Retired, but happy

Aimo Moroni explains the generational handover. His daughter Stefania: how could you not love this man?

31-05-2016
How do you manage the generational handover of a g

How do you manage the generational handover of a great restaurant? Aimo Moroni (in the photo with his wife Nadia) and daughter Stefania explain it in this interview. The second part in the next few days

Il Luogo is a sacred place: synthesis and soul. As I distractedly mentioned “ristorante Aimo e Nadia”, Stefania Moroni, with her father Aimo beside her, very kindly but diligently interrupted immediately: «I’d like to point out: not “Aimo e Nadia”, but “Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia”. It’s an important difference». Of course it is: so much so it became the subject of this interview with one of the giants in our top restaurants. He was born in 1934 and looks very good for his age. Aimo Moroni is Il Luogo, but Il Luogo is no longer just Aimo Moroni.

Some time ago, also on Identità Golose, Pietro Zito thus presented his dilemma: «Ageing makes me want to finally structure the management of my kitchen. Then I wonder if it’s best to continue investing on young people who listen, follow and expect less, or make sure you have a more serene management by counting on more trained talents». And then: «I often wonder how we, who are now 50 or older, can or believe we can compete with young chefs who on top of having a greater technical and cultural preparation are also fitter. We cannot delude ourselves, thinking we can still compete with them in the kitchen. Isn’t it best to give them space in a renewed kitchen?». These were the sincere questions of a humble and intelligent person; we thought Aimo and Stefania Moroni could offer the best possible answer. They just needed to tell us their choices, their story.

Aimo with his daughter Stefania: «Not loving this man is like quitting your place in the human race»

Aimo with his daughter Stefania: «Not loving this man is like quitting your place in the human race»

Aimo, where shall we start from?
Tuscan blood, he starts with a joke: «Let’s start from the fact I started working at 13, a life without pause, 16/17 hours per day, and today I need to deal with limited retirement benefits…».

Ok, I’ll ask a question then: three years ago you stopped working in the kitchen. Do you miss it?
«Physically, I’m less present at Il Luogo. However, I’m happy with the way things are going in this final part of my life. Here I find innovation in tradition, culture, hospitality, art and technique. Could I ask for more?».

Do you really never feel the desire to go back into the kitchen?
«Oh, of course, often! I miss being in the kitchen, doing the shopping… I’m tempted sometimes: then I stop. I realise it would be some sort of invasion, I’d end up messing up a mechanism that’s working. I’m happy, because Alessandro and Fabio [Negrini and Pisani] are appreciated».

It was a difficult choice, that of having them working beside you and Nadia, in 2004-2005, when they were so young, being born in 1978. How could you understand so clearly that the succession process had to begin?
Stefania Moroni: «We were not that aware. The process developed gradually, it wasn’t planned in detail. In Italy there’s a strong family tradition. When you think of the future it’s very hard to be objective. Those who have built an important history, like my parents, find it hard to leave it. We realised it was necessary to have someone work beside us, but at the same time we were afraid to waste a treasure».

Aimo and Nadia with two very young Alessandro Negrini and Fabio Pisani

Aimo and Nadia with two very young Alessandro Negrini and Fabio Pisani

This is why you asked someone who, in some way, you already knew…
SM
: «Ale had already been working for three years here, and we called him back in 2004. The very first time he came he was 19, with very little experience. The door was open, he came with his suitcase, went into the kitchen. He found Nadia and before even knowing who he was, she handed him a spoon: “Take, taste it”. In that gesture there wasn’t just the idea of conveying her culinary knowledge but a philosophy too, the sharing of a method and culture. Aimo has always been the talent, Nadia the perseverance. She had to work hard to learn the job, she didn’t have the X factor right from the start, while everything came natural to him. It was my mother, who had learned, to teach. Aimo wouldn’t have been capable of doing it, he didn’t have the necessary patience».

