When open kitchens were in fashion in Milan, chefs Matias Perdomo and Simon Press, and front-of-house pro and business partner Thomas Piras, created a hidden kitchen, visible only through a peephole. When the reputation of the kitchen and the chefs grew, they gave it a name: Contraste. It has become an iconic brand, recognisable and traceable to a concept, rather than a single central figure. Perhaps the secret of their success is an unconventional creative energy, capable of grasping contemporary sensibilities, but always with an eye on future. And now the future is here with their latest project: ROC.
Matias Perdomo,Thomas Piras and Simon Press. Photo by: Alessandro Ghirelli
Conceptually, ROC (Rosticceria Origine Contraste) is a rustic rotisserie, but that’s where the connection with tradition ends. There is no physical restaurant. All the food is delivered directly to the door via electric scooters, and the delicious grilled meat and fish dishes are designed in the ROC laboratory to be heated up at home. In keeping with the trio’s avant grade philosophy, which rejects labels and shuns creative boundaries, ROC has found its moment in the midst of a pandemic.
“During lockdown, we concentrated on studying our new four formats,” explains Piras. “We answered a question: how can we make our guests happy without ruining what we've been doing for five years? By differentiating our know-how, our desire to create quality. Thus, we took advantage of a production laboratory that we have had since the end of 2017, also in Milan, but in the Lambrate area, which allowed us to experiment and test.”
The Contraste team understands when to diversify its proposal, when to move beyond the gourmet restaurant, and when to draw upon 20 years of expertise, knowledge and experience to decentralise the business and put it at the service of the many. As such, new Contraste formats are currently in the pipeline, and will probably emerge in September, once all the work is done.
"There is no rush now, of course, we are warming up the engines again, hoping to find the Milan that left us before the lockdown," says Perdomo.
“We want to start again on September 1st with the same enthusiasm we had on September 1st 2015, when we opened Contraste”, continues Piras.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke in depth with Matias Perdomo about the new projects, the non-aesthetic of the dishes and the future of gastronomy. Here is our conversation, below:
Pluma burrata ricci and Rognoni di Coniglio. Photo by: Alessandro Ghirelli
ROC - Rosticceria Origine Contraste - can you explain the project?
The idea is that of an online rotisserie with delivery taken care of by us. In a second phase, the project will develop and become a "physical" neighbourhood rotisserie, a space where you can establish a direct relationship with the artisans, not for folklore, but because we really now have a chain of producers that we know personally. We, therefore, want to give the possibility, through the online site, to do the shopping, making accessible the products we deal with every day: it is a bit like sharing our work. This is the idea, but the first phase starts online: We want to go back to the principles of the rotisserie of the past, but bringing them to 2.0, to what it had become in 2020. It will be a project where you buy today and eat tomorrow, so you go shopping and it arrives the next day, it is neither a take-away nor a quick meal, but it involves planning, organisation, also for a question of sustainability and timing. Packaging is sustainable, and the way it gets to your home will also be sustainable, with ad hoc drivers. This attention to the “green” aspect is something we thought about, we removed the aesthetics to be a bit more ethical.
How did you set up the presentation?
The aesthetics of beauty and design are there, but we have worked in a very minimal way, paying attention to the sustainable aspect, so there is a single tray where everything will go. We are the ones who have to adapt to the packaging, and this mono-tray allows us to work with a biodegradable package, heat-sealed in the laboratory, therefore not exposed to contamination. These are aspects that you cannot do without, it is not that we want to work on this as a "brand", but ours is an investment in time, in what it is to shop, in a place that can be Contraste, of which you share in the philosophy, which however can be within everyone's reach. We are pleased to bring our philosophy into people's homes. Then, in a second phase, it will develop in a local way: there will be a real physical rotisserie, where you can go in person, where you can sit and eat, where we will have some goods on display... The idea is to create an outlet where the products of the same producers from which we supply ourselves are found, we make everything available, we also make the artisans known, organising meetings with them, always to stimulate knowledge: talking to a producer makes you part of his project.
What is the gastronomic idea behind ROC? How did you research the dishes?
