Luca De Santis – Executive Chef at NH Collection Barbizon Palace, Amsterdam
Luca De Santis works as Executive Chef at NH Collection Barbizon Palace in Amsterdam. His culinary journey took him from Italy to Spain to the Netherlands. In Italy, he was born in a world where taste was the most important and came from the highest quality products – without any preservatives.
Read on to find out why Luca gave up his successful website company to start a new challenge – to be a Chef.
Luca De Santis – A story about continuous learning
Chef Luca, today you work as Executive Chef at NH Collection Barbizon Palace in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Where does your passion for cooking come from?
My passion comes from the fact that I love everything that is creativity and cooking is one of the highest expressions of art and creativity.
Of course, I come from a country, Italy, where we spent whole days cooking and talking about what we ate. I remember spending my holidays with my grandmother in her house in a town near Rome, where they still had the central oven of the village, everyone had a vegetable garden and nothing was bought.
In the early morning, bread and donuts were prepared to be put into the oven, and at home fresh pasta that were placed outside in the sun to dry with clean clothes, the air, the water, the flour, the fresh eggs, everything was different. We made tomato preserves, the eggs were fresh from our hens as well as fruits and vegetables. The oil came from the neighbor and the wine was bottled by us.
A now almost forgotten world where the children spent the afternoons collecting and opening the pine nuts to bake cookies, where the ovens were powered by gas and lit with matches, as well as the fireplace in order to cook. In a world where preservatives were not used, they knew the seasons and their products, where there were no supermarkets and the recipes were handed down by working them, no scales or blenders. All you had to do was touch and feel a dough, whether it was perfect, or just watch, like cooking pasta in boiling water.
I was born in a world where taste was the most important and came from products of extreme quality. My life in the kitchen was born there, close to the women of the house and the recipes and flavors of the whole life, some absolutely irrecoverable.
How did your career as a chef begin?
The story is as complicated as the story of my life, but I will try to be brief.
I always cooked, it was always my passion, I do not like TV and I do not like football, I just watch: documentaries, movies and cooking programs. I had a website company in Rome, founded in the Golden Age, when the Internet was still evolving and reaching the masses. A beautiful time full of life and creativity. It was nice to create something out of nothing, just from a white paper, and people would appreciate it.
I always had my style and never copied anything. But just as I am, I get tired of things quickly when they become easy. So, at the highest level of my business, when everything went well, I threw everything away, left Italy and looking for something new, a new life with new stimuli, and in a week I was in Barcelona, Spain. Italy was not for me with its beautiful cars and always had to look elegant and nice where people judged you for it. I was looking for myself and wanted to be me and nobody else – unique and thankful for what I was and could do.
However, Barcelona in 2000 was the magical world of toys, full of life, without any prejudices, where I could be myself and be with those I wanted to be, from the richest to the poorest. And I was with everyone, I knew everyone.
I tried to enroll in the University to finish law school, but in the UB of Barcelona the dispute between Catalan and Castilian continued I did not receive confirmation of some of the most important exams, including “Roman Law and Private Law”, studied at La Sapienza of Rome, where the law was born. So I definitely gave up on the idea and enrolled in an intense cinema course because my passion for creating something big and new drove me into this world. A wonderful experience, the first of the class, but this world was crazier than the one I came from.
So the enlightenment. In my time, the job as a cook was considered for people who were not able to study and have no money. It somehow never came into consideration for me, but now I’ve seen many programs by Michelin star chefs or famous TV chefs, the world changed and I had too much passion for it, I wanted to be part of this world.
I opened a small restaurant of Italian cuisine, trattoria style my way, and I ended up managing another one on behalf of a small company of 4 restaurants, after which, I decided that if that was, or should have been my life, I wanted something more: I wanted to become a professional chef.
Rational, blast chiller, blast freezer, termomix? I did not understand anything at all.
I signed up with a temporary employment agency and asked to be sent to any location as a waiter. I have worked and learned and never stopped. The companies I visited asked me to come back until after 6 months I asked the agency to change my profile and suggest me as a Chef. One day, the opportunity was right in front of my eyes. The agency sent me to replace the canteen chef at the Barcelona Hilton in Diagonal Mar. On the one hand a pleasure, on the other hand I thought that maybe I was aiming too high, but I did not care. I came one week to replace a chef, I stayed at the Hilton for more than a year. In Rome, our house was behind the Hilton Cavalieri of Rome, a saying said, “Do you think you are at the Hilton? At home you have to help “. What a time..
I remember the first day when the Executive Chef and his sous chef explained the work and the kitchen to me: Rational, blast chiller, blast freezer, termomix, I did not understand anything at all. For me the blast chiller was an empty room where to put a trolley or normally my bag, and Rational, I had two big ones, impossible to understand what he was (an oven). But well, at the Hilton in Barcelona my career started and I worked a thousand hours because I wanted more: from the canteen to the banquet, from the banquet to the breakfast, from breakfast to the night shift, from the night shifts to the restaurant and I never stopped – not even now.
Which cooking school did you visit?
My school was and is my passion because I could not attend a cooking school, but every Chef has always told me: you have a good hand, good taste and incredible creativity, mixed with discipline, study, perseverance and the right attitude. After my mom, my aunt, grandmothers, and the Hilton’s management and leadership classes, I was ready to think every day that the journey was long and I wanted more.
As a young chef, you worked 2 years for the Hilton in Valencia, Spain. How did this time still affect you as a chef up today?
Valencia has been a great school in terms of cooking as well as life in the kitchen. I remember leaving the Hilton Barcelona to go to London, but the Executive Chef stopped me and suggested going to Valencia: a new Hilton and Bice, a famous Italian restaurant of Milanese origin. He would send me with references and I accepted.