So Negrini returned. How about Pisani?
SM
: «Alessandro brought him almost immediately. We met one day to discuss how to structure everything. We were dining in the sitting room, speaking. Alessandro didn’t feel like saying “I’m better than Fabio, he could be my sous chef”, nor he wanted to be under the other. At the same time Fabio, despite being the “new guy” at Il Luogo, showed great enthusiasm: “This is what I’ve always desired to cook”. At that moment we got the idea: let them become chefs at the same level».

A huge gamble. At the time, they had a total of 52 years, less than Aimo alone, being then 70. And besides offering a dual model…
AM
: «After all, the model already existed».
SM: «Exactly. Aimo had the creativity, Nadia the perseverance. The guys saw two different yet complementary approaches. Our cooking gradually appeared to be based on relations: even when a step backward needed to be made».

Did the team settle immediately?
SM
: «No. We had to train a whole team, Nicola [Dell’Agnolo] in the dining room had also just arrived, Federico [Graziani] very little earlier».
AM: «There was a risk that it would not work. But I knew we had to find a road for the future of Il Luogo. Luckily I had an anchor: I could count on Stefania, who’s been incredible and essential. Yet we also needed to think of a process in the kitchen. We tried. It wasn’t easy at first».

Aimo at the market with Negrini and Pisani: the choice of exceptional raw materials is the what the success of Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is based on

Aimo at the market with Negrini and Pisani: the choice of exceptional raw materials is the what the success of Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is based on

Contrasts?
AM
: «Many. I had always been used to focus on quality, attention to products. They paid much less attention. I would hear them placing orders on the phone: “Bring us tomatoes”. I was struck: tomatoes? What tomatoes? What kind? For me there’s no such thing as “meat”, I want the meat from Villa or Martini. Vegetables, only in season. And so on. They gradually started to understand, to realise my goal was to continue a journey based on quality and creativity, through them».

And you’ve made it. Looking at it today, it almost seems banal…
SM
: «It wasn’t it at all. We totally lacked a reference model. How do you manage the change of generation in a system based on the highest creativity of a specific person? I attended plenty of courses: philosophers, sociologists... One could say: what has it got to do with cooking? It has to do with cooking because they help widening the horizon, understand the complexity of the world. When Ale and Fabio arrived we didn’t have a structured project leading us to where we are today. We needed time, because dad had to accept the idea of moving a step backward. Luckily there’s the anchor of family, a model that could be reflected on the restaurant: every single part is part of a unique being. In this sense, studying DNA helped me a lot!».

What was, at the time, Aimo’s great merit?
SM
: «He’s always been a great listener. He also taught us to show criticalities, even with determination, no matter how but always respecting the person we were speaking with. Swearing to each other, screaming, but then solving the issue: never hide it under the carpet. And, once it’s solved, get back to work in harmony. It’s a great, rare merit: there’s nothing we cannot say to each other».

When did you realise it worked?
AM
: «Some six years later. Alessandro and Fabio first had to stand me, then they supported me. For six years I repeated, endlessly: “Guys, a cook can have plenty of talent. Yet if he lacks great raw materials, and the necessary knowledge, he’ll go nowhere”. Bread and tomato, this is my caviar, my manifesto. And I discussed it at Bocconi too».

I’d say they’ve learned the lesson well.
AM
: «Indeed. They’ve already understood it’s not a question of manual skills, because a precise gesture comes from a deep knowledge of the product you’re using. It’s now a pleasure to look at them, I notice that now these are concepts and habits that come natural, they have acquired them through osmosis: gestures, ways of doing things. We found the right road, I’m glad. It’s like gerovital. I sleep better, no need for camomile or Lexotan».
SM: «Dad speaks of the serenity reached by a man who has never experienced nastiness, rancour, aggressiveness. He wanted to donate flavours: he’s a poet, weak by choice, because what he wants is to donate a little happiness. Not loving Aimo is like quitting your place in the human race».
(1, to be continued. In the second episode, Aimo and raw materials)