A force of na­ture

Neue Luxury - - News - By Paul Tier­ney

Le Ca­lan­dre, the three-star Miche­lin res­tau­rant in Padua, north­ern Italy, is a cu­ri­ously lo­cated af­fair. One ex­pects it to be nes­tled in a light-dap­pled ru­ral idyll, or set amongst achingly hip bou­tiques and con­cept stores. As it is, the fa­bled din­ing room, an out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of chef Mas­si­m­il­iano Ala­jmo, is set on the side of a dusty road in a non­de­script sub­urb of the city. Car deal­er­ships, in­dus­trial whole­salers and petrol sta­tions dom­i­nate the land­scape. The fact that it’s in­tensely sunny this af­ter­noon is the one note­wor­thy fea­ture.

On a junc­tion known to ev­ery taxi driver in the re­gion, lies the Ala­jmo fam­ily em­pire. Blink and you could miss it. In ad­di­tion to the res­tau­rant, the fam­ily owns and runs an ad­ja­cent café, serv­ing mouth-wa­ter­ing pas­tries made with the finest olive oil. Across the street is their ce­les­tial del­i­catessen, In. gre­di­enti, whose con­tents have been known to make grown men cry with de­light. But it is Le Ca­lan­dre that rules the roost around here. A mod­estly sized, myth­i­cal space where alchemy and in­tense ex­per­i­men­ta­tion come to­gether to present some of the most ex­cit­ing food in the world. If that sounds overzeal­ous, it is meant to. Once you have sam­pled Ala­jmo’s food there is no go­ing back.

The chef him­self, a tall, af­fa­ble char­ac­ter, more wor­ried about his English skills than im­press­ing me with mille-feuille, is await­ing my ar­rival in his of­fice. It’s a space dom­i­nated by awards (he re­mains the youngest chef to claim three of those highly re­garded stars), art, eclec­tic books and the sou­venirs of suc­cess. On the ta­ble lies a small, opaque card bear­ing the quote: ‘Cuisine is like a nee­dle that, pass­ing through small holes, cre­at­ing a thread so thin and strong it un­con­sciously binds us all.’

“I don’t want peo­ple to come here to learn any­thing, they must come here to en­joy. They should be leav­ing with a smile on their face. What we do is high con­cept, but you don’t come here think­ing you are in a school or some kind of tem­ple. Feel­ing good is my idea of di­ges­tion.”

Conversation wise, food is high on the agenda to­day, although this charm­ing chef isn’t ob­sessed with the tech­ni­cal­i­ties that of­ten get in the way of more im­por­tant mat­ters. “I don’t con­sider my idea of cuisine to be tech­ni­cal, it’s not molec­u­lar,” he says in fal­ter­ing English. “We try to feel the in­gre­di­ents and un­der­stand what is in­side the ma­te­ri­als. It’s about nat­u­ral and pure, not so­phis­ti­cated chem­i­cal prod­ucts. Tech­ni­cal pu­rity is not so im­por­tant to me as the re­lay­ing of good feel­ing. Tech­nique is just a short­cut.”

Restau­rants are in Ala­jmo’s blood. His grand­par­ents founded the fam­ily busi­ness; his par­ents con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion, win­ning their own Miche­lin stars along the way; and at the ten­der age of nine­teen Mas­si­m­il­iano and his brother Raf were given the keys to the door. “My par­ents re­ally gave us the in­gre­di­ents to make some­thing spe­cial. What we did was dif­fer­ent, but the spirit re­mained the same. My mother in par­tic­u­lar, who is a great pas­try chef and can make the most amaz­ing bread, shared her pas­sion for flavour and in­tegrity. Over time the res­tau­rant has changed its look and lo­ca­tion but the fun­da­men­tals re­main the same. When it comes down to ba­sics, what we all share is our ded­i­ca­tion to the idea of be­ing wholly nat­u­ral.”

He is en­dear­ingly nos­tal­gic when talk­ing about his child­hood, a pe­riod that ob­vi­ously in­forms the kind of food he presents to­day. “When I was re­ally young, maybe five years old, my mother would let me in the res­tau­rant kitchen and I would help all the chefs. She al­ways told me to go out and play, but be­ing in the kitchen was much more en­joy­able. I was the mas­cot! There is one thing in par­tic­u­lar that is very strong in my mind, some­thing my mother used to pre­pare at home, it was ri­cotta with cas­tor sugar. The way she used the fork, and the crunch of the sugar, she had some cold milk and some co­coa pow­der. It was re­ally very sim­ple, but in that ges­ture there was awe. When some­thing is very sim­ple, it can be very strong. It re­ally made an im­pres­sion on my mind.”

Ala­jmo has con­tin­ued to re­fine such tech­niques to pro­duce food that owes as much to art and sci­ence, as it does mem­ory. There is also a strong whim­si­cal thread that con­nects his dishes. He fa­mously de­vised a smoked broth by notic­ing how his mo­bile phone, placed next to a glass of wa­ter, in­fused the liq­uid with the taste of elec­tric­ity. “For me it was very strange and re­minded me of wa­ter from the past. That’s when I started ex­per­i­ment­ing and tried smok­ing pasta too. We use nat­u­ral liq­uid smoke, so you can hardly taste it, but there is a lit­tle trace of mem­ory in there, and that is the key in­gre­di­ent.”

