Taking over the family business can be an intimidating task for most – even more so when you’ve been entrusted with the responsibility by your mother-in-law.
Valeria Piccini of Italy’s 2-MICHELIN-starred Da Caino should know.
The Tuscany native was just 26 when she and her husband Maurizio took over the reins of his family’s 15-year-old restaurant in 1986. The couple combined Valeria’s passion for breathing new life into classic Tuscan flavours with Maurizio’s love for fine wine and refashioned the casual trattoria, named after Maurizio’s father, into an intimate fine-dining restaurant with nine tables and just 18 covers.
Despite a slightly rocky beginning, Da Caino received its first Michelin star in the MICHELIN Guide Italy in 1991 followed by the second star eight years later – a distinction that the restaurant still holds on to 22 years later.
Today, the restaurant set in a historic stone house and its 18th century wine cellar with over 18,000 bottles have become the main draw for a steady swarm of global gourmands to Montemerano, a sleepy 13th century medieval hamlet with just 400 residents. Piccini is also a consultant chef for Winter by Caino, a modern Tuscan restaurant in the St Regis Hotel Florence.
Piccini made time to speak with the MICHELIN Guide when she visited Hong Kong in November as the first guest chef of Gems and Pearls, a new dining series hosted by one-MICHELIN-starred Tosca di Angelo at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong. The restaurant will welcome five female chefs from MICHELIN-starred restaurants in Italy for one-off dinner collaborations in Hong Kong over the next 12 months.
Together with Sicily-born compatriot Angelo Agliano, the head chef and director of Tosca di Angelo, Piccini prepared an eight-course menu melding influences from Agliano's fishermen roots and Piccini's love of the Tuscan countryside. Creations included Da Caino signatures such as the Cacio e Pere, a ravioli dish she started serving 35 years ago, alongside Hong Kong-sourced ingredients such as roasted local eel and a confit of suckling pig paired with locally grown vegetables such as pak choi and daikon found on a wet market visit.
Piccini tells us more about her experience working with her mother-in-law, her new "Parola di Shef" initiative to support other female chefs and her thoughts on her first trip to Asia.
I first started cooking in 1978. I was 18 and had just graduated with a diploma in chemistry. I got married to my husband Maurizio and joined his family’s restaurant. My mother-in-law recognised immediately that I had a special talent in the kitchen so she taught me everything about traditional culture and food of Tuscany. But I felt it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to focus more on learning some new techniques, so I started to learn by myself by looking at books and travelling to experience new cultures and new approaches to food.
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When my mother-in-law let me take over the family restaurant in 1986, I was very happy and proud. I felt like I had won a prize. I had acquired new skills and she gave me the freedom to bring a new style, new energy and freshness to the restaurant. We were one of the first to think about giving new expression to Italian cuisine. For example, people used to serve lamb almost overcooked; we presented our lamb medium rare.
But one or two years after I took over, we started to lose our regular customers, who came to our restaurant for our traditional dishes. Together with my husband and mother-in-law, we started to question if we were doing the right thing. Fortunately, in 1991, we got our first Michelin star and the restaurant became the talk of the town.
My mother-in-law and I were very close because we were total opposites. I’m very active and want to do many things and she was very calm and very kind. We never fought or had an argument. When she fell sick afterwards and could not leave the home, I would bring ingredients home, for instance, to let her peel the green peas, so that she could still feel like she was a part of the kitchen, because I knew how passionate she was about the restaurant.
Today, my son Andrea manages our restaurant and wine cellar. I taught him how to cook because I want him to know how to run a kitchen even after I am gone. He also went to the US to work in Italian restaurants for seven years before joining Da Caino. My husband takes care of our winery and our farm, which is about 6km from our restaurant. In the spring and summer, 100 per cent of our ingredients come from our farm.
My culinary philosophy is to be like sunshine: rich, sincere and able to bring out the true quality of the product. Diners should be able to clearly see and understand what they are eating. Too many restaurants in Europe offer too complicated dishes that diners don’t understand. My cuisine should be understood by everyone. To do this, we need top quality products and the perfect use of the fat to cook the dish.
My favourite animal is the pigeon. It is common in Italian cuisine, especially in the central regions of Italy. The texture is interesting, I like how juicy it is, and the slightly metallic flavour it has that makes it easy to match with other ingredients and a wide range of vegetables. I like the white and red meat parts of it. You can grill it, stuff it, roast it, make it into ravioli or risotto, and more.
This is my first time visiting Hong Kong. In fact, it’s my first time in Asia. My hometown is a little area of 300 people, so it’s a world of difference. Hong Kong is chaotic, dynamic, confusing but I still feel good because I can see the mountains and the sea in the gaps between the tall buildings. I’ve enjoyed everything I tried, from Peking duck to snake soup.
I didn’t even know about Michelin stars when I got my first star in 1991. My husband had heard murmurings in the wine world that a chef with a restaurant in our neighbourhood would get a Michelin star for sure. And I felt very happy for him. In the end, when I got the star, and he wasn’t there, I thought this must impossible. Did they make a mistake? Because it was completely outside of our imagination for us to receive a star.
The year we got our second star, in 1999, we had been doing renovations on the second floor of the restaurant for most of the year. I was worried and thought that I was going to lose the star because customers who dined there might have been annoyed by the noise. I nearly fell down when I heard the news. To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a nice meal at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, a 3-MICHELIN-starred restaurant, because I wanted to do something special.
When we got our second star, our five staff in the kitchen were only ladies, and none were professionally trained. They didn’t come from any culinary schools or other restaurants, they were all from the countryside.
To support other female chefs, I started an initiative this summer called Parola di Shef, which means “word of the ‘shef’” in Italian, the latter is a play on the two English words “she” and “chef”. For me, if you’re driven by passion, you can achieve your goals whether you’re male or female. I hope to use this movement to start more collaborations with other female chefs, many of whom are still unknown. This is the time for us to be known, I want us to say, “we are here”.
After holding 2 stars for 22 years and even at my age, I am still very excited and moved when I think of a new dish or find a new product that is amazing, and I get very happy when my customers come back to eat. For as long as I still have this motivation, I will stay in the kitchen.
My advice for young chefs is to never think of the glory. Once you have given your full immersion and dedication to the job, the glory will come. For sure. You don’t have to go looking for it. Don’t become a chef because you want to be famous, become a chef because you have the passion and you want to share this passion by bringing happiness to the people who come to see you and eat your food.