Davide Oldani is a symbol of Italian cooking around the world, it wasn’t a coincidence that he was an ambassador at the Milan Expo in 2015 where the theme was, “Feed the world, Energy for life”. A 40 year career has seen Davide in the world’s best kitchens and star in his own restaurant in the Milan suburbs, Cornaredo, where an 800 sqm space is center stage to 30 creating unique dishes. Cooks, designers and consultants all forming part of the brigade.
Born a promising football talent he became a master at the stoves first under the tutelage of Gualtiero Marchesi in all things Italian then, his international experiences kicked in: Gavroche in London, Louis XV in Monte Carlo, New York, Tokyo, California and Barcelona.
Davide’s second coming was with, D’O, a restaurant that encapsulates his personal vision in the kitchen, able to create pop culture, iconic dishes which in turn attract Michelin recognition. In 2008, Davide received the Ambrogino D’Oro (Golden crest) from the Municipality of Milan.
Not totally satisfied by cooking at the Rio Olympics in 2016 for the Italian national team, he taught athletes how to cook, he wrote a book (otto), he chose ingredients not necessarily expensive, he picked out dining chairs and tables, designed napkins, shared his stove with Swiss tennis legend, Roger Federer; he searched for a subtle touch without forgetting tradition, he found himself to be an innovator.
Once upon a time everyone was a football coach, now everyone is a food critic. Who is a food critic for you?
First of all you need to distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. A critic is someone who passes an opinion on something, according to their personal point of view. Let’s remember that everyone’s palate is different, it’s not a coincidence that today there are more critics thanks to social media because they feel they need to share their opinion, even if they haven’t tasted a dish that they’ve then gone on to talk about. Anyone can be a potential critic, because everyone can eat. Returning to your question then, a critic is someone who eats.
How much does a Michelin Star weigh on the person behind the chef’s whites? Some of your colleagues have ended up taking their own life.
Some of my colleagues have taken their own life but not because of the Michelin star, their motives were more personal as is the case in all of these tragedies. The Michelin Star is not a weight, it’s an opinion given by people that have created a guide and according to them if you’re not in it you’re not doing a good job. It’s an idea that needs respecting. If you a Michelin Star, great, if you don’t, then you need to work to get it.
In Italy, in the latest presentation of the last red guide, there was a lot more talk about Cracco losing a star rather than the third star given to Norbert Niederkofler. Why?
It’s an Italian thing to do, yes there was talk about the new three star restaurant but Carlo Cracco is a great man, universally recognised, with a TV personality, that’s why it was spoken about more.
Are chefs today, businessmen?
It’s clear that they are, but the foundations are the same, they need to be a good cook or else it is pointless being a businessman. My tip, apply yourself with consistency and don’t lose hope.
Is it an added bonus if a chef can be seen away from his kitchen or even his restaurant?
It depends. The second the business is working just as you want it, it becomes an added bonus, otherwise it’s counterproductive.
What is ethical?
I felt the urgent need to reply to this question to even write a book, Il Giusto e il Gusto (Taste is Taste). In it, I speak about how one approaches work, the respect that is needed when speaking to teachers, the seasons, your collaborators, clients that enter your restaurant. My translation of the word, ethical is more about how cooking can be done well, like how everything else should be done well. There are no shortcuts even if you believe they’re there when you’ve found them you’ll realise that you’ve lost something along the way.
Is having an allotment/vegetable garden a trend that is going to go away?
The work behind an allotment is a greater idea than people give it credit for, you just need to follow the seasons and trust the right people. Products can be chosen by those who aren’t the chef in the restaurant. We are born with different DNA and not all of us can be farmers.
Why is fine dining masculine?
Actually, it’s not masculine. Fine dining 30 years ago was done by mothers, then it turned into a different job altogether. Before it was synonymous with togetherness, then, cooking changed and even our way of seeing it changed. It became a career, and that way it turned into something more of a game. A woman’s palate is without question softer and more delicate than a man’s.
When chefs talk about design on a plate, what are you really talking about?
For me, design is the container which adds value to that which I have created. Food and design are English terms that aren’t always adaptable in our culture. Food design isn’t just about plating. If we were to talk about colours and seasons, I could say to you that my plates in the summertime are red, that’s part of food design.
