As we promised you, for the "meeting the chef" section, the appointment this month is with Marcello Scognamiglio, chef of Grissini, the Italian restaurant inside the Grand Hyatt. Marcello meets us in the morning, in a quiet moment of his day that, as we will see, is usually hectic and full of appointments. The atmosphere of a restaurant, in the moments preceding the service, is very quiet, relaxed and silent and recalls those moments in which, at home, our grandmothers began to prepare lunch while, in the background, there was always a radio with the latest news or, in some houses, Italian music from the 70s.
In front of an espresso and a cupcake that gives us the right mood to start the day, our chat begins.
The first question is simple: how did you find your way? How did you become passionate about cooking and decided to take this path?
Like many chefs, I found my way by chance. I studied in scientific high school and, when we start thinking about what to do in the future, I happened to watch a cooking program that I liked. And then slowly, when you start working in the kitchen, it happens that you fall in love with it. In the early years then, when you work as an apprentice, it is a very heavy job; therefore, if you don't like it, it is easy to think of leaving it. It was not like that for me: I fell in love with kitchen. I worked somewhere in Campania, my region, and then I went to France as an apprentice. Gradually you learn and grow and move forward.
How did you get to Hong Kong?
I worked for two years in Bangkok at Mandarin Oriental. You live well in Bangkok but, from the point of view of personal opportunities and challenges, it is not like here. I was following the social media of former Grissini chef and I knew he was about to leave. So I contacted him, I did the tests and they chose me. Despite the hot period, starting with the protests and then with the COVID, I feel happy in Hong Kong
How does your day start? What is your daily routine?
I wake up around 9 and arrive here at 10 and start reading all the emails about the service, the supplier and so on. I often meet suppliers or customers. The guys working in the kitchen arrive at 10 and start making mise en place. I can only be with them during the service for lunch and dinner. After the lunch service, we have meetings with food and beverage suppliers and others. In this period, especially, in the afternoon I’m focused on private events because I have to manage some special requests. For example tomorrow, although the restaurant is fully booked, we have a private event in the pool with 50 people. In the last month we have returned to full service. After the evening service, I go to the gym to release all the adrenaline. I have two days off: Sunday as the restaurant is closed and Monday.
Among your experiences, which one has shaped you the most?
I think the experiences that have marked me the most are in France and then at Cipriani in Venice. My career is a little different from the classic stereotype of the family restaurant from which you grow up and go to work in the Michelin starred restaurant. I also had some experiences on private yachts that allowed me to travel a lot and gave me the opportunity to work on a wide range food I was used to buy every day.
Is there a recipe you love in particular?
Let's say that the thing I like about cooking is the possibility of space. There is this famous French chef, Daniel Boulud, who can create both ancient French cuisine and modern dishes. Here in Grissini the concept is to make refined but casual Italian cuisine. They based the menu on my origins from Campania; therefore, I take inspiration day by day from my memories and tradition. One of the most famous dishes is the Caprese ravioli which is very classic and delicious.
How do you imagine yourself in 10 years? Do you have a special wish?
I see myself managing more restaurants because my dream is to open my own traditional restaurant
In your opinion, this post-COVID period, which also had impacts on catering following the social distancing legislation that forced many restaurants to close or keep the restaurant open half-way, how (and how much) could the concept of catering change?
In my opinion, catering often follows fashions and perhaps in this period people have come closer to simple, home cooking. Here we kept the same quality but lowering the prices a bit and the results, after the reopening, was excellent: we are always full. In Hong Kong, one of the most famous places is Samsen (editor's note: excellent, worth a try!) which offers excellent quality at reasonable prices with a “chat and chill” atmosphere and people queue to go there. The market is moving a lot on other things, for example, healthy food, sustainable, no waste.
... is it a trend in your opinion or is it going to continue?
I don't think so and it's a good thing to pursue this zero waste rule. In some places where I worked, we got to throw half a fish to get that kind of salmon fillet. Madness. There are many chefs who have embraced this philosophy of not wasting.
Note: Last year, in fact, the central theme of the Gala dinner organized by the Italian Chamber of Commerce was zero wastage cuisine. Chef Igles Corelli has developed a refined and completely zero waste menu.
As for health food or some choices such as vegan or veggie, if you see many restaurants now, including Grissini, they offer at least one veggie or vegan dish. For me, creating this type of recipe is a challenge.
As for your suppliers, how are you organized?
We work with at least 30 Italian suppliers. I buy fish from Japan. We have 5 deliveries a week so they fish in the evening and it arrives in the morning. The seasonal vegetables are all imported from Italy. Sometimes my parents think that the products I use here are all frozen while we know that in Hong Kong you can find the best. The best fruits I've ever tried comes from Thailand. It is the best!
The interview ends like this: with our mind thinking about Thailand and its colors, the fruit that gives us relief when the temperature is too high and the carts that sell it at the corners of the roads. When can we finally start traveling again?
As I think about what has become a recurring dream, suddenly something Marcello said comes to my mind: "the restaurant is always full"! That’s why I run to book the first available table!