he’s Italian. His surname shows clear Campanian origins, but his family lives in Modena. The family where he was born, and raised: because his new family, which he started with his partner Elina Valoranta, is in Helsinki, Finland. He’s a chef and an entrepreneur, and for six years he’s been running a restaurant called Toca, which offers a cuisine with Italian roots, but also with the desire to offer original, personal, elegant dishes. Gennaro Oliviero contacted the editorial team of Identità Golose, and told us he follows us constantly (and we thank him for this) and wanted to share his point of view, clearly influenced by where he lives and works, on the current pandemic.

«As I live in Finland – he told us – but have my family in Italy, I am observing this situation in two different ways, perhaps listening to and seeing different things. On the one hand I feel the worries of my mother and my relatives in Italy. On the other there’s my point of view as a restaurant entrepreneur in Helsinki, an entrepreneur who is trying to navigate through this moment».

Tell us something more about you, how did you arrive in Finland?
I left from Italy during the recession, around ten years ago. I left for Finland, because my partner was here, and I immediately started to work in high end restaurants. In Italy I had acquired experience in various starred restaurants, but there are very few such place in Finland. I worked for a while in some of these establishments, until I had the chance to open a place of my own in Helsinki: Toca. This was six years ago, and after a few months of struggles, it went very well. Until soon before the Covid emergency our restaurant was always full, even with three months of advance. Our place, in any case, is small. We seat 24 people, we offer a seasonal cuisine based on raw materials that are rather different from what you can find in Italy. Climate has a strong impact on the seasonality of ingredients.

How would you describe the situation you’re experiencing in Finland right now?
Here the epidemic still hasn’t reached very high numbers. Despite this, a few days ago the government decided to completely isolate the most populated region of the country, Uusimaa, where Helsinki is located. Roads are blocked and there are checkpoints everywhere: you cannot enter or leave, not even for proven business reasons. And they said it will be like this for two months, until the end of May. In this area, of course, they have also closed restaurants, so for two months we won’t be able to serve anyone. They’ve made funds available for employees left without a job because of this, giving them the possibility of asking for support to face economic difficulties, including paying the rent of their house. I was able to apply for a layoff scheme for my employees.

Oliviero, left, in the kitchen with one of the cooks from his brigade 

Oliviero, left, in the kitchen with one of the cooks from his brigade 

How do you feel the public opinion is reacting?
When I was looking at the situation in Italy, I was worried. I’m still worried, to be honest. Here in Finland I feel they still haven’t quite understood how dangerous this crisis may be. Perhaps it’s because they have a different relationship with fear, with death. My way of thinking and feeling sometimes clashes with this approach, which for instance leads people to think of the moment you part with a dear one who passed away as an occasion to celebrate the nice moments spent together, rather than a moment of sadness and thought. As for the virus, I believe many still haven’t understood how many deaths can be caused by this disease.

So you’re not working at all?
As in the case of Italy, restaurants are allowed to offer a delivery service. However, we cannot afford to do it in a structured way, with menus that perhaps include ten courses: it would not be possible. But we decided to test ourselves in this sense, and to do so we’ve started from our Italian roots: we now offer traditional dishes such as lasagne, arancini, pasta casseroles...

The arancini that Toca is preparing for delivery in these weeks of lockdown

The arancini that Toca is preparing for delivery in these weeks of lockdown

What are your thoughts about the post-crisis phase? How do you think the restaurant industry will face the new start?
To be frank, I don’t know. I’ve been working hard for six years. We have a restaurant seating 24 people with five employees on top of myself and my partner. When this crisis will end, for sure the employees will return to work for us, even though some of the cooks are Italian, hence they will probably want to go back home to hug their family. It’s understandable. It will be a slow process, but we looked at the numbers and we should be able to resist to this situation for two or three months. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to working hard even if it means earning very little, but I’m not afraid of the difficulties that lie ahead. It will be necessary to rethink our approach to the restaurant industry: some restaurants will find it harder than others. Perhaps you have heard of the Kadeau group in Denmark: they had a one-starred restaurant in Bornholm and a two-starred one in Copenhagen. They declared bankruptcy a couple of days ago. These are starred restaurants: I imagine that it’s the restaurants with the largest brigades, like 108 in Copenhagen, or Noma itself, that will face the greatest difficulties. Then of course the big names will suffer less, because there will always be people who have money to spend. But all the others will need new ideas, they’ll need to be able to listen to clients, because we will need to convince them to dine in our restaurants, to invest their money in a restaurant experience. We will need to have innovative approaches to cuisine.

Where do you imagine yourself to be in a few years’ time? Still in Finland or perhaps in Italy? 
It’s hard to say: part of me is surely happy of what I’m doing now in Finland. This is how I earn my living and it allows me to support my family in Italy. But I must say that what is happening, in terms of feelings, is making me understand even more what I would like for my future. It’s now some ten years since I left Italy, and I hope to return, sooner or later.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso