Andrea Ferrero “From Italy to Japan” – Executive Chef of Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo
Andrea Ferrero holds the prestigious position of Executive Chef of Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, in Japan. We chat to him about his culinary journey from Italy to Japan.
Andrea, you were born in Italy and cook Italian food in your own particular style – are there any regions and ingredients that particularly inspire you?
I was born in Piedmont, and I take inspiration from my home town and the flavours we have there. I learned how to cook meat here. Then when my mum moved to Liguria, I learned to work with fish a lot. These regions in the north of Italy are my main inspirations and where I get most of my ingredients. Liguria is a sea place and Piedmont a mountain place, so it’s two different styles. I developed my own style with my own flavour from these regions.
You trained under Quique Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant in Spain now has three Michelin stars. What was it like training under him?
I worked in a satellite restaurant to Quique Dacosta. It was inspiring and an eye-opener as I was able to understand what it takes to make a fine kitchen, however, I hardly saw Quique Dacosta himself, instead working with another chef de cuisine. I have to say I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience here.
You then worked at Vivaldi restaurant in Dubai – what was that like?
I worked at Vivaldi during the Golden Age of Dubai, when it was booming. It was a great experience as I could access all the ingredients I wanted, everyone was coming to Dubai, and a lot of money was coming in. The Sheraton was run like a Shangri-La, in terms of F&B.
I had a really great executive chef who taught me how to work with ingredients and how to buy. It was beautiful, and my first step as a chef de cuisine, running a team.
At this point I started to develop my own style, to mix and match all the experiences I had from the Mediterranean region: Piedmont is mountainous, but it is close to Liguria, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, and when I was in Spain, this has a similar cuisine, the ingredients, the fish, and flavours are pretty much the same. In Dubai I had access to the best ingredients ever. It was easy to make good food here.
You then moved to Indonesia, to the Bulgari Resort in Bali. How different was it cooking at an island resort, compared to in a big city?
I had a very different experience in Bali. In Dubai I had access to these beautiful ingredients, while in Bali I still had very good ingredients, but being an island, we didn’t have such easy access. I had to make up for it with a refined technique and being more creative. That, to me, has been a fundamental step in my career. In Dubai, it was more traditional with great ingredients, but in Bali I had to create an excellent product by applying a lot of technique to enhance the dish.
The customers weren’t really different – in Dubai’s Golden Age they had high expectations, it was expensive back then. And in Bulgari Bali it was even more expensive, perhaps double. I have always worked in an environment which is very challenging and where the customer has high expectations. This drives me, and really pushes me to improve and try to understand what they want, and deliver what they expect.
These two experiences were such an eye-opener – like two opposing experiences that merged into one and made me more compete. Not a well-rounded professional as I was very young, but more complete. I integrated both experiences.
Your final role before moving to Japan was Executive Chef at the Bulgari Resort in Milan – did being back in Italy feel like being home again?
I wasn’t expecting to be home again. But Bulgari Milano needed a top executive chef. I was very young and in a resort, but the CEO came to the restaurant and was impressed by the food and said, “Let’s bring Andrea back”. I was surprised. I thought I would never go back to Italy as my life had been so international, even from a young age. My parents divorced and, after Liguria, my mother worked with her brother in a restaurant in Monte Carlo, France, so I grew up in between, speaking French and Italian. Then I went to England, then Spain. So when they offered me the position I was surprised, but jumped in.
It felt strange to be home again because, as a professional, I had grown up outside of Italy. The first year was difficult as I had to adapt to the local mentality. It took at least a year to adjust, there was a lot of pressure. This was the most difficult time of my life as a professional.
Bulgari Bali was quite creative, but Bulgari Milano served more traditional, only slightly creative, Italian food, and the competition was fierce. I felt a bit lost for the first year. But after a while I found my way and got to know more people and suppliers, and then I think I did a good job.
Had cooking/ Italian food/ the dining scene changed in any way while you had been away?
I think Italian food hasn’t changed much. Italians are very particular about their food, as the Japanese are. They are product focused.
I found Italian food less refined than I was expecting. I was expecting a better understanding of more creative cuisine, but they are very traditional. Like the Japanese, you don’t mess around with sushi. Bulgari is a very traditional brand – classic yet sophisticated, and we had to respect that. It could not be just a lasagna, but the best lasagna.
How do you see Italian food generally evolving?
I think Italian food is not evolving, it will stay the same forever. Some restaurants are being creative, but these are few and far between. There are trends but they will fade away. Our food and traditions will never go out of style.
Italians want to find their flavour patterns in their food – like tomato, oregano, basil, parmesan, ham – these flavours are ours and they need to be recognisable. You can’t play around with cumin and these sorts of spices. They can work in a restaurant that is a huge success for a few years, but then closes. But food doesn’t have to evolve to be beautiful. A Monet painting stays beautiful forever.
Japan is revered as a cuisine mecca – how did you feel when you first arrived?
The first time I stepped foot in Japan, I felt it’s something different, with it’s own strong identity. The quality of Japanese produce and cuisine is very high.
In a way, it’s like being in Italy: you change flavour, it’s like a jacket – in Italy it’s red, green and white while in Japan it’s white with red silk lining – but I’m the same underneath the jacket. People here also have a strong culture and a love of food.
But Japanese people are much more sophisticated than Italians when it comes to food. Italians want huge quantities, a belly full of food, while in Japan it’s refined, and about being knowledgeable.
Japanese diners are also more exposed to other cuisine. They go out to dine more, in Tokyo at least. In Italy, when we go out for dinner we choose an Italian restaurant 8 out of 10 times. Italians miss the food the most when they go abroad – they eat sushi for three days and then want their pizza and ham.
Has living and working in Japan since 2014 affected your approach to cooking at all?
Living in Japan has taught me a very good lesson, I have changed a lot, I’m lucky to be here and that I have the freedom to create what I want.
I arrived in Milan at 33, now I’m 38 and I have changed my approach to food, to technique, and to people. I am much more inspired by the seasons, I’m closer to nature.
The Japanese celebrate the four seasons, whereas in Italy we don’t give it a thought. They celebrate spring with sakura, summer with matsuri … I’m amazed by the fact that every year the Japanese celebrate spring and the blossoming of the sakura – every year they take a picture of the same tree blooming. More than the beauty of the sakura, I am amazed how the Japanese are amazed by it. It’s not taken for granted. This is a special way of looking at the world.
Thank you, Chef Andrea, for your time, and all the best.
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