Chef Giuseppe Lioce – Italian-born and internationally experienced
Chef Giuseppe Lioce, Italian-born and internationally experienced, currently heading one of the top Italian restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, shares his growth as a chef and some words of advice for those considering the industry.
By Monica Tindall
What is your story? How and when did your interest in becoming a chef first begin?
I became interested in cooking when I was around nine years old. Instead of what other boys do, which is to play football, I used to stay in the kitchen with my grandmother and help her make the typical food of my hometown Puglia. At the age of 14, I decided to pursue it as a career and enrolled in the hospitality school. I used to work in the winter time in restaurants in Puglia. My family was not happy with my decision as no males in my family were chefs, only the women. My passion comes from my grandmother and my mother, and I’ve always been in love with home cooking.
What were some of your struggles along the way? How did you overcome them?
My father preferred that I worked with him in the construction field rather than being a chef. He was not happy that I wanted to pursue it as a career. When I worked at my father’s friend’s restaurant, my father told his friend to only give me the hard jobs (cleaning toilets, cleaning the kitchen) but I still did it without any complaint.
The moment he changed was at the age of 14 when I went to North Italy alone during the winter to do a three month internship at a restaurant. He thought that I would quit in a week and come back home but I stayed throughout the three months and finished it. He saw afterwards that I really did have passion and he allowed me to continue to pursue my dream.
In Italy at the start of my career the restaurants only give you the worst jobs for the least pay. If you are not passionate it really pushes you down and makes you consider what you’re doing. I’m happy that due to the passion that I have from my mother and grandmother that I was able to overcome this and take all the pressure to become what I have today.
What are some of the biggest challenges and joys you find in working in restaurants in Malaysia?
One of the biggest challenges I had at the start was the communication gap and finding unique south Italian ingredients. But within a few weeks we found the right suppliers and the people in Malaysia are easy to work with. One of the other challenges is educating the guests about the quality of the ingredients and about the cuisine as some consider all Italian cuisine as the same rather than from region to region.
The joys of working in Malaysia are plenty. The people are wonderful, the reception to the food is great and the chef community is large! You meet people from all over the world as Malaysia is fast becoming an international food destination. The large expat community of Italian chefs join together whenever possible and it’s a wonderful environment to work in.
Tell us about some of the many places you have worked around the world. What made you travel?
I started traveling young at the age of 19, I’m very curious to learn about other cultures and food is the best way to learn. I love enjoying other cuisines while promoting my own.
I have worked in many places around the world; Ireland, England, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, India, and finally in Malaysia. Different places give us different experiences. In Ireland I learned about the fusion of two cuisines, where a French chef was using Irish ingredients. England was a different experience, I learned about how to work in hotels and how to manage different sections from breakfast to lunch to tea and dinner. In Switzerland I learned about fine dining and how an executive chef controls a kitchen. In Spain I got the opportunity to work in a one Michelin-star restaurant and learned about molecular cuisine. I particularly learned that you don’t need to follow the books. You can have your own type of cuisine and your own flavours. Spain allowed me to have more of an open mind about cuisine and flavours. Australia was more about learning about my roots as an Italian chef. I worked in an authentic Italian restaurant with regional specialties. My passion for Italian cuisine grew in Australia. Interestingly, a large section of the Australian population are of Italian decent and they fell in love with my cuisine. In India I used this passion to promote the Italian cuisine more. I was involved in all aspects of the restaurant from PR, marketing, to handling customers and other Chefs. We did a lot of cooking shows and I learned how to cater to a large audience of people. I learned a lot from India about the Asian culture and how to tell the story of my cuisine. In Malaysia I use all of what I have learned in my almost two decades of traveling to combine into what Nero Nero is now.
Your career has taken you around the world. How do you compare job life elsewhere with work in Malaysia?
When I first arrived I felt that I might feel out of place in Malaysia and how it will compare to the other places which I have worked in. However, as I got to learn about the country, the culture, to meet the people and the reception to my restaurant, I felt more at home. I personally don’t feel a big difference between Malaysia and the other places as I feel more and more attached to the country.
You have worked both as a chef employee and as an owner of your own kitchen. How would you compare the two?
One of the most important things I found out working as a chef employee is that you have to be humble. As I started from the cleaner to the executive chef I know the difficulties of each stage and each employee goes through. I didn’t want my staff to feel out of place or just as an employee of the restaurant. I always try to make them part of the restaurant as much as possible. Even though now I’m an executive chef the most excitement I have is making a pasta, teaching a recipe and being with my team. As you go up in rank, the responsibilities increase in the kitchen and it’s a must to be able to handle the responsibilities but always make time for your staff and your customers as well as to teach others and me humble.
You already head one restaurant in Malaysia but I hear you have plans to open a new concept soon. Tell us a little about that.
At the moment it’s still a work in progress but as soon as it’s confirmed you will be the first to get all the information. J
How do you merge your international training with your current home, Malaysia?
My international training has helped me a lot with working in Malaysia. What I learned from my school as well as each chef I have worked with allows me to cope with the pressure of everyday restaurant life, to be able to create new dishes, new flavours and understand how a customer thinks. It helps me to be a better chef and to teach my staff about what I have learned.
If there was one piece of advice you could go back in time and give yourself as a young chef what would it be?
My main advice is to always be passionate about your job, don’t ever give up, even in the most difficult of times. You will face obstacles but you will overcome them. Be humble, be hungry for what you want and the most important thing is to enjoy whatever you do.
If you could dine anywhere in the world, where would it be and who would you dine with?
I lost my grandmother earlier this year, and while there may be popular chefs and great restaurants all over the world what I would want is to sit with her at her restaurant in Puglia by the shore and tell her about all the adventures I went through, taste her cooking one more time and thank her for what she has made me today.
Thank you Giuseppe! Do you want to read more from him? Check out his recipe.
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