Every year, on the occasion of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, I have the good fortune to travel the world with my friends and colleagues from the restaurant Relæ. For us, being featured on this list, year after year, is a great privilege. Traveling with friends, eating in restaurants I have always dreamt of visiting, meeting new people, building relationships and partying are for me great sources of inspiration and motivation.
Relæ has first been featured on the list in 2012 and since then our approach has been to celebrate any result as a victory. We might be fortieths one year, seventy-fifths the next, and fifty-sixths the one after – regardless we enjoy the benefits of being named amongst the best restaurants in the world but we don’t let the result influence us, we want to be independent and not change our nature.
At these events, surrounded by some of the most prominent figures and institutions in the restaurant industry, I wonder what really defines the quality of a restaurant, what makes it ‘great’. To me the very idea of being named the best restaurant in the world is misleading. Although, certainly featuring on the list and ranking high bring considerable gains financially, to me the real prize is participating to the event itself. These trips I share with Christian Francesco Puglisi – my business partner and mentor as well as founder and leader of the Relæ Community – Jonathan Tam and Luca Donninelli – respectively Head Chef and Restaurant Manager of Relæ – are a true gift and one I try to make the most of.
This year’s event was held in Singapore and was once again unforgettable. While I was there, sitting in an armchair, surrounded by restaurant stars and enjoying the same show I have been following live from home for years, I felt incredulous. Gastronomy lovers attribute different weight and meaning to this event, and I too have my thoughts about it. This year’s event got me thinking about the perception, personal and subjective, that everyone has of ‘the Restaurant’. During the ceremony, the countdown to the number one is often stopped by the presentation of special awards, Best Female Chef, Best Pastry Chef, a Chef’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Best Young Chef and many others. As I was enjoying the ceremony I found myself waiting for the time a prize would be awarded that didn’t feature the word ‘chef’. I wondered when the time for awarding the hall, the music, the design, the wine list, the location, the view, the porcelain, the rhythm was going to come. I wondered why everyone was so focused on the chefs and so little on everything else.
Out of the class of 2008 of the Slow Food University of Pollenzo, only five of eighty work as chefs today while many more, including me, work on the floor as restaurant managers, waiters or sommeliers.
Gastronomy and restaurants are certainly not synonymous, but the attention we now pay to the latter works as a gateway to the broader food industry. Back then I, like so many, did not know who Massimo Bottura, Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi were, even as students at the Faculty of Gastronomic Sciences. Today the passion for restaurants, chefs and dishes has not only grown but has become an integral part of our daily lives. I can only be pleased by that fact this interest is not only limited to experts or professionals in the field, nowadays we are all more critical, up-to-date, knowledgeable and passionate about food. I think that if you want to really judge a restaurant, its quality and stance, you can’t only limit your focus to its dishes, or worse, only to their only taste or appearance.
I have met people who were so stricken by dishes and recipes they tried that they remembered whole menus eaten ten or twenty years before. For example a doctor from Savona who told me about a perfectly cooked rabbit eaten at the Le Luis XV in Monaco in 1983.
At work, I often have clients who, as we serve them a dish, display the most diverse cameras, adjust the light and take photos from every possible angle. I used to get nervous because I thought that losing two, three, four minutes to take a picture would change the dish that was meant to be eaten hot. However, today I think that if what you value in a dish is its appearance then you should have every right to photograph it, to do it well and take the necessary time. I have no way of understanding what do people take out of a restaurant experience, but when you are immersed in your passions, that the world around you has caught you or not, what difference will it ever make?
In Singapore I found myself talking to a guy who ate several times in all the restaurants on the list. He explained how, to him, the most important and interesting aspects when eating at a restaurant are first of all the taste, followed by presentation and service, and lastly by the choice of ingredients. I could not be in greater disagreement with his scale of values, but being free is deciding who or what to love.
I have different values. At every dinner, in every restaurant, what matters to me the most is the company. The fundamental ingredient is who I am sharing the experience with. The first time I invited a girl out for dinner at the restaurant, I was sixteen. I took her to Ristorante La Crota in Calosso, Piemonte. It was a beautiful experience. I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember everything else, the wine I ordered and a particularly likable host who, with little difficulty, framed me for the penniless and inexperienced boy I was. He guided me with peaceful calm towards an experience so new and exciting for me as picking a wine from a wine list. I felt good, adult, different. My first time at ristorante Guido da Costigliole was a unique experience. I remember everything, the wines we drank, and Andrea Alciati, host and sommelier, in the dining room. I fell in love with him. Tracy Chapman in the speakers, a Sassicaia 1990 and the Barolo Cannubi 2005 from Chiara Boschis. I remember the agnolotti. I remember the first time I visited Tabarro in Parma. I met Diego Sorba, a man of wine and of great culture. The personification of a great host. We drank some very good Nebbiolos, the atmosphere was spiced up by a beautiful record from Bill Frisell. I remember what I ate, bread and salame. The stools were quite uncomfortable, but everything around me was so full of life that I barely noticed. The tables were tall and small, the glasses on the other hand, were large and welcoming – it was a beautiful dinner.
I remember at least three of the many dishes from my lunch at Asador Etxebarri. What an experience, though more than the dishes I remember the eyes of the waitresses, all local women from the village, perhaps unaware of working in a restaurant like very few in the world, and maybe for this reason so sweet and relaxed that I felt at home. At the end of the lunch we moved to the bar downstairs where the only customers were two women in their seventies playing cards. We asked what the name of the game was to which they answered ‘Brisca’. We ordered three beers and a deck of cards too, I was in heaven.
Every year I treat myself to a lunch at a restaurant outside Copenhagen called Søllerød Kro. I must have gone there five or six times. It has a Michelin star and it is very respected, but I honestly don’t know the name of the chef. The man on the floor, the maitre and sommelier, is enough. His name is Jan Restorff, he has eaten in every single restaurant that exists in France and Italy and he knows the wines from Burgundy, and especially those from the Langhe, better than anyone I have ever met. I go there for him. I love sitting in a corner table and watching him in action. I can’t name a single dish; all I remember is how delicious the food is.
I spend Christmas at home with my family. In the evenings my parents are in charge of cooking and they do it really well. My brother is a barman and takes care of the aperitif. My sister is an engineer and is in charge of the mise en place and choreography of the table. At around 4pm my father always turns to me to tell me ‘we need a white and a red wine for tonight. Go down to the cellar.’. If we want to talk about the best restaurant in the world, to me this is it. I like everything about dining, the wine, the dishes but above all I love having good time. Sharing a lunch or dinner with someone is always something important and meaningful to me. I seldom remember what I ate, but I always remember how it made me feel.
To me a great restaurant is made up primarily of people and ideas. I fell in love with restaurants for their complexity. Because of the way they are managed and move. For the music that is played and for the way the lighting is arranged. I love the darkness that gives intimacy, and the right amount of chaos that provides energy. For the dishes I eat, and for the rhythm of service. For the selection of wine and for the selection of glasses. I love restaurants for how they make me smile and for a lot of other reasons that maybe I can’t even explain to myself. Why limit yourself to chefs or dishes then? In a restaurant there is so much more than that. For example there is you. If you are feeling good, if you like where you are and what you are eating, then you’re in a great restaurant. Perhaps one of the best in the world. An opinion always counts, having one of your own means having a passion.
Alessandro Perricone, December 2019
Cover: Far East Chinese Restaurant In New York City Painting By Dwight Goss; https://paintingvalley.com/chinese-food-painting