Interview, Photography & Video: Jose Morales
"I like essentiality. The essence of my kitchen is a combination of research and tradition."
- Chef Antonino Montefusco
Video: A Day in the Life of Chef Antonino Montefusco – © BlueAngel Photography for Guild Magazine.
Sorrento, Italy – Being young of 35 and achieving the heights of glory as a Michelin Star Chef, can you tell us how you discovered your passion for food and how your culinary journey began?
CAF: What my mind recalls goes back to the 90s, when I was a student of the Scuola Alberghiera. My passion started after that, following my father’s advice. But my mother, any time I cook for her, keeps reminding me that I used to play with the kitchen pots when I was a child. She claims that it was my favorite pastime. According to her, my love for cooking is in my DNA.
While I was in school, I started to work in restaurants as a dishwasher. Many years ago, you had to start as a dishwasher to enter a kitchen. As soon as I finished school, I went to Crans-Montana in Switzerland to the Grand Hôtel du Golf et Palace and then to Domaine de Châteauvieux in Satigny, a two-star Michelin restaurant. In 2005 I worked in Rome at La Pergola with Heinz Beck. I had the honor of being part of a great team that won a third Michelin Star.
In 2008 I was at Palazzo Sasso (now Palazzo Avino) in Ravello, where the restaurant had two Michelin stars. I then came to the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, which I left after a couple of years to come back in 2016, and here I am today.
• What has it been like for you personally to achieve so much recognition at such a young age?
CAF: It is a sense of fulfillment to achieve all this, as it was my goal. But I remain humble. I still feel a great sense of responsibility. My 3 R’s are: the responsibility to those who have so far believed in me and have given me confidence -from my family to my bosses; responsibility to myself in trying to value what I have learned over the past 20 years as I started so young; responsibility to those who want to become chefs -the very young people working with me in my kitchen and who look at me as a “role model” to follow.
"My kitchen talks about Sorrento, a land of mysteries, colors, legends, and history."
- Chef Antonino Montefusco
• Can you describe for us a day in the life of a master chef? What is the most exciting aspect of your day?
CAF: My day consists of many working hours with very few breaks. Being an Executive Chef, my role requires hours of paperwork, budget planning, inventory, and scheduling. My day accelerates towards dinner time, becoming increasingly intense, more kinetic, and finally, all but automatic. You cook unconsciously. You know what you are going to do. When problems come along, your brain just spits out the answers.
People usually think that a chef wakes up in the morning and starts creating dishes. But, your days follow rigid organization and waves of creativity that share the same mental and temporal space.
One of the most exciting moments of the day is the service in the restaurant, which is also the most stressful. It is our live performance -we go on stage. It is three hours of absolute concentration, where team coordination and time management become fundamental. I spend time ensuring everything is ready to go before dinner starts by delegating key menu items and overseeing mise en place. Throughout the course of the dinner, I coordinate kitchen staff, monitor quality, and production speed, and assist with cooking. When dinner is over, I like to meet guests and get their feedback. It goes without saying that I like compliments! They say compliments activate the same part of your brain as getting cash! (He laughs).
• As the Executive Chef of Terrazza Bosquet at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, how does the history of this hotel, and its iconic status, influence the dining experience you have created for your guests?
CAF: My kitchen talks about Sorrento, a land of mysteries, colors, legends, and history. The Sorrentine Coast is famous for its tastes and its perfumes. The smell of the lemons from Sorrento, for example, is simply divine. Their aroma makes the air fresh, bubbly, and filled with sensations.
The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria is the most iconic in the Sorrentine Peninsula and the Campania region. It has 186 years of history and has been managed by the Fiorentino family ever since. To me, both the destination and the Hotel are a continuous stimulus to my inspiration and imagination.
"Taste has a beginning and an end. I want to make the taste of my dishes last as long as possible, as well as the emotions and the memories they give."
