According to a survey of 25,000 people undertaken last year, Italian cuisine is ranked the number one most popular national cuisine in the world, with Chinese second and Japanese third. This is, I suppose, fairly unsurprising bearing in mind the fundamentals of Italian cuisine are pizza, pasta and loads of cheese – the ultimate comfort food. When looking a little closer at the results across only Thailand, predictably Thai cuisine came first, ahead of Chinese, Japanese and Korean with Italian a respectable fifth. With an estimated five hundred plus Italian restaurants across Thailand, it is indeed the leading non-Asian cuisine. However, only 14 of these restaurants feature in the current edition of the Michelin guide and we are extremely fortunate to have four of these gems in Phuket. Italian food does mean different things to different people; from the lowly but classic Margarita pizza all the way up to an exquisitely refined dish of fagottelli carbonara.
I am headed today to the luxury Rosewood Phuket, where I will meet two experienced Italian chefs who – whilst both proud of their shared heritage – showcase their country’s cookery in two totally different ways. Arriving at this chic serene villa resort, I am smoothly whisked off by efficient buggy service to Red Sauce, the hotel’s signature Italian restaurant, located beachside.
Seated in this stylish, high ceilinged yet cosy and relaxing restaurant, named after the legendary Italian tomato-based sauce which is the foundation of many dishes, I am greeted by two depressingly young and handsome gentlemen. The first, Luca De Negri, Executive Chef of Rosewood Phuket who in addition to his duties of overseeing all food across the hotel’s outlets, passionately helms Red Sauce; the second Claudio Barzano, newly arrived Chef de Cuisine of Banyan Tree’s flagship restaurant, Tre.
Cappuccinos served and settled into a comfortable sofa, I ask Luca and Claudio to share their philosophies. Luca begins, “I joined Rosewood Phuket as part of the pre-opening team and, across our restaurants, we support a Partners in Provenance initiative which is a global company programme borne out of respect for local farmers to utilise fresh seasonal local produce and be as sustainable as possible.” Claudio adds, “At Banyan Tree we also adhere to a similarly worldwide core commitment to protecting and sustaining the environment with locally sourced products wherever possible.” I suggest this must be a delicate balancing act for both of them. Claudio agrees, “Yes, this can be a challenge as diners expect a level of authenticity which may not be achieved with local products, as in my risotto, where we use imported aged Aquerello Rice, the finest carnaroli available; but I combine it with stunningly fresh organic Chiang Mai vegetables.” Luca is nodding in agreement, “I also walk the same tightrope; for my Sardinian fish soup, I use a combination of local sea bass and local clams. However to enhance the authenticity, I need mussels from Europe.
As a further example, we took a decision to serve Chiang Mai coffee in our restaurant in preference to a classic Italian roast, as it is a truly high quality artisan product. But in contrast, for our signature red sauce, we could not find tomatoes which can match the pomodorino del piennolo del Vesuvio, grown around Mount Vesuvius, where the environment lends these a high concentration of sugars and acids which defines their unique taste and explains why they are considered to be the best in the world.”
Whilst Luca’s Italian chef prepares a couple of dishes for us, I learn that Luca is a native of Turin in Piedmont and Claudio hales from nearby Lombardy. Almost neighbours! Both chefs have worked across the globe: Luca in both Asia and Dubai at several renowned restaurants, while Claudio, having trained with the celebrated Giorgio Locatelli, tells us, “Having just arrived from Australia, I have been impressed with the quality and variety of local produce available. I like using the local sea bass and serve it in a modern presentation of oyster mayonnaise and somewhat classic Parisienne potatoes.” Luca’s eyes twinkle, as a classic Branzino of salt crusted local sea bass, prepared by Chef de Cuisine Giuseppe, is brought to our table by restaurant manager, Gherardo. Coincidently, Luca serves his with dill potatoes. Also accompanying this is one of his signature dishes, “I am proud of my lamb chop with caponata and rosemary jus, however whilst the caponata is predominantly local eggplant, I cannot find quality local lamb.” Claudio echoes this, “My lamb saddle is not local, but I do serve it with 100% local accompaniments, including eggplant caviar, chestnuts and barley.” Both chefs certainly have a driving desire to explore and utilise what is available locally, but this is not always possible; I notice on Luca’s menu a pizza diavolo with lashings of Italian mozzarella and authentic spicy salsiccia, while I recall, when recently dining at Tre, a memorable Claudio signature dish of smoked wagyu striploin from Australia. Currently, he is sourcing a local Thai wagyu but it remains to be seen whether origin or quality will win this struggle.
As I prepare to leave, Luca presents us with his latest, totally local dessert, a banana passion fruit creation with fruit sorbet, mango marmalade, meringue and topped with lime whipped cream. Not to be outdone, Claudio invites us to Tre, “Please come any time and try my local yoghurt mousse with Chiang Mai strawberries.” It is etched in my memory, truly sublime and were it in front of us now, it would be difficult to choose a winner!
A truly entertaining lunch. I initially arrived dreading the thought of two potentially mercurial Italian chefs at one table, each vying to outdo the other with their different styles of cookery. However, they have much in common and, while their dishes look and taste very different, they have a shared approach, respect for local ingredients and a mission to delight the diner with creative dishes of premium products – whether local or not. So, Luca and Claudio, molto grazie and ciao ragazzi!
My conclusion is simple, try both Tre and Red Sauce soonest!
*Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.