As the second Dubai edition of the Italian World Cuisine Summit begins this week, Penelope Walsh speaks to three Michelin-starred chef Niko Romito ahead of his pop-up in the world’s tallest tower.
As the season for sought-after white truffles gets into full swing in Northern Italy, a sea of Michelin-star Italian chefs are also descending on Dubai this week. This brings the very highest points of Italian cooking to the emirate in one fell swoop. The reason is the start of the sixth annual Italian World Cuisine Summit (the second annual event to be held in Dubai) running from Friday November 7 to Thursday 20.
Each year during the summit Michelin-awarded Italian chefs team up with local Italian restaurants to host special limited-edition menus available during this period. Of an illustrious list of visiting chefs, which includes Giorgio Locatelli, Claudio Sadler and Antonella Ricci, there is one three-star-awarded chef in the line up: Niko Romito of Casa Reale restaurant in Italy. During the summit, chef Niko will be cooking at Time Out Dubai’s best Italian restaurant Armani/Ristorante. Ahead of his arrival for the start of the summit this week, we spoke to the Italian master chef about his highly acclaimed cooking style.
How did you first become interested in cooking?
My route to being a chef is an unusual one. My father was the owner of a pastry shop in Rivisondoli, a village of 700 inhabitants [in the Abruzzo region of central Italy]. When his health suddenly declined, I dropped out of university in Rome where I was studying economics to take over the family business – the patisserie that would be transformed into a trattoria, Casa Reale, in 1996 – with my sister Cristiana. I was very determined and I made my choice: home, family, Abruzzo and the restaurant business. My kitchen experience was next to zero. It is one thing growing up in a pasticceria, but running a professional kitchen and planning an entire menu from scratch is something else entirely. I began by experimenting, by trial and error. I began producing simple and rustic dishes and in time I started to travel, tried my hand at new things and got to know my region better. I attended conferences, met other chefs and studied my craft. Over the next six years Casa Reale’s cuisine evolved, as did the front-of-house operation under the management of my sister Cristiana.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My cooking style is based on dishes that seem to be simple, where the emphasis is on the very essence of the produce – the spotlight is on the ingredients. My cuisine is minimal, essential and recognisable to everyone. It is often defined as “simple”, but simple doesn’t mean easy. In the end, the dishes are still refined and complex, with accessible and familiar ingredients.
What is your signature dish?
One of my signature dishes is assoluto di cipolle, an onion reduction served with tiny, parmesan-filled, button-shaped ravioli and a scattering of saffron strands sourced from the nearby Altopiano di Navelli. I have used a humble ingredient such as onion but the final result is a very refined dish.
How did you come up with the idea for this dish?
The most important element of this dish is perfect balance. When the idea for the dish was born I worked a lot on the individual ingredients, on the study of the onion and on the technique of extraction. My cooking is based on a lot of research and study. The origin of the dish’s name, is that I have got the ‘absolute’ most out of the onion. The idea to add the ravioli and the saffron came later.
Your restaurant Casa Reale has been awarded three Michelin stars. What differentiates three Michelin-level Italian food from other Italian cooking?
The technique, the ingredients and the recipe ideas are all essential elements for haute cuisine, but they are not the most important. We cannot leave aside the many cultural elements that realise a great dish, such as creativity, passion, culture, study, research, education and a good team. The third Michelin star was, for me and my extraordinary team, the realisation of a dream. This was a huge goal, which we achieved after long periods of hard work and study.
Have you been to Dubai before?
I’ve never visited Dubai and I’m happy to have this opportunity.
What motivated you to come to the emirate for the summit?
I think that this summit is a wonderful and unique showcase for Italian cuisine, and at the same time, it represents a great chance for me and for my colleagues to engage with each other and to develop our work.
What do you think is the purpose of this summit?
The Italian Cuisine World Summit could provide a lot of support for Italy’s major players in food and culture. Many Michelin-starred Italian chefs will take part in this great event. In the last year, Dubai has become one of the most important business cities in the world, and the summit can give a great visibility to Italian food, and our country’s style in general.
Does Italian cooking really need more support and visibility? Surely it is already one of the most globally recognised cuisines?
Italian cuisine is very famous around the world, but in my opinion it needs more awareness. Dishes are often cooked in the wrong way and with wrong ingredients. For this reason, last year I launched Unforketable (www.unforketable.it). It’s the first video cookery encyclopaedia aimed at spreading Italian traditional cuisine in a modern way. I put tradition on the table and I try to teach everyone the best, most authentic cuisine in the easiest way. Traditional Italian food does not need re-inventing but brushing up, updating and accurate interpretation. To discover, rather than to cover the authenticity of the ingredients is the winning formula that guarantees good results, but it is passion that makes it a special dish. Knowledge of prime ingredients is essential. The right cooking technique brings them together well, without complex overtones.
During the summit, you will be cooking at Armani/Ristorante in the Burj Khalifa. Why do you think this restaurant will be a good fit for your cooking style?
I have never been to Armani/Ristorante in Dubai, but I had the opportunity to eat at the Armani restaurant in Milan. Like my cooking style, I can say that Armani’s concept is “simple” but not easy, is always recognisable and has a strong and powerful personality.
Niko Romito will be cooking as a guest chef at Armani/Ristorante from Friday November 7 to Thursday 20. Armani/Ristorante, Armani Hotel Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai, www.italiancuisinesummit.com (04 888 3444).
Essential Summit events
Check out these new, key events at this year’s Italian World Cuisine Summit:
Become an expert on Italian white truffle
If you love truffles but are not sure what to do with them, this is the class for you. A new addition to the summit, the three hour class hosted by Dubai’s ‘truffle man’ Massimo Vidoni, will cover all aspects of this fancy fungus to give you extensive knowledge of the food item and how to prepare it. You’ll even leave with a certificate too. Advanced booking required.
Dhs2,500 per person. Saturday November 8, 17 and 19, 3pm-6pm. Thursday November 13, 10am-1pm. The Emirates Academy of hospitality management, firstname.lastname@example.org (055 296 4827).
Cooking classes at The Emirates Academy of hospitality management
The cooking classes held during the Summit offer a unique opportunity to learn from some of the best Italian chefs in the world, with different classes, held by different visiting chefs each day. Classes are aimed at both amateurs and enthusiasts. More advanced professional-level lessons are also available. Advanced booking is required.
Dhs250 per person (including lunch). Daily 9.15am-1.45pm and 2pm-5pm. November 8-21. email@example.com (055 780 4746).
Michelin-starred chefs at Eataly
For three days of the summit, Italian food multiplex Eataly will host guest celebrity Italian chefs who will each devise and prepare one signature dish. On these days, diners will be able to order these dishes from the normal restaurant menu. On November 13, chef Rosanna Marziale will be cooking with fresh mozzarella; on November 16, chef Pasquale Palamaro will prepare fresh pasta; and on November 18, chef Salvatore Bianco will be making pizza.
Free entry. Food charged on consumption. Thursday November 13, 7pm-10pm. Sunday November 16 and Tuesday November 18, 1pm-4pm. Eataly, The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai (04 330 8899).
The Piazza Grande Food Show
This two-day Italian food festival features stalls for freshly made pasta, a Tuscan-style grill, pizza, gelato, a burrata and mozzarella bar, and Italian beverages. Michelin-star guest chefs will be participating in the event and there will be music, pizza acrobatics and competitions.
Free entry. Friday November 14-15 2pm. Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club, Al Qudra Road (04 361 8111).