The dishes are focused on product and philosophy: a tray where everything we want to convey about the product will be condensed in a single preparation, and of course the taste. For example, we have a fillet of cod with green pepper and nothing else: there is neither the concept of a side dish nor a concept of evolution of the dish, that is - for example - cod and green pepper with pil pil sauce. Because that gives me an emotion. He is very focused, because in the end he leaves the freedom of choice. We talked a lot about this: I don't propose the dish "Chicken with peppers, potatoes and deviled sauce": if someone doesn't like peppers, it's a problem. I, on the other hand, propose “Il pollo”, but it doesn't have the side dish: this allows you to be much freer when making your choice, and to compose the menu as you like. It is very contrasting because it is a non-menu, that is, I do not give a finished dish, but an elaborate element that at that moment conveys something: it is a small tray, but it is entirely concentrated on the product. And there is deliberately no text, context, sauces, side dishes: afterwards, rather, you can eat a Russian salad or a parmigiana, or curry peas, but we do not propose a compound dish by choice. This gives the customer the freedom to take what they want, and it gives us the parameters. We don't have to serve, but we have to incorporate in a product all the characteristics we want to give to it.
The ROC concept, therefore, implies a new vision of the chef's work.
There is no actual serving in the tray, so it is a complete departure from what our job is: we have eliminated the diameter, leaving the new aesthetics to the non-aesthetic, because in a tray of a few centimetres you have to imagine not the dish, but the product. And then you enter a world of non-aesthetics which is very interesting in my opinion.
The definition "the world of non-aesthetics" is very Contraste...
Yes, also because we are in that phase in which we are going to work on non-aesthetics, which are not necessarily delineated by a common denominator which is beauty because beauty is given by a set of people who say it is beautiful. Maybe beauty is a common denominator of all, but everyone can see the beauty where they want, and we are trying to bring this out.
Let's talk about Exit Pastificio Urbano, another format still in the pipeline: how did the idea come about?
When I was in Uruguay I worked in an Italian restaurant where pasta of all kinds was made only and exclusively, with all the sauces and condiments. When I arrived in Italy in 2001, I realised that pasta was a bulky element in the tasting menu (which began to take hold in 2004-5), and it is a discourse that I still carry on today: pasta at the social and philosophical level, but also in terms of quantity and weight, in a tasting menu - however small it may be - it is an element that distracts or completely attracts attention. Socially, pasta is the element that connects the world with Italian cuisine, and I keep saying that Italian cuisine is no longer Italian cuisine, but belongs to the world, and translates into Sunday-family-around-the-table. , and it's a very pasta-focused moment. With Exit (the already existing format, ed) we wanted to get out of the box, leave the city while staying inside, get out of all that is conventional and invite you to take some time for yourself, but we deliberately didn't include pasta. For us, giving importance only to pasta, with Exit Pastificio Urbano, is like a great challenge, even on a gastronomic level, because I believe that no one has ever worked on a pasta restaurant. Is it possible that no one in Italy has invested in a pasta format? It's super replicable, even internationally and philosophically, people instinctively understand it. We will open it in via Orti at the corner of via Curtatone, in an area where there is no nightlife, but there is the neighbourhood, which is very nice.
Will you serve the classic pasta dishes?
Among the slogans of Exit Pastifico Urbano there is: 'Second to none'. We will aim to give the concept of pasta a lightness understood as yes that place that brings you back to Sunday and to the family in flavours, but elegant: we enhance pasta, dedicating an entire restaurant to it. It seems, to me at least, that no other chef has made until now, leaving out the chains. There will be a connection from North to South, dry pasta of all kinds, artisans from all over, fresh filled pasta, there will be everything in short. It will be a concept in motion, like Exit, then I believe that a lot also depends on the clientele (as well as in Contraste), because 50% of the success of an evening depends on the client's predisposition. Pasta is a different concept: you eat two sensational cured meats while I make the pasta, then, a bottle of wine, the cheese trolley, a dessert.
How did you set up the gastronomic concept? Did it lighten the traditional sauces?