If one dish were to represent you what would it be? Not taking into account the caramelized onion…
I can’t live without the balance of contrasts, which is what I have always worked on. One plate? Cauliflower, cooked raw: soft and crunchy, sweet and salty.
Is French gastronomy better?
It’s a gastronomy that has been a school, with a solid foundation like many others, which can carry itself around the world. The same can be said about Italian, Japanese, Chinese and South American cooking to give just a few examples.
Dining room and brigade. What is harder today, to find young people who still have the same hunger to learn an art, because that is what we’re talking about, an old and noble art?
We offer quality and a job to learn from, but to do it we need ambitious young people. Good cooking is the fruit of hard work and of good workers that isn’t easy to find even if it looks the opposite way. It’s not only about education or tv, they need to know that being a chef is a sacrificing career. I’ve opened a school, dedicated to professionals in restaurants (and chefs) less than 1km from D’O, I’m speaking to the Olmo hotelier school to actually teach young students, giving them the basics on which to build their idea about cooking. There will be teachers like Niko Romito, Enrico Crippa, Carlo Cracco, Massimo Bottura, Andrea Berton, my friends, colleagues who I admire, unmatched teachers.
If people can’t eat at your restaurant, where would you advise them to go?
To lots of my Italian colleagues, I recommend that they go travelling far and wide on our boot shaped peninsula. I would go to all of those that I admire, the ones that I’ve just spoken of.
What was it like sharing a kitchen with Federer?
We celebrated Made In Italy, what more can I say? Roger is champion, because you can only be a champion if you are comfortable out of your comfort zone as well, and in this case, the tennis court. I discovered that he has a good palate and enjoys his food, he is curious about nature and I let him try my dish, “Battuta d’inizio” (First Serve) my plate dedicated to Wimbledon. It was a beautiful experience, even more so when you consider I still enjoy playing sports. I wasn’t bad at tennis but I think I need a few lessons before I consider ever facing someone like him, maybe I’ve found my next tennis coach.
What is pop for you?
It’s a simple abbreviation of populating. I identify my way of being which isn’t low cost or low profile but a bigger project overall.
Gualtiero Marchesi… What has he left behind?
He was the first visionary of Italian cooking. On his first menu, we’re going back to 1984, there wasn’t one pasta or rice dish. He carried on his shoulders Italy and he guided it towards great change, giving it life and a career to those that then became the names most representative of Italy in the world. A second father to many that for now need to make due with the space that has been left with his passing. A brilliant person, ethical, respectful and I never saw him once mad. I am comforted everytime I see his smile in a photograph, certain in how much I love what it is I do was passed down from his teachings.
Why did you choose to stay in the suburbs?
I was more a child than a man when I started travelling. I just felt the need to put into practice what travelling the world did to me. I am from Milan, born and raised, I never thought for one minute that I would have my own kitchen anywhere else, there, where everything started.
Milano in a plate?
Rice is eaten everywhere in the world, it works well in every season and in every latitude. Rice is the product that I brought to the Expo, I use it as if it were a blank canvas where I can then go wild and bring out my creativity. Milan is saffron. Riso Milanese then is the dish, where the saffron isn’t cooked with water.
What ingredient will never be used in your kitchen?
For me, cooking is synonymous with moving forward. There used to be a time when I would not allow insects (as an ingredient) into my kitchen but now, I am open to reevaluating my position, as long as their is a law that allows it. That is why I will not discount any ingredient from my kitchen.
Books, you write a lot of them and read a lot. Where are we up to?
I’m working on my next book and I’ve just finished reading a book by Marco Inverinzzi, Mollo tutto e vado in Giappone sulla via del bonsai (I’m giving up everything and moving to Japan on the bonsai trail). Marco left behind his studies to follow a dream, go to Japan and learn the art of the bonsai from one of the grand masters.
How much has Davide Oldani changed since becoming a father?
There has certainly been an evolution. I hope to have become a little softer, reflecting more in things. I look at my daughter and there are many things that I reflect on in the present and her future. I think the biggest reflections need to be shared with those that are closest to me, with Evelina in my life everyday and with the people that make up my brigade, a group that has become a team without too much shouting and with a lot of respect.