Mario Affinita is the head chef of Don Geppi, a gourmet restaurant that sits within the Majestic Palace of Sant’Agnello. Designed by Giulia Rossano, architect and owner, and run by Lucio D’Orsi, this luxury hotel that strokes the Amalfi coast is now host to a Michelin starred restaurant months after opening its doors.
Now, inspiring other hoteliers to come up with an equally exciting proposition, these three individuals have opened up a new way of gourmet dining, and are showing how it is possible to get a Michelin Star in even the most unlikeliest of places.
2016 was the year of the Michelin Star. How much of your food has changed since that day ? Very little. Technically we have evolved, and we are studying the plates with more detail. Before we would test new dishes a week before bringing them to the menu, now, we take more time and more work to bring it together.
Since 2010 you were the executive chef of the Majestic Palace, but since 2014 you have worked together with Lucio D’Orsi, taking this unfamiliar road of establishing the fine dining scene within hotels, creating Don Geppi. Will we ever get to a point in Italy where we can bring people to these new environments without feeling out of place? I think and I hope so. Ours was a project that was more than just opening a restaurant within a hotel. Hotel food has had a bad reputation and fortunately, by receiving this Michelin Star award we have gone on to be fully booked every evening, and even had to turn people away for overbooking. Let’s be clear, we’re here to get better, day after day.
Your team looks after two areas of the kitchen, one for hotel use, one for gourmet dining experiences. How many people are on your team and how are they divided up? In reality, the kitchen divides up into three, because other than the two mentioned, there is also an area dedicated to dinner service with an international menu which is available for both the hotel guests as well as regular guests; such as the breakfast menu. Every course and dish on that course is overseen by myself and my sous chefs as well as two further people based on the season. Further to all of that, we have a lot of work experience chefs that take it in turns to work the different areas. The first star is exclusively for food, to get the second, what more do you need to do? Firstly, we need more time; that’s the essential thing, from there, everything else needs to be thought of. Service, better food even things like tablecloths. These details make all the difference.
Enrico Bartolini is one of the most awarded chefs in Italy, especially in this 62nd edition, he was also one of your teachers. What is the biggest lesson that he has passed on to you? The biggest thing he taught me was to open my mind, introducing me to a new way of operating a kitchen, gourmet done as gourmet. He was, for a long time my reference point, despite being very distant from my ideas of food, and ingredients mainly because of a geographic appreciation at best.
Campania has yet again confirmed that it is one of the most prestigious regions when it comes to Michelin, after Lombardy and Piedmont, whilst Naples remains the pinnacle of the region why do you think this is? Forget Michelin stars, look at the region and start to understand what type of tourism takes place over here. Over the years we have become accustomed to presenting the same dishes in a certain way. Our best restaurants and hotels have been happy with just one star though, which is a little bit of a shame. Today however, we are lucky to have a new generation of cooks that want to go one better.
In nine months (from opening date) you managed to get a Michelin Star for Don Geppi. How did you do it? We are our best critics. Ultimately, once a week we are our customers, trying the different dishes and seeing how they will go down. We knew the quality was there, we knew that the recognition would come, but the speed of that recognition is what caught us out, that was the real surprise. Your restaurant has five tables, for twenty covers: how do you make them last? It may not seem like much but they are a lot! We are lucky to be based within a hotel and that our costs are covered, which unlike many of our colleagues can have difficulty with. We make money from the hotel, our gourmet restaurant is our release valve; the inner child that all of us have that helps cultivate fantasy and passion in everything we do.
You define yourself more as an artisan cook moreover a chef and less know than ever before as an executive chef. Why? Because my relationship with food has never changed, and I don’t need titles or other languages different to my own to define me. I don’t want to miss elements from my style of food, certain relationships which have rendered me that which I am today. That’s why I’m always in the garden, in my orchard and with the local people to understand which ingredients I should be putting in my menu. I’ve always enjoyed planting my own produce and at New Year’s last year, we had pumpkin on the menu that I planted; that was amazing!
You started as a patisserie chef and moved on from there. What is the dessert that best represents you and your style of cooking? The CAPRESE: a simple yet complicated dessert which, in all of its complexities has a sweet part, a bitter part and at its heart, the unmistakable flavour of Benevento, the liquor, Strega.
You’ve travelled a lot to learn and refine your cooking style, although, you’ve stayed away from the French style and moved more towards the Spanish elements of cooking. This has been more evident in your recent experiences at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and again that of Albert Adrià. Where does the food differ the most from the Italian kitchen, and what have you introduced, be it ingredient or technique when returning to Italy? I prefer Spanish cooking to the French for three reasons: innovation, the fantasy within each plate and the excitement that you generate with the customer when a dish is served. I do this with my Italian dishes without forgetting or hiding the flavours of campania. I don’t use new ingredients but new techniques, liking cooking on natural stones or cold cooking which, if you think about it, is a mental paradox.
Your fake tomato has been imitated, copied to death and in some cases undeservedly badly treated. How can a chef nowadays preserve the uniqueness of their dishes? I smile when I see them serve my dish with different ingredients because it means they don’t have a clue what goes behind creating it. I created that dish for my first appearance at the Festa a Vico, where I was invited to create something under the theme that year of “Tu vuò fa l’americano ma sì nato in Italy” (“You want to be American but you were born in Italy). The tomato was discovered in America and brought back to Italy. I wanted to recreate that, albeit, I was naive. I thought long and hard about the association between that food source and the people. That was how I understood that people around meatballs could be greedy, from there the idea to get a beef tartare and jellified it in a traditional campanian ragu. I tried to unite the traditions of campania to those of America which was the whole premise of event, and I substituted the basil with a real petiole of a tomato. I’ve seen that tomato done in at least thirty different ways, but never once done with the idea behind it. To answer the second part of your question, no, a chef can’t do anything to save the identity of their dishes, but they can render them unique by adding ingredients that could be invisible or hard to trace, like ginger.
Primary materials: can we still talk about km 0? I think it’s a bit of a mockery, from the moment that you want to create something that is km0 (sourced less than a kilometer from the kitchen) you could make a potato frittata, as long as you can raise a chicken to lay eggs and plant a potato crop. Certain levels of complexity in the kitchen cannot be reached if you move to a km0 ideology with your primary materials, only that today, it’s not politically correct to say so.
Today, you’re a teacher as well as a chef. Why is it that cookery schools are always accused of poorly preparing individuals that work at the front of the restaurant? Where I come from, we say, “the fish begins to smell from the head.” When someone goes to train and learn at a hottelier school, there aren’t a lot of good teachers. I believe that the ones who teach must be the first to do exams the second that they have the responsibility to teach new students.
When you get home you have three women waiting for you: your wife and your two children. Who does the cooking at home? My wife does all the cooking, exclusively in our home. I remember the first time she made anything for me, she was so nervous and she used a bimby (automated food processor and cooker) to make everything. After seven years, a marriage and two girls, I can say that she has become an excellent cook, and she no longer uses any electrical aides to help make these dishes. Adversely, my daughters have a very educated palette that they can tell the difference from when I cook and their mother does, and now, even request very specific dishes.
If not Sant’Agnello, why? If I had to leave my land, my country I would only do it to go somewhere where I was welcomed in the past, alas as well with my family, Girona. It’s a small city that I would lay down my roots and open a new restaurant without a second thought.