I wrote this piece a while ago; it was never published but I want to share the experience of observing the thought processes and constant experimentation that goes on in top restaurants - in this case Uliassi, a two Michelin starred restaurant in Senigallia:
Senigallia is a small beach resort, unknown to foreign tourists but which middle class Italian families flock to in the summer months. It is here that chef Mauro Uliassi grew up and in the fullness of time opened his quayside restaurant in 1990. It is a family run affair, with his sister Catia as front of house and son Filippo is the sommelier; only his wife Chantal is not actively involved, “I’m occasionally allowed into our kitchen at home to cook my special lentil dish, but that’s it!” she once told me. Mauro’s stove at home is as much his lab as his professional kitchen and this dedication has paid off. His restaurant is considered to be one of the top 20 in Italy, with the second Michelin star awarded in 2009.
But that’s not why I like to eat there. I like it because Mauro’s cooking is both sophisticated and simple without the overwrought flourishes that sometimes accompany a Michelin star. It’s happy food: I sit there nibbling (all the better to analyse flavours) thinking ‘wow how does he do this’.
I got my chance this year to find out. ‘Well come along and find out how we develop our lab menu’, he said. I needed no persuading.
The philosophy behind the food
When I first met Mauro he had a slight limp, a wagtail’s dip in his stride, the legacy of jumping for joy off a beach hut at the end of a photographic shoot and not pausing to consider its height. “The day had gone so well’ he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Joy, and its close cousin pleasure are important emotions for Mauro and his team, I discovered on my first visit. “ I want my diners with their first mouthful to be taken to a happy moment, a memory from 20 years ago, or 200 kilometres away - and my starting point for creating a dish is often a smell. Take, for example, smoked linguini pasta with vongole clams; the idea for this came from walking past the pop-up seafood grills on the beach at Rimini”. This is a popular clubbing resort further up the coast from Senigallia. And the pasta really does taste of a summer barbeque by the seaside (the recipe is below).
The team collect a potpourri of ideas through the year, a random mixture of smells and perfumes that have triggered a response and which don’t have to relate to food. These then form the metaphorical ingredients for their brainstorming workshops which take place in early spring when the restaurant is closed. They spend 2 months creating, refining - and discarding – dishes that form that year’s experimental ‘lab menu’ served alongside perennial classics, such as cuttlefish tagliatelle.
These ideas may be fantastical but the dishes still have to be grounded in reality. Mauro explained:
“Ferran Adria wiped the slate clean for chefs world wide with his deconstructive approach to creating new dishes. But we have moved on and now we want food to be recognisable. We only innovate using local ingredients and local traditions, and our mantra when we are thinking about new dishes is: simplicity, authenticity and health.”
But do people go to top restaurants to eat healthily, I wondered. Mauro didn’t have to think about the answer.
“I want to change the idea that healthy foods are sad, that you only eat them for a penance when you’re trying to diet, or you have to eat them because you’re not well. Food should taste great and be good for you! Of course, as a Michelin starred restaurant we have to surprise people as well.”
On my next visit, the chefs were not, as I expected, in the kitchens. They were huddled over their laptops in the dining room, surrounded by the chaos of restaurant redecoration and a variety of flavourings and ingredients like seawater jelly and black miso. They had already spent a week trying to come up with around 30 potential dishes. Some had already been agreed, such as a ‘homage to the honeybee’ dessert, but others were still under debate. Rows of baby lettuce were bought in and swished and swirled through sauces and powders, as the team considered how they could create a salad that celebrates the sea.
The discussion was inconclusive and they moved on to ‘fosso’, which translates to English as ‘ditch’ but in their heads was something more poetic, more of a water meadow, with lush greenness and wildlife; the countryside of Le Marche is regular source of inspiration. ‘What about including eel,’ someone asked. ‘Too difficult to source’, said another. ‘Okay, it’s got to be snails’. After it has rained, the fields are always dotted with folk clutching plastic bags hunting for them.
And thus the team continued, spending a good 3 hours disagreeing about zuppa inglese, the Italian equivalent of trifle: the proper way to make it, how they could change the textures and temperatures of each layer while still allowing the dessert to be recognisably similar to the original version. Even most committed of gourmets would have started to feel weary listening to their debate.