Senses play heav­ily in the orches­tra of Ala­jmo’s imag­i­na­tion. “Smell is the fastest sense we have, but it is not ra­tio­nal. It’s not con­nected to the ra­tio­nal part of the brain, it’s in the emo­tional part. It means you some­times can­not recog­nise the in­gre­di­ents, but you can recog­nise the sit­u­a­tion.” He sprays a light essence into the air as an ex­am­ple and won­ders if its prop­er­ties can be recog­nised. “Where are you now?” he asks, eyes bright with ex­cite­ment. “Don’t tell me what you smell, but where you are.” “A for­est?” Comes my ten­ta­tive re­ply. “Some­where warm and clean?” “It’s ac­tu­ally the scent of berg­amot, which I think is ut­terly fan­tas­tic. You thought it smelt clean, so imag­ine if you put it into some­thing fatty, it will re­ally clean the dish. We think about our food and are very care­ful with all the de­tails, but when we serve it, the guests don’t re­alise that be­cause they don’t see it. In that sense all the com­plex­i­ties stand out. We never come out to the guest and ex­plain what we have done. No, we sim­ply present it and let them draw their own con­clu­sions. We only want to give them the best mo­ments— only the cream.”

At Le Ca­lan­dre, the ex­pe­ri­ence is as much about am­bi­ence as it is food. Ser­vice is pre­cise but warm, tem­per­a­ture and light care­fully mon­i­tored. “When some­one ar­rives here an­gry, they don’t leave that way, be­cause I al­ways smile in the res­tau­rant. You have to cre­ate a good at­mos­phere, it af­fects the way the food is per­ceived. Our style of ser­vice is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to other restau­rants, it should be like eat­ing in your own house. Noth­ing here is su­per­flu­ous. Cuisine must un­dress it­self of the use­less to re­dis­cover the in­no­cence of a child telling the story of his small world.”

The chef is in his el­e­ment now, draw­ing on analo­gies that are as eso­teric as they are po­etic. “Think of what chil­dren draw to rep­re­sent their ex­pe­ri­ence of life: the house rep­re­sents our de­sire for pro­tec­tion and re­as­sur­ance; the flower – beauty, fem­i­nin­ity, per­fume; the sun – light, en­ergy, nour­ish­ment, strength; the tree – na­ture and con­crete; the cloud re­flects a chord out of tune; the fam­ily – cer­tainty, in­ti­macy; the birds – light­ness, free­dom, travel; the road – what’s to come, the wait.”

These ver­bose flights of fancy are cer­tainly evoca­tive, but not ev­ery­body is sat­is­fied with such de­scrip­tion. “Peo­ple ask me if my food is molec­u­lar, nou­velle, tech- emo­tional. I say for­get all that. What I do is about flu­id­ity. We go in­side the in­gre­di­ents to find the spir­i­tual part of the ma­te­rial—the essence. Af­ter that we re­search the depth and the light­ness. We only use nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents and so the char­ac­ter and the spirit of the in­gre­di­ents must come out. We re­spect and an­a­lyse the pos­si­bil­i­ties of all liv­ing mat­ter. The plea­sure that this brings is the most im­por­tant thing.”

Dishes come and go, sur­pass­ing them­selves with del­i­cate in­fu­sions, highly re­searched flavours, and the light­ness of touch so elo­quently de­scribed. A risotto, famed for be­ing the finest in the world, tastes oth­er­worldly; gaz­pa­cho (‘Max- pa­cho’) sings in the mouth; and ob­tuse flavours such as cof­fee, laven­der and the afore­men­tioned elec­tric­ity im­bue in­gre­di­ents with an ed­i­ble sor­cery that leaves the pal­ette smil­ing.

There is method in this mad­ness, although the in­verted com­plex­i­ties and topsy-turvy ap­proach is as ob­tuse as it is be­guil­ing. “Peo­ple think you should cleanse your pal­ette be­fore eat­ing but that is not nec­es­sary. I say drink cof­fee be­fore you start. Why not? You know cof­fee is the food of in­tel­lec­tu­als. Tra­di­tion says that you nor­mally fin­ish a meal with a cof­fee, but in my world you could just as eas­ily start with one. It’s not about clean­ing the body, it’s about clean­ing the mind. Food is not just about taste, it’s what you recog­nise. You have to keep an open mind about it, that’s my ap­proach.”

As if to demon­strate this sin­gu­lar ap­proach, he strides pur­pose­fully into the kitchen and re­turns with what ap­pears to be a per­fect oval of moz­zarella. “Tap it,” he says pass­ing a spoon. It cracks and breaks like a del­i­cate goose egg, spilling unc­tu­ous al­mond foam into the dish. Call it dessert, call it art— ei­ther way it is cat­nip for the senses and typ­i­cal of this man’s unerring imag­i­na­tion. “Never un­der­es­ti­mate the eyes abil­ity to play tricks on the mind. What you see is not al­ways what you get.”

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