Giovanni Passerini is a young Roman chef who currently owns Rino, a restaurant in Paris’ Bastille district. His culinary approach and skill has developed through his experience at Uno e Bino in Rome, and at Alain Passard’s Arpege and Peter Nilsson’s Gazzetta in the French capital. This interview with the chef by Luca Morino, first published in issue 50 of the Italian Slowfood magazine, took place following a dinner cooked by Giovanni and Peter Nilsson for the 2010 Salone. We have invited Giovanni back to the event in 2012, where he will prepare a very unusual dinner together with fellow Rino chef Noriaky Tamizane and chefs Andrea Gherra and Pietro Vergano from restaurant Consorzio in Turin. Is a new genre about to be created?
Driven by passion and a deep knowledge of the land’s products, Giovanni’s cuisine is a celebration of biodiversity
Can fresh herbs and flowers be used as something more than aromatic touches? Can they have a more important function in cooking?
It is always important not to get carried away by the aesthetic side of things. Some herbs are also beautiful to look at, but I rarely use flowers, unless they are very aromatic, because I want each component of my dishes to make sense, and not just to look pretty. Sometimes herbs add a fresh touch, they give a “green injection” to the dish or a useful acidic note, and they remind us of the current season. That’s when chive flowers or the blossoms of some French wild herbs can become very interesting.
Where do you get these types of products from?
It takes a trustworthy supplier. I work with Annie Bertin, a lady who lives in Bretagne and supplies many high level restaurants in Paris. She also supplies many of my vegetables and is one of a series of producers with whom I have a direct relationship, with no intermediary.
Let’s talk about offal …
Offal is a great passion of mine, but it is a bit frustrating not to be able to use it often in our menu. We work with a fixed menu and some of the more unusual dishes are not to everyone’s taste. This is why we are trying to organize special thematic evenings: France has excellent tripe and butchers have told me that Paris once had many more tripe shops than now. However, more “noble” entrails are still appreciated, such as sweetbreads or calf’s liver, and it’s very interesting to combine them with wines from the south of France, at the border with Spain, characterized by strong “animal” aromas.
Do you travel often?
No, not now. But the last trip which really made an impression on me was to Vietnam, the place where I probably had the best food after Italy and France. I found an extraordinary, extremely elegant and fresh cuisine, with excellent, crunchy vegetables and a few, well balanced spices. Everything was good, including the sugarcane juice sold on the streets. I was recently in Mexico, and I was amazed by its gastronomy too…
… and did you try grasshoppers?
Yes, I even bought them and put them in my “carte blanche” menu – a special menu only for those who trust me blindly and where I decide everything: from the number of dishes to the final price. I have enthusiastic customers I can be daring with. We once prepared a “back from Mexico” lobster, a lighthearted reference to Rollinger’s “back from the Indies” Saint Pierre fish. I took a few ingredients I’d picked up in Mexico and made a cream of green confit lemon, mole, chipotle paste, avocado… typical ingredients served with lobster and a plate full of “land” shellfish that nobody recognized. And everyone ate the lot!
What do you think of the term fusion?
I must admit that, at first, the terms fusion and molecular always annoyed me a bit. However, if a journey leaves you with specific smells and sensations, it’s natural to incorporate them in your cooking. In Mexico, for instance, corn is everywhere and one of my French suppliers found some fantastic corn. We cooked it with butter and a few slices of green lemon. I’m not sure if should call this a fusion recipe, but it had the “juice” of Mexico. I think it’s a fairly normal approach, and something one does to avoid the repetitiveness of ingredients. Cooking is logics and there are some products that naturally combine. Tamarind, for instance, with its acidic note, could be paired with foie gras.
Does music play a role in your cooking?
Music gives us a boost and follows us virtually everywhere, from the mise en place to service. Our kitchen is open, one counter always faces the kitchen, and the other faces the room. We play a bit of everything, from Audioslave to popular Roman songs, depending on our mood. Service music is Credence, Elvis always comes to the rescue at difficult times and Tom Waits always closes the night. But it’s not a source of inspiration for the actual food.
At Terra Madre the word spirituality was mentioned frequently in speeches by the representatives of indigenous communities and by Carlo Petrini himself. Is it a term that can be associated with your cuisine?
I don’t know. I think it is something that belonged to a time before mine in Paris. I guess a cook can find some spirituality in what he does when he has a direct relationship with the earth. Maybe this is a question for Passard or Arnò Dogan. I work with ingredients after this first step is already concluded.
But sometimes the essentiality of some ingredients can be moving and exciting. You talked about burnt hay earlier…
I really like these brute tastes, which take you through space and time. Hay takes me straight back to my childhood. Passard used it to finish cooking birds, and I think it can be somehow compared to an oyster. When you eat an oyster, you taste the sea. Similarly, to me sea urchin tastes of the Mediterranean and its rocks. Hay is synonymous with the countryside, and when it’s burnt it releases the scent of the soil. I once tried a dish in Girona, at Celler de Can Roca, and I then discussed with other colleagues that cooking is not art, but a very complex form of craftsmanship. It can never be metaphysical, as it must obey rules that the concept of “beauty” alone can more easily break. That dish, though, cannot be defined… it was a punch in the face! Joan Roca created a synthesis of Catalan cooking, made of sea and earth: he took an oyster and then, with an alembic which distils under vacuum, he extracted the essential oils of several elements until he finally tried with soil. The result was a clear liquid that he poured over the oyster. While eating it, you weren’t really sure whether it was good or not; one side of the brain felt the sea, and the other tasted the earth. Well, this is the only example of metaphysical cuisine that I have ever come across. The technique is there but it cannot be felt or seen, and the chef can be rightly considered an artist.
Is there an Italian chef that you particularly admire?
Salvatore Tassa in the Ciociaria area. I have no doubt, he is the greatest. I like artisan cooks, those who have a very strong link with their region and are able to combine a more modern, fresh and natural cuisine with the great dishes of tradition. Salvatore has a very delicate hand and is a colorful and sincere person. He is very refined and constantly evolving. He surrounds himself with young chefs in his kitchen and still rides his motorbike. Those who know him adore him; however he is not particularly visible in the world of media and PR. Selfishly speaking… I would say it’s better that way!
46, Rue Trousseau