A difficult year, but very important to me, coming from nowhere. The Sous Chef Executive, Argentine, was my mentor, we are still friends or more than before, as well as the chef de parties of the Argentine restaurant. I’ve learned everything I’ve missed so far from them and from the restaurant chef, an Italian with exaggerated creativity. Valencia was the best, I went from breakfast to a luxury restaurant and multiplied my knowledge of cuisine, products and kitchen structure: positions and responsibilities. A year that I will always remember and made my way to Amsterdam possible, where Franz Conde, Executive Chef of the Hilton Amsterdam, greeted me with open arms.
I do not want stereotypes, I want everything. – Chef Luca De Santis about his culinary style
How would you describe your culinary line today?
When I look at what I have done and created and will create, I cannot believe it. My lines are based on passion, creativity and innovation. I do not want a star, I travel on the border between a professional kitchen and a Michelin star, but always at the level of any type of person. My line is to create and invent based on shapes and colors, but above all flavors and combinations and different shapes.
Every chef has their own taste, that’s my line, but I’ve changed it a million times to always create something new. I started with a perfect pasta with carbonara sauce, and went for a couscous of 4 types of cauliflower with a sushi vinegar dressing mixed with ponzu and dashi and a particular soya, then refining the idea with products like gomasio and dry seaweed and create sesame varieties, or bring the best Pata Negra on the table and return to a pilaf rice at home or a couscous with vegetables and a semi-hydrated tomato aioli, a white chocolate parfait and yoghurt with one Mousse of basil and Yuzu etc. I do not want stereotypes, I want everything – that’s my style.
With Hilton you moved to Amsterdam, where you still work with the NH Collection today. How would you best describe modern Dutch cuisine today?
Hilton was my dream when I was little, at Hilton Amsterdam I wrote S.E.N.S.O. Filled Pasta relamente a pleasure, in the study of ancient Italian cuisine and my personal study on the innovation of the same. I’ve grown so much, but I’m going faster than a company. And anyway, when Franz had to leave and Black Stone bought the company, things changed. I want people around me who believe in what we do and want more and more, I do not see myself doing the same thing all my life. So I moved and I am still moving to search for something more – always.
I have some doubts about modern Dutch cuisine just because the Dutch come from a different culture where the kitchen is not the best, because there is no access to quality products that normally have to be imported because of the lack of sun. And anyway, it’s a kind of cuisine that comes from the French base, not really autochthonous. But it’s just my thoughts and I’ve lived in Italy and in Spain, I notice the difference.
What is your culinary setup as Executive Chef of the NH Collection Barbizon Palace in Amsterdam?
The freedom, the freshness of the products, reduce the standards and work on the seasons, aim at innovation and surprise, quality of products and suppliers, purity of flavors, discipline and consistency. I work for companies as well as for small dinners, eg. for cocktails or walking dinners or luxurious street food style, Asian dinners, typical Italian dinners, typical Dutch dinners. Creativity and knowledge have no limits – this is my motto, and I enjoy the full freedom of expression.
Can you share some of your latest creations with us? (➔ recipes from top chefs)
For sure! I love take photos and share what I saw in my plate.
What are some of the latest trends in the Amsterdam food scene?
Amsterdam is a city that wants everything, like New York, the problem is to keep it, to keep evolution. There were beautiful ideas like: the Avocado Bar, the C restaurant, the new Vegan and Vegetarian concept, the extreme milkshakes, the high street food, and more and more. But at the end of the day, the problem remains one: the staff and the consistency. The problems are 2: first the missing qualified staff, second, the money that never seems to be enough.
I was born in a generation of great minds and a lot of passion, the new ones want good positions and easy money. There are ideas, but they are unstable. And, of course, we are not in New York. In collaboration with Dilmha Thee, I’ve prepared a new concept of afternoon tea (it’s innovative) that I’ll set up in a month, the break for the groups has to change and the standards forget, the banquet has to die and leave some space to the “a la carte banqueting” make your choice. The world is turning into a multicultural world, the ideas have to be followed without looking at money and working hours. It’s simple passion and pure art. Money will follow. But never change or sell yourself.
Is there a place in the world where you would like to work as a chef someday? (➔ international job offers)
Crazy to say, but Dubai has always been my passion, the world where anything is possible. But I cannot, I have a wonderful family and daughter, so I think I will return to Spain in the future but honestly, I do not know, it depends on how the wheel turns and what it offers. I like challenges, not places or countries. Happiness is not a place to go, but a feeling to live.
You have published a very successful cookbook: “Green 370” a cookbook about vegetarian and vegan food & life stories. How did you come up with the idea of your own cookbook?
When I was working in Krasnapolsky, somehow the world has changed – from business groups without any problems to groups with all types of allergies and based on healthiness and good life. After studying I understood that the world is ready for something different. We literally eat the earth we walk on and all its components. The resources are limited and we are intoxicating buying meat that swell, as well as vegetables and processed products. It is time to move on and show the world that we can live and appreciate the flavors without creating monsters.
My generation and the life of the field is over, now it is time to go back and use the knowledge we have to create something new and sustainable.
About Green 370 I will explain it in more detail in another interview because it is really complicated.
Why did you chose vegetarian and vegan as your topic?
I want kind of a bible to educate people and make them understand what’s going on and what we can do. I come from a family, when you ask them to take the meat off the menu, they answer: what do we eat? So, it’s time to explain what you can do about it.
If you have the time for further books, what would be their topics?
My next book will be based on vegetables (Green 370: Vegetable Garden), where they come from and all kinds of preparations. Titrated an aubergine, the different types, where they come from, production, product history, preparation methods, etc. etc. And it will be seasonal.
Thank you very much, Luca!
Luca De Santis is a passionate chef and always ready to learn something new!
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