You’re launching a second restaurant in Dubai. How does it differ from Social By Heinz Beck at Waldorf Astoria Palm Jumeirah?
A Taste of Italy by Heinz Beck [at Jumeirah’s The Galleria] is a very casual dining and retail concept. I have a bakery inside with beautiful bread, I have a pizzeria, a chocolaterie, a gelateria and pastries. There’s also a nice restaurant inside, of course.
Are you changing direction, or are you just looking to diversify?
I’m diversifying a little bit. In Italy I only have fine-dining restaurants and in Tokyo it’s primarily casual, so when the opportunity came to have a second one in Dubai, I thought: I don’t want to have two fine-dining places – how about a casual-dining concept? The Galleria is in a neighbourhood surrounded by homes; it’s a place where you can pick up some fresh bread, go for a coffee in the morning or have a little sweet in the afternoon – and the kids can come for real Italian ice cream. It’s the real thing, not some kind of ice cream mix.
You also launched recently in Tokyo, which has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world. Do you find the Japanese have a discerning palate?
The Japanese have a very good food tradition and a great culture of producing fantastic raw materials. They’re very sophisticated, very precise and very seasonal. Like in Italy, they have a way of thinking about raw materials, a culture of attention to detail, and process things the proper way. I opened two restaurants in Tokyo on the same day. A top, fine-dining restaurant that carries my name [Heinz Beck] and a casual restaurant underneath, sensi by Heinz Beck.
Has spending time in Japan influenced your cooking?
I’m influenced by anyone and everything and most influenced by healthy cooking. Fifteen years ago, no one was talking about healthy food but I started to study the health effects of food and talk to people with medical experience. I’m not a doctor, nor do I want to be, but I’ll work with research to understand more and understand blood pressure, diabetes and childhood obesity. My new project is about botanic food and I’m working with Stefano Mancuso who is the biggest botanist in Italy. So I’m always interested in developing new things and I’m very curious about finding ways to create beautiful things.
What led you to start considering the health impacts of your cooking all those years ago?
I started as some fun when I was part of an Italian project called “Sensi Di Vini”, which I took part in with international researchers and brain surgeons. We looked at what happens in the human brain during the degustation of wine, in the brain of a professional sommelier and a non-professional. While they were drinking the wine, we were looking at what parts of the brain were stimulated. It was the first moment I became interested in medicine. It made me curious, so I tried to get other professors involved in similar projects. In 2006, I studied the oscillation of insulin after dinner.
Have these studies affected your ingredients and cooking methods?
It is affecting my cooking and my way of looking at food. I’m not making diets, simply producing high-quality food. I’m very concerned about what happens in the body during the process of eating.
You previously discussed the difficulties of sourcing produce in the Middle East. How are you finding the challenge within your new Dubai opening?
We are trying to find good ingredients and are also bringing ingredients from Italy. We select the flour in Italy and we bake our own bread. The vegetables and salads won’t all come from Italy, but most produce will – along with our 10 Italian chefs.
You spend a lot of time in Rome at your restaurant La Pergola at Rome Cavalieri. What is your quintessential Italian dish?
There’s so many, it wouldn’t be fair to nominate one [laughs]. The writer Montalbán said that Italian cooking is like Italy itself: it’s hundreds of cities with thousands of church towers. That’s like saying there are hundreds of cooking styles with thousands of recipes. Italian food could be a beautiful couscous like my mother-in-law makes in Sicily, or a beautiful lasagne from the north of Italy. Cooking Italian is fantastic because there are no limits. Italy is a very long country with Austrian and French influences in the north, Arabic influence in the south, and then there were the conquerors: the Spanish, French and Greek. So there’s such a variety of cuisine, it would never be fair to nominate just one dish.
Surely you have a personal favourite?
Pasta con i tenerumi. But that won’t help you, because you won’t find it anywhere. It’s a traditional dish that my mother makes in Sicily. If you drive 50 kilometres from Palermo, you won’t find anyone who knows what it is. It’s made from a big, ripe zucchini – a beautiful soup with pasta and tomato. It’s fantastic. So when I am in Italy, I go to Sicily only to eat this.
From an outsider’s perspective it seems Italian cooking has a very prescribed way of doing things, but you’re making it clear this isn’t the case?
A lot of people reduce Italian cooking to pasta and pizza but it’s much, much more. Italian cooking is a philosophy of life. It starts in the morning at the coffee bar. If you visit a coffee bar in Rome then you’ll understand what variety means. Each day the barman hears: “One espresso, one double espresso, one double espresso in a big cup, one café macchiato, one espresso with cold milk, one cold espresso, one double espresso in a short glass”. People don’t want to have an espresso, they want to have “My espresso”. And this is Italy. Italy has a variety of cooking styles and a variety of recipes and even when you have a traditional recipe in a tiny little town, if you go two kilometres down the road, it will be written completely differently.
What other destinations are you excited about when it comes to food?
There is Japan, but think about Brazil and the Amazon – there are so many ingredients you wouldn’t see anywhere else. It’s amazing. The world is so fantastic and so bright – there are still a lot of things to discover around the world, and I’ll keep trying everything to find something new.