Chef Michele Brogioni first learned to cook as a youth in his father’s restaurant kitchen. That introduction would foster a lifelong passion for food and its presentation that is evident in the way he speaks about his time cooking in restaurants around the world. Among his accomplishments are earning a Michelin star and over twenty years of experience that have built him a reputation for creating refined, simple dishes. Chef Brogioni took some time from his busy schedule to talk with me this month on topics including differing in kitchen culture in foreign locales where he worked, the meaning of cooking with finesse, and the most important lessons he learned in his father’s kitchen.
Flavorful World: You worked in your father’s restaurant as a teen. What is the most important lesson you brought away from that experience to inform your current culinary style?
Michele Brogioni: The first thing that I learned from those years in my father’s restaurant was to be extremely passionate about the job! It has to be a huge part of your life; you have to take ownership of the kitchen, of your staff, and most importantly, of learning and mastering the art of creating cuisine! If you can’t approach this job with passion, then you need to find something else to do. And it’s a lifestyle, not just a job. It comes from your culture, and is influenced by tradition. It’s critical that you absolutely love this way of life, and commit yourself to it.
In a more specific context, my father’s work was based on tradition; he was a classic chef. In this light, he taught me how to make sauce for pasta. It was his strength; it was what he loved to make, and I certainly took that with me.
FW: What is one teaching you brought away from that experience that you’ve since found an alternative method to?
MB: These days…now everything is prepared differently than it was when I was a young boy. The technology that’s available to me now really influences the way I approach cooking. There’s a difference in the way that meat is prepared, for example. Before, if you had a piece of beef, it was prepared in a very simple manner; just cook it in the pan or oven. But now with new tools that are available, the process is more effective. For example, the loss of weight via juice is much lower – you might lose 10% now, as per 20% the old way.
FW: What is one of the most popular misconceptions about being a professional chef? Set the record straight for us.
MB: Now, with the advent and popularity of chef-focused television shows and other media, everyone thinks it’s cool to be a chef. More people actually want to be a chef. The misconception is that people generally seem to think that it’s easier than it is. The long hours, patience, business acumen required, and actual physical work in a hot kitchen is much, much harder than people think it is.
FW: After earning your first Michelin star as the head chef of Il Falconière in Tuscany, Italy, you went on to spend some time as the Executive Chef of Italian-inspired Casta Diva in Moscow, Russia. What prompted you to relocate to that particular destination, and what were some of the most notable differences between the kitchen culture in Italy and in Russia?
MB: I decided to move to Russia, because there was opportunity. When I was in Paris, I met a Russian who showed me some of the projects he was planning and working on. So I discussed these opportunities with my wife, and we decided that the time was right – the kids were young, I was ready for a new challenge, this was it! This man turned out to be the famous restaurateur Andrey Deloss. One of his projects was the restaurant Turandot, where I would work as Executive Chef.
MB: I worked at a few other restaurants during that time, including Casta Diva, where I was part of the opening team. I created, managed, and organized a great kitchen team of 45 people.
Obviously, Italy and Russia have two completely different cultures – but this was only one of the explicit differences between the two countries that I found. The Italian weather is much, much different than in Italy – there is always something growing; always fresh ingredients from the land. In Russia, I had to learn how to preserve, use fermented veggies, dried fish and meat, etc. Just a completely different approach to sourcing and using ingredients.
Also, in Russia at the time, there weren’t as many great restaurants as there are now, so most of the staff in the kitchen were not that experienced. There were things that they had simply not experienced. For example, I remember when I brought artichokes into the kitchen – they had never seen these before!
One thing I can say about the Russians, is that they might seem to be cold and standoff-ish at first. I think perhaps they’re simply cautious at first. Until you get to know them, and earn their trust, then they’re friends for life. I keep in touch, and am still very close to some of my former colleagues from Moscow.
FW: Tell us about a non-food-/wine-related interest, hobby, or passion of yours that many people would be surprised to know about, and what first drew you to it.
MB: Although technically, this isn’t completely “non-food related”, my favorite thing to do is to go fishing. It’s my biggest passion outside of the kitchen. I grew up on Lake Trasimeno, which is a beautiful body of water in Perugia. I always loved to fish there – from a canoe or a kayak. I always lived around water, have always loved to fish, and to this day, I still do it as often as I can!
FW: Your cooking is said to embody finesse, refinement, and simplicity. What do these words mean to you in terms of how you approach creating a menu, and how do you feel your style best expresses the marks of finesse, refinement, and simplicity in that approach?
MB: Regarding our menus, the emphasis is always more on simplicity and authenticity. The Leopard at des Artistes is really a traditional Italian restaurant, so all the dishes that we consider adding to the menu are based on tradition and traditional recipes. They’re typically created with fewer than a handful of ingredients each.
My ideas begin with the main ingredient (fish meat, etc), expand from there, then I work around it using my background, history and experience. I use the same process with all the dishes, including appetizers. Use seasonal ingredients. It’s like a puzzle – putting the different pieces together.
FW: When you eat for pleasure, what cuisine(s) do you most enjoy, and why?
MB: Thai is probably my favorite; I love Asian cuisine, including Thai, Chinese, and Japanese. I so badly want to visit Japan; I have such a passion for Asian culture. This began back in Italy, nd even Moscow, oddly enough, when I worked with plenty of Japanese chefs. There were a lot of Japanese line cooks that I worked with and truly respected. I appreciate the way they cook, and I appreciate the level of respect they have for the food itself.
FW: This past August, annual fundraising wine dinner event Six Courses For a Cure met for its sixth year since its inception in 2010. Tell us how you came to be involved with this event’s first outing in 2010, and what was the most unanticipated and enduring aspect of that involvement.
MB: I became involved through Chef Roger Thomas, who is a great friend of mine, originally from Akron Ohio. He and I used to work together in Italy in the early 2000’s.
When he opened his restaurant Piatto in Akron, his wife brought me out to surprise him. It was a great experience; I stayed in his kitchen for 3 weeks to work with him there!
In 2010, when I was in Moscow, he invited me to come be a part of “Six Courses” as one of the 6 chefs at the inaugural event in Cleveland. The most unexpected and enduring part of the event was to be able to help people who really need it. That was a really great feeling – to be able to help others, and that has stuck with me to this day…
FW: What food would you be the most devastated to learn that, due to a severe new onset severe food allergy, you could never enjoy again, and why?
MB: Gluten! If I was allergic to gluten, I could not enjoy bread, pizza, pasta – and gluten-free just isn’t the same. I work with it every single day; it’s really a large part of my professional existence, as well as my culture. It’s a big part of my life, and to think of myself not being able to have it ever again would just be terrible!
FW: When you aren’t cooking delicious foods to enjoy with delicious wines, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
MB: Aside from spending time with my children (I have two – one daughter and one son), I really enjoy reading, relaxing, walking with my dog, and enjoying free time with my wife in NYC. The simple things in life…