Then, eventually, having agreed the outline of these dishes the chefs moved into the kitchen to start testing them.
The stainless steel kitchen has edging in orange plastic because Mauro believes it helps to create a less aggressive more collegiate atmosphere. It has the usual arsenal of equipment beloved of chefs: the sous vide cooker, siphons, the flash freezer, and distilling sets. But in the end it is a combination of hard graft and precision cooking over several weeks experimentation for the chefs to match the idea with what is on the plate - Michelin starred simplicity is always more complicated than it looks.
The smoked linguine al vongole, a favourite with Mauro’s many fans, took several unsuccessful experiments involving smoked salmon and smoke guns before the chefs discovered smokiness could be imbued into the pasta and clams using smoked eel stock.
The finished dishes
Three weeks later with the restaurant open, the lab menu was in print but still evolving.
“It’s been really hard. One week before we opened nothing worked. What happens in your imagination is always faster than the reality in front of you, so you have to put emotion and frustration to one side and persist” said Mauro.
And the results of persistence were that a chicken casserole idea had fused with the sea salad.
“Well, you know we wanted to do something with pollo in potacchio, because most restaurants think chicken is too homely to have on the menu. We’d spent some time developing the idea: we’d used chicken thighs, cooked sous vide at 62C before grilling them, then made a concentrated jus from separately casseroled chicken using lots of garlic, rosemary and white wine. But the flavours were just a bit too sharp. Then one day we had a thought. Chicken and salad. What happens if we mix these two dishes?”
And so the unlikely combination of roast chicken, cuttlefish ink, oyster and razor clam jus and black garlic came into existence. The dish is presented to diners with the suggestion they scrape a finger through any juices left on the plate. The creamy richness of the ink with the salt, sea and syrupy garlic tang flavours is so good, I bet quite a lot of people would like to lick their plate clean. I know I was tempted.
Other dishes that had made it to the lab menu included a riff on another local marchigiani favourite, stracciatella soup where a beaten egg is beaten into the broth at the last minute. Only in Mauro’s version, mantis shrimp, a local flat variety of prawn, is used instead. “The idea came about when I took home some leftover mantis shrimp at the end of the season. I cooked them over a very low heat and they melted.”
So was Mauro pleased with the 2013 lab menu?
“Yes, of course. But remember it’s only gourmands and journalists who have the full lab menu. Our regulars by and large want the same dishes they ate the last time they came. And it’s important that people can come to the restaurant, have a good time and enjoy the meal without thinking too much about it. It’s like a painting, you can say ‘that’s a pretty picture’ and move on, or you can look hard and study the technique and composition. There’s always a story to tell with our dishes”.
Uliassi’s smoked linguine with clams and grilled cherry tomatoes
This is one of Mauro’s dishes that is achievable in a domestic kitchen; with its several stages, it’s easy to see why he has 40 people in his brigade during the busy summer months.
Ingredients for 4 people
1 kg clams
Smoked fish stock:
250g fish stock
50g smoked eel (if possible, whole)
250g clam juice
250g smoked fish stock
12 cherry tomatoes
240g linguine pasta
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
fine sea salt
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
black pepper to taste
To make the clam juice, place the clams in a saucepan with the water – do not add salt. Bring to the boil and simmer until the clams have all opened, which will take about 2 minutes. Strain the clam juice and discard the clams (as they will have released all their flavour into the water). Filter the clam water again through a very fine sieve and keep in the fridge until needed.
To make the smoked fish stock, gently simmer the eel in the fish stock for about 10 minutes until the eel falls apart. Filter the stock through a very fine sieve, cool and refrigerate.
Next prepare the tomatoes. Plunge them in boiling water for 10 seconds and then cool them immediately in ice-cold water. When chilled, peel and halve them. Brush each half with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and grill them, cut-side up, for 20 seconds.
Plunge the clams in boiling water for 10 seconds, shell them and set the meat aside. Cook the pasta in lightly salted water and drain when still slightly undercooked (about 9 minutes) While the pasta is cooking, sweat the garlic until golden, add the clam juice and smoked fish stock, bring to a simmer and then add the pasta. Continue cooking until the pasta is cooked, which will take about 3 minutes.
Add the clams to the cooked pasta. Plate the pasta and dress with the grilled cherry tomatoes, chopped parsley and some freshly ground black pepper.