Giovanni Passerini: 'There’s uncertainty but also hope for the future'

The Roman-Parisian chef tells us about his thoughts in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. With a green turning point in mind

Giovanni Passerini at work in the kitchen of his

Giovanni Passerini at work in the kitchen of his restaurant in Paris

Chef Giovanni Passerini - who left Rome to conquer Paris now many years ago – with his work in the French capital has shown intelligence and sensitivity, both in culinary and business terms. First with his very successful restaurant Rino, then with the following incarnation, his new adventure simply called Passerini, a project that is even more ambitious and has received critical acclaim and public affection. He has a careful and lucid look on things, and this is why we called him these days to listen to his thoughts in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, which has hit Paris hard.

We interviewed him also in 2015, during another period of tension and instability, a few days after the attacks that hit Paris on the 13th of November. On that occasion he spoke to us of the approaching opening of his restaurant, of his worries, his preoccupations. We started from that, from those memories, to understand what his feelings are now with respect to the current situation.

«For sure the circumstances are very different - Passerini said – in the case of the attacks we had to do with an event that was very localised in Paris. On that occasion I asked myself many questions, on the social reality we were experiencing in town, on the inequalities, on the problems with integration. This epidemic, instead, is a global problem, in a way it’s as if we were hit by an asteroid, so I still find it hard to think, to reason. For sure, sometimes I get a little worried about the future, I wonder how long it will take us to reduce the social distance that’s been imposed on us. Sometimes, instead, I think it can become an opportunity, perhaps people will be even more eager to go out. Our business comes from two truly excellent years, so we have some funds to face a difficult moment, and the fact we can lay off our employees allows us to limit the damages. So basically I try not to think about it too much, because it’s such an unforeseeable and unique situation, that you risk overthinking it».

Have you spoken with your colleagues about what is going on?
I must confess I took the chance to isolate a little, to rest my mind. I only talk with some colleagues, my closest friends, like Simone Tondo at Racines, for instance. For sure we’re all a little agitated, but I also feel a good dose of fatalism. It’s something we feel it’s bigger than us, we have no control on. We’re ready to start over, when the time will come, but I don’t perceive desperation. Perhaps we count on the fact that the restaurant industry in France has always worked, all the colleagues I’m in contact with have healthy businesses, hence for now there’s preoccupation, but not anguish, at least among those I’m talking to. But of course if you’ve just opened a restaurant, and have little cash and lots of debt, it’s a different story. It depends a lot on the phase in which you are.

With the brigade at Passerini

With the brigade at Passerini

What do you think of the response of the French government to the needs of restaurateurs?
I’ve spoken about this too with some colleagues, and I find that the response of the government is rather reasonable, for now. As you know, for instance, contracts in France are based on 35 hours, but you also know that in the restaurant industry these 35 hours become much more: the salary calculated for layoffs is based on 39 hours, which is reasonable. Once you take away the cost of labour, overall for us it’s as if we had frozen our life. In this moment I don’t earn anything, but as I said the businesses that have some cash aside, the ones that are healthy, can hold on for a while. But restaurants are a completely irrational business, sometimes illogical, if not suicidal. Your restaurant may be packed with people, but your passion and desire to do more will push you to be always on the edge. Back to the government’s response, I believe that this is such a catastrophe that we cannot expect there will be money for everyone: I believe that what could be done, has been done for now. Then of course they’ve made some mistakes, as everywhere: holding the elections in mid-March was mad, I cannot understand how this could happen, even in terms of image. How can you tell people that they can go to vote one day, and the next they can no longer go to the park? So yes, they’ve made mistakes in handling the crisis, but I believe the situation was so critical that some mistakes are understandable.

Have you got an idea of when you’ll be able to start working again?
At the moment there’s not a precise date to start our activity. They said 45 days, when the regulations were launched, and the news was confirmed a few days ago. However, I see that the number of infections is increasing, even though we’re no longer in the phase of exponential growth. I expect we can really start again with our activity no sooner than mid-July. If I were pessimist, I’d say September. I also believe that when businesses will start to open again, restaurants will be among the last to have this opportunity, and it’s understandable: it’s not a topic on which I’d feel like polemicizing.

In these weeks, are you offering some sort of delivery service, or have you stopped completely?
For now we’ve stopped. We could stay open with our pasta laboratory, but we didn’t have masks for the staff, at the time they’re impossible to find, and I would in no way expose our employees to any risk. We’re considering, once the crisis will slow down a little, to re-open the pasta laboratory and offer some small menus to deliver within the neighbourhood. We are strongly rooted in the neighbourhood, and this is very fortunate, as it has allowed us to go through the strikes and the yellow gilets phase almost without any harm, because we work a lot with locals, and less with tourists. We want to celebrate this precious relationship with the neighbourhood, but we still don’t know when.

The counter at Pastificio Passerini

The counter at Pastificio Passerini

If you imagine your restaurant open, after the crisis, can you picture some novelties in your approach to cooking and service?
I believe I’ll understand many things once we’ll really be able to open. My wife Justine and I, however, are taking ever more seriously the idea of giving a new green approach to our business. We’ve already taken some steps in this direction, but we know there’s still much to do. For instance, the government doesn’t help you to transform your waste into compost, but we have decided to pay a private company to do this nonetheless. We’ve already been pursuing the goal of environmental sustainability for a while, but for instance when we look at the menu with Justine we always say there’s too much meat: the French are true carnivores, every time I try to replace meat with fish, perhaps a little different from the most popular varieties, I always find it hard. I’m in contact with a very good professional, who has already collaborated with different companies in this green change, and for sure we want to follow this road, in fact we will speed up because we believe it’s important to give a sign in this moment. And then I was also working with great enthusiasm on another project...

With wife Justine

With wife Justine

That is?
We recently took over a tiny place in front of our restaurant, to turn it into a wine bar, with a small offer of food, no menu, and no cooked food for the time being. It was an idea I held very dear, the place is really pretty, even though it’s small. And since it’s in front of the restaurant, it would allow us an interesting synergy, even in terms of reducing waste to a minimum. Now we must understand how to continue this project, what to do with this place. Uncertainty is the only thing that is sure at the moment. Another thing I would like to do in the next few weeks, if it will be possible, is to move from Paris and visit some producers with whom I work, to support them. Perhaps we’re not thinking of producers enough. Many of them are in great difficulty. What would happen if, when it’s time to open, we no longer found the raw materials we’re used to?

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso