Interview with the Chef of Hassler’s Imàgo Restaurant.
The protagonist of this new interview is Francesco Apreda, to whom Dr. Roberto E. Wirth: Owner, Director and General Manager of the Hassler Hotel, has decided in 2003 to entrust the role of Executive Chef of the prestigious Imàgo Restaurant of the Hassler.
A restaurant that enjoys the exclusive location right next to the famous Spanish Steps, in the heart of Baroque Rome. People lucky enough to be able to attend Imàgo, have the opportunity to satisfy their eyesight with a panorama that has few equals in the world, before sitting down to enjoy the exclusive and refined dishes created by Apreda. Dishes that earned him the Michelin Star in 2009, as well as numerous other awards, such as for example, the recent Award as The Best Restaurant of Lazio or the 3 Forks of Gambero Rosso.
Imàgo is therefore a place that combines an exclusive location with the prestige of Hassler Hotel and the refined variety of Apreda’s cuisine: a real concentrate of sensory and cultural emotions. It seemed therefore natural, for iBESTmag to know better the Chef who had the good fortune and the merit of being the protagonist of this successful combination; here is therefore this long and in-depth interview where Apreda tells us his story, his international experiences and his culinary “vision”.
Interview by Daniela Barone.
Thanks Chef Apreda for this interview.
Q) The Imàgo Restaurant at Hassler Hotel in Rome was your starting point and after some time you came back and became the executive chef: wants to tell us about your professional career?
A) I studied at the hotel school in Formia and from there my passion was born, then some first experiences in different places (the simplest ones too) and summer seasons as pizza chef, until through a friend I knew they were looking for a comis at Hassler, where I entered that I was about 19 years old. Here I understood that something really important started for me.
Q) You have also worked in London, what memories do you have of that period?
A) After doing the comis at Hassler, I chose London to test myself abroad: there I worked also at Le Gavroche (2 Michelin stars) and in two important Italian restaurants with creative cuisine. These were busy years, very intense, with kitchens with more than 40 chef, but also a lively and stimulating period. After 5 years in London, I received from dr. Wirth the offer to direct the Cicerone restaurant in Tokyo as a chef.
Q) Thanks to Dr. Wirth you worked in Japan and India: different gastronomic cultures, was it a challenge to bring Italian cuisine to those places?
A) Yes, being just 27 y.o. has been an important and exciting challenge that lasted two years, in Tokyo I already had my own kitchen and I had a Japanese brigade with me, I traveled a lot in Japan and I assimilated their fantastic gastronomic culture, and today I express it thanks to this experience.
Q) You have an incredible heritage of knowledge about flavors and ingredients, how much helped you the ability to travel and live in India and other countries?
A) In India I am a consultant for the restaurants of the Oberoi group, now are 14 years that I go ther. India has changed the way I see my cooking as there is so much to learn. I visited the markets, tasted, assimilated aromas and spices. I can say that I brought my Italian cuisine there but adding my own sensations of the place; even today those experiences influence my kitchen.
Q) You are Neapolitan, inspired by the ingredients of southern Italy but what are, if there are, the common points between Mediterranean and Asian cuisine?
A) Yes there are many things in common, with that Japanese and Asian: raw fish, pasta with seafood. For example they make buckwheat spaghetti with seafood, Ramen, soups- They have a different way to serve the dishes but there are many similarities. Even today, after years of returning from Japan, recipes inspired by that gastronomic culture come to my mind.
Q) Charmed by the flavors of the east, did you create your personal blends of spices to season and enhance your dishes?
A) Of course, I prepare my own mixtures: when you travel a lot in India, you get ‘palate’ for Indian cuisine for their many spices and it is easy to know and balance them in the preparations.
Q) Has it happened to you in India to taste a food, an unusual ingredient and not to taste its consistency, and remain perplexed?
A) Yes, at the beginning the flavors I found were so spicy that I could not identify and understand them; then after more tastings I became more able to understand Indian cuisine. I can tell an episode of street food: once I tasted some particular leaves rolled up with so many ingredients inside that I could not identify, I ate it but let’s say it was ‘an experience’ …
Q) What do they like most in Mumbai or New Delhi of Italian cuisine, some dishes in particular?
