“I grew up in an environment where cooking reigned supreme,” proclaims Italy’s two-Michelin-star chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo. Born in Vico Equense, a coastal village in Naples, Cannavacciuolo grew up in a produce rich region, within a produce rich country, where cooking—and more importantly eating—was at the heart of everyday life. This is a way of life in Italy and not a ‘movement,’ as we tend to refer to slow food in some western countries; “it’s like that where I come from,” Cannavacciuolo says with smile.
“My childhood memories go back to housewives intent on preparing dishes that symbolised tradition, ingredients grown in the countryside, fresh fish from the sea and us kids who helped granny with the homemade pasta.” He explains: “We were curious, [ever] present while work was carried out on the raw materials nature provides.”
This earnest mealtime inquisitiveness was a natural trait of Cannavacciuolo’s and one that has led the brooding, dark-bearded chef to become one of the most recognisable faces in his home country. “Cooking has grown with me day-by-day. I always knew I’d be a chef,” he adds.
An early influence on Cannavacciuolo was his grandmother and his father, Andrea Cannavacciuolo, who was a professor at the Vico Equense hotel and catering school called Istituto Professionale Alberghiero De Gennaro. “My father was a chef and teacher and I listened, captivated by his stories of experiences in the kitchen. As I grew up, [an] awareness and love for traditional flavours led me to feel the need to enter the world of restaurants, [and] I decided to enrol in the hotel and catering school myself.”
Upon graduating Cannavacciuolo spent time in France, first at L’Auberge de l’Ille under Marc Haeberlin in Illerausen and then at restaurant Buerehiesel in Strasbourg, before returning to Italy, where he spent a summer at the Grand Hotel Quisisana in Capri. At the time, Gualtiero Marchesi was consulting at the hotel and, although they did not work directly together, Cannavacciuolo was struck by the organisation and mindset of the brigade there, something that he took with him and used in the years to follow.
Following the Grand Hotel Quisisana, Cannavacciuolo and his wife Cinzia moved to the Piedmont region, where they took over the management of the Relais & Châteaux Villa Crespi Hotel & Restaurant in 1999.
Home of rich agriculture, the great barolo wine and world-famous cuisine, Villa Crespi Hotel & Restaurant sits on Lake Orta in an 18th century arabesque-style property. With a tall, turquoise-domed turret and incredible attention to detail in the design, the building tells the story of fine craftsmanship, perfectly matching the attention to detail of the restaurant’s cuisine, created by its chef patron, Cannavacciuolo.
Cannavacciuolo talks freely about his “raw materials”, the bountiful ingredients of the land around him that ultimately embody the tradition of Italy. His dishes are dictated by memories of flavours from the past, with which he combines ingredients that best enhance what the territory offers according to the season.
The a la carte menu is presented in four sections—hors d’oeuvres, pasta, fish and meat and dessert—with the option of three tasting menus, including the five-course Carpe Diem, the nine-course The Italian Route from South to North and the 10-course Off-Road.
Carpe Diem is perhaps the best introduction to Cannavacciuolo’s cuisine, while The Italian Route reflects the chef’s journey from Naples to Piedmont, and Off Road is perhaps most exciting of all—a series of dishes created “freehand”. He explains: “It is an exciting journey through a series of dishes mixed with more recent ones. Here, the raw materials’ seasons play a very important part in what is chosen to be included in this journey through taste and flavour.”
While tradition is core to his philosophy, Cannavacciuolo is unafraid of experimentation, too; pairing red mullet with aubergine and a smoked cheese broth to create a fun take on local seafood and the watermelon, peanuts, tomato and octopus (page XX), a dish with added umami and oozing flavour.
Having been trained by some of Europe’s most groundbreaking chefs and with an abundance of fresh ingredients at his fingertips, there was only one place left for Cannavacciuolo to turn to rouse that special quality that stands a world-class chef apart from the rest, and that was his own emotions. He explains: “My philosophy of cuisine is emotion itself. My creations are dictated by the sensations the raw materials offer me. I try to convey what I feel by working on the ingredients and the memory of a past that takes me back to my very roots.”
We would not be what we are today without our traditions and the culture that characterises us. Our country is full of history and an artistic and cultural past that is our mark of distinction the world over. It would be a mistake not to start from these premises, regaling a past that is our distinguishing feature,” he adds.
In 2003, Cannavacciuolo and the team at Villa Crespi Hotel & Restaurant were awarded one star by the Michelin Guide. This was followed three years later with a second star in 2006. Cannavacciuolo recalls the moment he heard about the first star: “When we found out about the first star, I felt one of those lasting emotions that will always remain with me in my memories. After so much commitment, sacrifice and hard work, it was a dream come true.”
He might be as committed to Villa Crespi Hotel & Restaurant today as he was 10 years ago, but the chef is set to embark on another challenge this year, as he joined the judging panel for the fifth season of MasterChef Italia. Taking a coveted spot next to restaurateur Joe Bastianich and chefs Carlo Cracco and Bruno Barbieri, the series launched in December 2015 and runs until March 2016.This isn’t Cannavacciuolo’s first foray into TV, having also starred in Cucine da Incubo, Italy’s version of Hell’s Kitchen. He also played an important role in last year’s Expo Milano 2015 as one of the Chef Ambassadors, which saw him promote Italian cuisine further, still.
While many of the best chefs in the world seek to open further more venues international, for chef Cannavacciuolo there is no place like home. “Is it banal to say that [Italy] is the most beautiful country in the world? Those who have never been here may not know that but, for us, it really is the bel paese: the beautiful country.”
Find out more about the culinary career of Antonino