For those of us who are overwhelmed by the splendour of Palazzo Versace—its intricate details of handcrafted mosaics, elaborate yet elegant luxury and classic Italian workmanship—will no doubt be all the more attracted to the traditional Italian cuisine that chef de cuisine Andrea Gaia is serving up at restaurant Vanitas. In the signature Italian restaurant of the hotel, Gaia expertly turns his deeply rooted Italian heritage into flavours that are rarely tasted in this part of the world. Because this is the best of the best, the heart and soul of Italy.
Andrea Gaia grew up in a town near Bologna. At the age of 14, his childhood dream of wanting to become a footballer or jet pilot quickly made way to another, quite possibly more realistic aspiration. Gaia remembers: “I chose to go to cooking school in my home town. It was probably an occupation where it was easiest to find a job. Also, I knew that as a chef I would get the opportunity to travel around the world. But then I grew up and the cards on the table changed: because then came the passion. As a child you cannot tell, but then with the passion for this job I started thinking: when I work hard, I can achieve my goals be a great chef, have my own restaurant and cook whatever I like best.” His dream came indeed true. After finishing school he travelled to Canada, Australia and England and upon returning back to Italy he started working at Michelin-star restaurants, improving his own cooking standards with every job. “Each chef was completely different and I learned a lot during that time. There I started to grow up,” he says. He moved to a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Venice and then to France for a long stint of four years. For Gaia it was the natural evolution for an Italian chef, both in terms of cooking technique and variety of dishes. Through the friend of a friend Gaia was approached to take over the kitchen at the prestigious Vanitas restaurant in Dubai’s Palazzo Versace. It was exactly the right time for the young chef. Gaia says: “There were many reasons why I wanted to have my own restaurant. I am 31 years old and I was at a point where I felt I was ready to have my own kitchen. Of course you will never stop learning, that’s for sure, but it was the right moment. I realised immediately that this was my chance.” Drawing on all the techniques and the experience he gathered throughout the years, he was ready to cook the Italian way; with a twist.
Since moving to Dubai one year ago and starting at Palazzo Versace seven months ago, Gaia has worked hard to build up something extraordinary. At Vanitas he offers an á la carte menu and a tasting menu which he wants to keep short and manageable for his guests. He says: “I think the concept of staying 2.5 hours at the table lies in the past. Of course when some guests want to enjoy a few more plates, no problem at all. But usually our tasting menu is composed of 4-5 courses with a dessert.” When the restaurant opened, some dishes immediately became classics and the signature dishes of today. There is, for example, the three-way tuna dish with tartar, carpaccio and scottadito (a kind of tataki but the Italian way)—three textures that each in their own way shine a beautiful light on the gorgeous aroma of the tuna. Then there is the burrata, an arguably simple plate, but one that required a long search, but resulted in what Gaia is sure is the best burrata out there. Also not to miss is Gaia’s famous risotto dish, risotto Alfredo (not to confuse with what many might know as pasta Alfredo, bearing hardly any resemblance to what you are served at Vanitas; the only thing the two have in common is mushrooms and chicken). Gaia cooks the risotto á la minute during service using fragrant mushroom stock. He then tops it fresh mushrooms of the day, like chanterelle or girolle, and finishes the plate with the finest and juiciest chicken wings that he cooked confit during the night at 62C. Of course, no Italian meal would be complete without pasta. At Vanitas, try the buffalo ricotta tortelli, a very easy but enormously popular dish made of homemade tortelli with buffalo ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, with tomato coulis and basil oil on top. What might seem like spaghetti is yet another firm favourite: Glacier 51 Cartoccio consists of fish served, potato lasagne and puttanesca sauce with blank ink spaghetti on top. The spaghetti, however, are not made of traditional dough, but black squid ink that is cooked in olive oil at 85C and thus takes on the consistency and look of spaghetti—an absolute delight.
What Gaia soon came to realise was that not all his favourite ingredients are accepted by his Middle Eastern guests. For example, he personally loves rabbit, but people in Dubai don’t seem to take to it. Overall he had to get used to the different mentality, but stick to his original plan all the same. He explains: “You have to understand what the people like here but at the same time also try to introduce them to something different than the Italian food they usually get everywhere. I like to serve food that is easy to understand and to enjoy. I don’t like being too extreme or complicated so that some people won’t understand it or won’t like it. Of course I want to keep the quality level very high but at the same time I want to stay close to the traditional Italian kitchen, the flavour, the herbs and the genuine products that are served in our country.”
The good thing in Dubai, he says, is that you can get everything you want. Italian food is very popular and he finds it easy to get hold of quality products. Fish, meat, vegetables—they’re easier to find than he imagined, Gaia says.
Does he have a favourite ingredient, I ask him? “People from a different line of work can have favourite dishes, but not I. I try to make every plate that I put on the menu one of the best plates ever. I love fish, meat and vegetables and I like to use each ingredient as if it is my favourite ingredient.” Spoken like a true chef.
However, he couldn’t contain his excitement at a new menu he is introducing in September, a pasta-only menu with five different pastas. He explains: “Pasta for the Italian cuisine is probably the most important product that people know all over the world. In this new pasta menu we will showcase all the most important pastas we have in our culture, homemade and dried, even though of course we also make our dry pasta ourselves.” Dishes from the different menus can of course be swapped so that every taste is catered for.
Gaia is a very passionate and engaging chef. He keeps abreast of all the latest cooking techniques, reads cook books, loves trying out new gadgets and often goes out to other restaurants to explore. And even though he is open to molecular techniques, he wouldn’t make it the main focus of any of his plates. If it works to help the main ingredient get to its full potential, then it can be exceptional, but he will never loose sight of the traditional Italian flavours and making his dishes easy to understand for all people to enjoy.
Open-minded and well-travelled as he is, he is still Italian at heart and asked where he would like to eat next, he tells me: “I travel a lot in my life and the world is amazing, but when I think about travelling somewhere I would prefer to go home, because home is home.”
And if you cannot go to Italy, let the Italian passion, its flavours and aromas come to you, served up by chef Andrea Gaia at Palazzo Versace.