A) In India we bring Italian regional dishes that ,with the influence of local flavors and spices have become increasingly more creative. Indians love starry cuisine now, they have become more demanding. At the beginning we had to add a bit more spices, for example the penne all’arrabbbiata are very spicy. It was nice to consider that now, thanks a bit to us, in the Indian markets, they sell Italian pasta in bulk. Indians love it and now they cook it at home too. Now there are also Italian restaurants run by Indians. It was a real evolution. I do showcooking for housewives and bring there my fusion-based spiced cuisine and they are happy about that.
Q) Ethnic kitchens, spices, Italian tradition, the synthesis was your creative vision, your idea of cooking?
A) Certainly, traveling and living abroad is important to represent our products and the territory, you realize how important Italian cooking is. Here at Imago I brought my vision ten years ago, now everyone is contaminating but then, we were predecessors: we were the only ones who experimented in this way. We have just celebrated the tenth anniversary and now I like to devote my attention mainly to local products, but without denying my kitchen that is inspired by the techniques, flavors and knowledge I learned while traveling.
Q) How important is the imagination to cereate a dish? Can you imagine the flavors?
A) Yes, when you know the flavors, the products and the ingredients, it’s spontaneous to understand the taste: you can imagine the pairings, sometimes you can start from an idea and then it comes out another. The cuisine is made of evolution, from a situation can arise another idea, different, unexpected.
Q) A dish that represents you most and in which the Imàgo Restaurant is identified?
A) There are several, certainly the three Cappellotti al Parmigiano, fresh double umami pasta served in a Japanese cold soup based on Dashi: a dish where you meet these two umami, the Italian one with parmesan and the Japanese one with this broth, which is served iced while the cappellotto is hot. It’s an Italian – Asian fusion dish in which is very special hot and cold contrast and the blend of spices based on hot pepper, pepper, ginger, sesame, nori algae and more.
Q) In 2009, the first Michelin Star, tells us the moment when it was announced?
A) I was in India, at the spice market in Mumbai, Imago was open since the previous year, so I did not expect it! They called me while I was at the market, so I started to jump for joy and the whole market with me. Many children joined my party, there are three-four minutes that I remember very well.
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Q) Is it essential for young people to be trained in a creative environment, under the guidance of starred chefs? Is this the path that you suggest to young chefs?
A) I suggest to start from the regional cuisine, battle places to acquire a bit of speed, of course we must also be a bit ‘lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Each experience brings you something interesting, even the hardest ones give you something, you have to be very patient: apprenticeships always comes before the starred restaurant.
Q) In the world more and more Italian products are used. Everyone has discovered the made in Italy, elaborate recipes and become competitive. Has the chef competition increased in some way?
A) Now you can find products more easily than before. The level got up anyway, once the chef was closed in the kitchen with his secrets, now there is a continuous exchange between us: we organize meetings, events where we exchange ideas and experiences. We travel, we also chat on whatsapp, we are connected with social networks, we do conferences, events. And we make books with real recipes, with all the steps and ingredients.
Q) The Hotel Hassler and its Restaurant Imàgo have a location and a fantastic view, is it an added value?
A) My challenge is always with the view as often people ask only for tables next to the windows. After so many years I can say that I still have not won but now 70/80 percent of customers come for our cuisine. We try to create special situations, we only open in the evening, there is great attention to the environment and the atmosphere, we amaze guests with appetizers that come to the table and help to create the experience. A customer arrives at the Imàgo not only for food, but also for the reception, the service. We spend a lot of time to brief the waiters to create this harmony between room and kitchen. The food and the whole experience of the team is important.
Q) What is your relationship with your collaborators, your brigade in the kitchen, take into account their opinion on the dishes it creates?
A) Yes, I always tell the guys that if they want to do some tests or test some ingredients, be free to ask me. For example, even a simple aubergine cooked in a particular way can give rise to a dish. Even when I create a dish I try to explain it, so a synergy is formed between 4/5 people, everyone tries something, the test then evolves, we have a book in the kitchen where we write these ideas and then reason and from there is born at times a important dish of the menu, sometimes it also take months.