- Chef Antonino Montefusco
• When visiting a restaurant, many might not understand the complexity of developing a dish from the farm to the table. Being Sorrento born, what is most important to you for your guests to learn about this beautiful region of Italy by sampling your dishes at Terrazza Bosquet?
CAF: I have no vade mecum to propose. I only desire to give “emotions” to my guests. To me, what matters is that my kitchen must be emotional. Taste has a beginning and an end. I want to make the taste of my dishes last as long as possible, as well as the emotions and the memories they give. When a dish can cause emotions, it means it has been able to tell the story of the destination, as well as the research and the technical and imaginative development that starts in my brain and ends on the plate.
• We had the pleasure to follow you for a few days and watch you in action during our stay at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. It was quite admirable to witness the respect the staff has for you while working all in unison under your leadership to craft such majestic dishes. As the Executive Chef and leader, what has been the most crucial step you have taken to create this synergy in your kitchen?
CAF: First of all, it must be said that I was completely at ease with you and your team and, therefore, able to be spontaneous and show you my world.
I firmly believe the synergy I have with my “solid group,” who has been working with me for years, comes from mutual respect, a respect that is neither forced nor begged for but is simply earned. I have the same confidence in my staff that I have in myself. I believe in them to the same extent they believe in me.
• Earlier in your journey, you worked with masters such as Heinz Beck and Philippe Chevrier. How has each of their philosophies and talents influenced your culinary philosophy?
CAF: We are the fruit of our past and the architects of our future. I owe a lot to my “teachers,” and when I say “teachers,” I mean all the people who have taught me something, and the list is very long: from my mother Angela and my father Carmine to the chefs and the general managers I have worked with. Each of them has undoubtedly influenced me and helped me “build” my way of being and thinking in the kitchen.
• When discussing Italy and its cuisine, what do you feel is the common link between its different regions as it relates to food and cooking?
CAF: The common link is the land and its history. Some regions resemble each other in terms of kitchen because they have hosted or have been dominated by the same people. The kitchen of the Campania region, for example, has been influenced by French and Spanish people and by its very fertile land; so productive as to be defined as “Campania Felix” by the ancient Romans.
• When talking about personal tastes, what has been your own favorite dish you have ever created, and why?
CAF: To tell you the truth, I am never completely satisfied with what I do and can always see things I can improve. I always aim for the “perfectly resolved” dish. Anyhow, I like “Lamb shoulder cooked at low temperature, marinated artichoke, and lemon garlic sauce.” The quality of the ingredients used, the mastery of flavors, and the cooking techniques were very much thought about. It is balanced explosiveness!
• What inspires you to wake up every morning to do what you love?
CAF: My love for food and cooking was cultivated by growing up in a family that loved to eat and a home where my mom cooked a lot. I love to be an Executive Chef when I wake up in the morning, but at night, when I feel exhausted, I may hate being an Executive Chef. The next morning I love it again and feel I could not live without cooking.
• When sitting at home with your loved ones, enjoying a meal, what is that meal composed of, and what makes this moment the perfect one?
CAF: I am off one day a week. Together with my family, I usually go and visit my parents. We have lunch all together: very traditional food, the one my mother has cooked all her life. Flavors and tastes bring me back to when I was a child. Having lunch with them is a ritual I love because it happens once a week, which means that I look forward to it every week.
• What advice would you give to aspiring chefs who wish to follow your steps and those aiming to earn the coveted Michelin recognition?
CAF: I would recommend loving what they do; otherwise, do not do it. Results come. They are a consequence of how much effort and love you put into what you do. The coveted Michelin recognition is a bit of a dream. Any cook would love such recognition. It means a lot to a cook, like the Oscar’s to an actor and the Pulitzer to a journalist or writer. My main piece of advice is to follow your dreams. Dreams are meant to be pursued and grasped. Work hard, educate yourself, strive, and never forget to be kind to others. – GM
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE FOOD ISSUE