Behind the black stone countertop, Chef Luca Fantin works in silence, breaking the hush only occasionally by uttering a few sentences in fluent Japanese to his trusted team. Chef Fantin’s demeanour is serious, yet the atmosphere in his kitchen is not at all tense. “My relationship with the team is very good”, he says. “I see my sous-chef every day for more than 15 hours a day – perhaps even more than my wife.” It is the chef ’s structured style of leadership that won his Bulgari Il Ristorante in Tokyo a Michelin star only two years after he became executive chef.
Italian-born Chef Fantin began indulging his passion for the culinary arts at the age of 13. He subsequently worked in many established restaurants, including the three-Michelin-starred La Pergola in Rome, where he showed his mettle as sous-chef. He brought with him a wide range of skills and techniques learned from the great masters. But, most important, he brought with him his love of Italian cuisine, influenced strongly by his grandmother’s cooking. During his time in Tokyo, Chef Fantin came to understand the extensive history of the culture of food in Japan and learned how to marry the distinctive flavours of Italian cuisine with the meticulousness of the Japanese art of preparing food. Japanese cuisine is not alien to him. In Japan, as in Italy, the preparation of food is strongly influenced by tradition and the seasonality of the ingredients is emphasised – so the chef changes his menus every few months.
Chef Fantin’s latest visit to Hong Kong was to give a masterclass to a small, select group invited by Gaggenau Kitchen Appliances Hong Kong to pick his brains. The chef opens the class by preparing a plate of Oma tuna belly and wild rocket salad. In doing so, he speaks of the importance of good equipment. Members of his team nod in agreement as they use forceps to place each of the ingredients on the plate.
When asked what his favourite ingredient is, Chef Fantin replies “vegetables” without hesitating. He explains that vegetables are one of the most versatile ingredients as different ways of cooking them can bring out different flavours. A carrot grown at a particular time of the year can be half-dehydrated and cured so that its sweetest flavour is condensed and elevated when grilled, for example.
He counters the arguments of those that dismiss steamed vegetables as bland and watery by demonstrating the versatility of steaming and its ability to give food a juicy, delicate texture. He steams shelled green peas, and then purées half of them, seasoned well with salt and extra virgin olive oil, in the blender.
The steamed peas are part of a dish consisting of only four ingredients, but the sophistication of the way they are combined belies their simplicity. Another component is raw aorika, a kind of cuttlefish native to Japanese waters. The aorika is scored thinly, with great precision. While every bite melts in the mouth, chewing brings out the natural flavours of the deep. The steamed peas are sweet and juicy, while the purée is savoury and creamy.
Chef Fantin’s knowledge of vegetables and his creativity in making delectable dishes with them are vast. Taking ordinary lettuce, he boils and then minces it with olive oil and colatura di alici, the pungent amber- coloured liquid made from fermenting anchovies in brine, also known as “blood of anchovies”. He waves the blowtorch over some lemon zest and lowers it into the pot of sauce and instantly the kitchen is filled with citrusy fragrance.
While he prepares a mixture of clam juice and sea urchin for the sauce, his sous-chef brings out a plate of green leaves. The thinner-than-paper leaves of minced lettuce are translucent when held up in front of a light.
“The lettuce is first boiled, then laid out to dry in the oven at 45 degrees for 12 hours,” the chef says. “Then we dip it in hot oil to fry it for three seconds and let the oil drain.” The lettuce itself contributes no flavour to the dish, but the crunch of the leaf together with the saltiness of the anchovies and clam juice creates the perfect marriage of tastes, completed by the umami of the fresh sea urchin and a sprinkling of dill on top.
He is unwavering in his insistence on using only the best ingredients he can find. Edible treasures of whichever place he happens to be in find their way into the dishes he prepares. Using high-quality Japanese ingredients adds novelty to his dishes, although he is cautious about using ingredients that cannot be found in Italy. He adamantly refuses to use ingredients that are genetically modified. “In my country, I did not grow up with GM foods,” he says. “Everything was authentic and natural, and that’s why I will not use these ingredients in my dishes.”
For a sweet climax to his masterclass, Chef Fantin shows a way of plating food for fine dining, demonstrating a fluid dexterity that appears to be effortless. A creamy smooth mixture of hazelnut, cream and sugar is carefully poured into ramekins, then steamed instead of baked in a Gaggenau combi-steam oven to make a more delicate crème brûlée. The hazelnut praline is coated with sugar and covered in gold dust for a final glint of colour. The flavour is a shadow of that of his raspberry sorbet, but it looks splendid.
Unlike some other celebrated chiefs, Chef Fantin did not earn a Michelin star for his restaurant by creating wholly novel dishes. Rather, what put Bulgari Il Ristorante in the Michelin firmament was the executive chef ’s passion for the culinary arts and his appreciation of the complexity of flavours. The pupils in his masterclass were given an intriguing demonstration of that passion and appreciation, and they left in a state of bliss that only a meal prepared by the master can create.