Q) Dr. Wirth, the Owner, Director and General Manager of Hassler and Imàgo Restaurant believed in you, how do you earn the trust of such an important and demanding person?
A) Already when I entered comis, I found such an important situation: silver trays, so many cooks in the kitchen, the pursuit of perfection. They are a big family of hoteliers, very demanding, and in a 5-star luxury hotel everything had to work in a precise way, even more so when I came back from a chef. This hotel, the structure, I knew how important it was for the Wirth family, so the precision, the attention to the customers, nothing is trivial here, nothing is left to chance. My day since I wake up, until the evening when I go to sleep is dedicated to the Imàgo, is my constant thought. I know I have an important job that made me grow, it gave me the opportunity to travel, to meet clients from all over the world. In the evening, I go around the tables and converse with Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Brazilians, Northern Europeans, very important clients. It was my first important experience, then I came back as a chef. With Dr. Wirth we have developed many projects together, and there are always new ideas.
Q) Is travel the preferred dimension when you’re free of commitments?
A) Yes and not just for work: I travel when I can with my family, we go abroad, when you live in places then, you know their culture, eat with them, understand them, live the tradition. In Japan, for example, I had to know their rites, customs as they love perfection, in cutting, in organization. I lived in Tokyo two years and I find that Osaka is a bit like the Naples of Japan, they are lively and friendly, there are still people with whom I’m still in touch.
Q) Next trip to Asia?
A) I traveled a lot when I was living in Tokyo: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, I would like to go to Shanghai and Honk kong. I like to visit the cities, the metropolis a lot.
Q) During the activity what are the meals of a chef? How they are organized. You taste often what you do? What’s your relationship with food? Do you eat little?
A) I eat a sandwich for lunch, in the evening we eat more calmly, before serving; I constantly taste something: from the sauce that is boiling, to the fish that is grilled in cooking, it is a continuous pick at, we have a continuous metabolism!
Q) Many chef are using more vegetables: are we going to a healthy gourmet cuisine?
A) Yes, I do not measure calories, but certainly we look at the less heavy, innovative and healthier cooking. We always have a vegetarian menu, we also use seaweed, we are innovative, I also have a vegetarian wife. I do it to create different and personal dishes, the fish we cook is without salt with spices and aromas, our customers like it a lot and are amazed.
Q) An ingredient or a food that reminds you of your childhood, which you liked as a child?
A) There are many: the parmigiana of aubergines, spaghetti with clams or pasta “puttanesca”, a Christmas dish like the “reinforcement salad”, the fried capon, the typical dishes of the holidays. I am bound to traditions, tastes, smells and memories of when I was a child. When I eat at home, mine is a simple cuisine and if I want to eat some dish of my mother I have to book in advance 🙂
Q) How is it to have a starred chef in the family as important and committed as you are?
A) My children tell me, even if I prepare the simplest pasta, that is always the best thing they have eaten in the world. In my private life the problem is that friends almost never invite me to lunch or dinner, my profession intimidates them.
Q) I think it’s embarrassing invite a chef like you to lunch, what to prepare?
A) Well I always say that I’m happy, that they should not be troubled and someone still invites me, but then I invite them.
Q) The beauty of being the Chef Francesco Apreda …? Of the Imàgo Restaurant ..?
A) The beauty? I’m very happy to be here, there are so many beautiful things: I have become a Chef and I’ve been in Imàgo since the age of 29. Time has passed, but there are always many suggestions, we also organize events such as spezial party, based on spices, we invited 40 chefs and we cooked and ‘played’ with spices, then collected and donated funds to a non-profit organization, for the deaf and blind/deaf children.
Q) You had a Quentin Tarantino theme dinner, what did you prepare?
A) It’s true, in my free time I dedicate myself to some event. On this occasion we projected the images of the films and matched themed dishes. I like to be creative in different ways!
Dr. Roberto E. Wirth and Francesco Apreda are also consultants for two Italian restaurants in India: Glass in Mumbai and Travertine in New Delhi, both of the Oberoi group.
Texts © iBESTmag – Images courtesy /© Hassler Roma/Alberto Blasetti – Reproduction Forbidden.