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Questioning what you eat to eat well

This is the goal that chef Niko Romito sets for himself when he prepares his menus

For Niko Romito, fine dining today must have a pedagogical learning value, pushing the customer to ask questions of himself. This is a statement made by the chef himself during the latest edition of Cibo a regola d’arte, the food festival organized by the Corriere della Sera, which gathers the leading figures in Italian and international food. The three-star Michelin chef from the Abruzzo region spoke about the “pivot to vegetables” in his new menu, an attempt ¬– and a highly successful one – to tell a new story about a category of food that is less popular because it is thought to be less tasty than others.

Considered less gratifying for the palate than a rich dish based on meat or seafood, vegetables on the contrary have a significant potential that preparation and cooking techniques can express in a triumph of unexpected tastes. The proof is in the vegetable-based menu that may be selected at the Ristorante Reale di Castel di Sangro, the result of research conceived as a challenge.

Casadonna, Castel di Sangro. (Foto: Alberto Zanetti)

Romito wishes to make clear that he is not just pursuing a trend, but intends to prove the unfoundedness of a cliché by using preparation techniques to highlight the range of flavours that may be unleashed in an onion or a carrot. It is no coincidence that they are both pillars of the new menu. «I made these choices because I have realized in recent years that vegetables are going to tell a completely new story– explained Romito. We always think of vegetables as being marginal, good for you but offering little satisfaction in terms of taste. Yet it is exactly the opposite, because in working with the four major tastes (acid, bitter, sweet and savoury), vegetables have the capacity to express nuances of taste that a piece of meat or fish could never equal».

He immediately makes it clear that it takes technical and scientific skills, equipment and instruments that did not even exist twenty years ago, because the literature about food had little to offer about vegetables; today the scenario has changed and now we can finally experiment with raw materials that are extremely delicate to work with, like the vegetables in Niko Romito’s new menu.

And so he created dishes such as Carota, the synthesis of a complex articulated process centred on technique. The basis of the dish is a liquid obtained from a concentrate of carrots that ripen three days in a cold infusion of olives and garlic.

«Using a fermentation process – hence just a technique – I transform the taste of the sweet part of the carrot to give it a slightly more acid, and therefore fresher taste», says the chef. In addition to a dense cream of smoked roasted carrots, the dish also includes slices of carrot marinated in salt and water in a modified atmosphere: «Without oxygen, there is no oxidation and the carrots thus acquires a structure that is slightly softer than that of a raw carrot», continues Romito. The dish is then dressed with lemon-scented oil.

The chef’s aim is to use taste as the means to show that the carrot has gone through a completely different process than the carrots we are used to eating.

«For people who think carrots are a mundane, simple dish, I am revealing something new – he explains – it’s like giving a magnifying glass to a short-sighted person to show him something he might otherwise not see. Starting with just a carrot. The interesting thing about working with vegetables is the consequences in terms of sustainability and respect for the environment. The menu does not arise from these considerations however, but from the desire to develop an approach that can present something unique, something new, something good that is also good for you».

Everyone who dines at Niko Romito’s  – and that includes the press, the media, and the young chefs from his training school – must ask themselves questions, that is the goal. Other dishes on the menu? Red onion with vermouth and pink pepper, Broccoli leaf with anise, Radicchio and peanuts, Celery root, hazelnut and cardamom, among others. For the sceptics, should there be any given that the menu was developed by one of the most highly acclaimed chefs of the moment, there is also Green pea gelato.

Cover: Niko Romito. (Photo: Andrea Straccini)

Translated by: Olga Barmine 


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