I use very little butter in the kitchen and I manage to separate the concepts, but Contraste is a 360-degree restaurant, in the sense that you come to Contraste, not Matias Perdomo. It is a continuous search for non-communication, non-aesthetic, not to go out in to stay out of the dining room: because at this moment, the negation is the negation of everything that was evident. 'Not being there' is what allows us freedom tomorrow. I don't want to be omnipresent as a chef, even if 99% of the time I'm there, I'm always in the kitchen, but I want the growth of the waiting staff in the dining room, I don't want them to be unmotivated because they feel like they are only carriers of dishes. No, my dining room staff are carriers of emotions, customers greet them by calling them by name, this mechanism is created that lightens the chef: the concept is this, to find the strength of each concept. If the strong point is a personality, then that person will live in a prison. Today we have the possibility of 'not being there', in a normal situation without restrictions, we are open seven days a week because we have 22 people in the team, a ratio of two people per table. People come to enjoy their evening and we are the first to have to leave the scene, but to put customers at the centre of the scene: this is the concept of Exit, where the customer goes to experience their own moment. Now with pasta, it will be the same, the customer at the centre, who will want to eat one or two plates of pasta.
What can you tell us about the third format, Empanadas del Flaco?
I have the luck and pleasure of working with Simon for 15 years, and as a good Argentine, he has long said that he had the dream of opening a place for empanadas ('Il Flaco', the 'skinny one', is the nickname of Simon Press, ed). Because with us, in Argentina and Uruguay, it is equivalent to pizza. When you are at home you don't order a pizza, but an empanada. And then we started thinking about the weaknesses and strengths in comparison to pizza: I would never start making pizza, it is a world unto itself, I would not know much about leavening and hydration, it is much more a matter of microbiology than cooking. Simon was keen for the Milanese to get to know the typical empanadas: in Argentina, generally, you make five empanadas each, while watching the game, for example. It is the classic food to eat in company, with a beer. The thing that stimulated us much more is that we have to impress our philosophy in 75 grams of dough and filling: it is the first time that we go to work on a product that does not have the manipulation of daily gestures or human relationships. It will be a small space in via San Maurilio, where it is taken and taken away, we will not be there to serve, but there will be the product that will represent us. And we want people to say "What a bomb those empanadas are!". We have come up with a concept that causes people to have this surprise effect in 75 grams. They immediately brought me back to Uruguay, tasting them. Simon has his own technique for making the filling and I understood why it was always dry for me. The empanadas are always prepared in our 150 square metre laboratory: where the product is finished, then regenerated at the point of sale, in a special oven.
How are empanadas made and regenerated?
We have a fryer spray oven, but it is an oven ... we are trying to regenerate in the best possible way while maintaining a long shelf life. We use selected raw materials: the philosophy is the same, I know who is giving me the ham, the meat, the flour, and for 3-4 euros I don't want to get dirty or deceive my philosophy. The challenge is to condense 25 years of gastronomic history into 75 grams of product for 3-4 euros. But for us, this is the food of life. Our relationship with the kitchen is summarised in this motto: standardise yes, sterilise no. Because we are reaching a point in gastronomy where we sterilise the kitchen, and the risk is very subtle: you standardise a creative method, but you don't stop listening to the product and producer and customers. Sterilisation, on the other hand, makes everything anonymous. Here we still want to feel the taste of risk, the fear that the product will be bad or that it will be a "no". We want to take a path that is marked, we cannot leave our identity aside: it must all be put there in an empanada.
Can this standardisation of quality, this seriality, be a future path for cooking in a difficult time like the one we are experiencing?
I believe that standardisation becomes fundamental in a model like gastronomy, which is a great business model, but it is very fragile, and we have seen it in the months of stoppage. Perhaps it is one of the most fragile businesses: you have 4 hours of sales per 24 hours of the day, you have fixed costs, to which you add an average of 14 hours of those who work in it (for those who do two services), then you have the variability with a huge proportion of success of the evening that depends on the customer's predisposition. Catering is a model in crisis from an economic point of view, but it is one of those models that can give much more satisfaction, even from the human point of view: the greatest things that have been done in this world, let's not forget, have been done around a table. This is an emotional part, which must be taken into account, for which standardisation is due: today we must see catering as a model of non-exponential growth, but without a shadow of a doubt it is no longer a familiar model with the mother who makes the pasta and the son doing the serving. Today there are two models in gastronomy: family management or real business, so you have to put yourself in an entrepreneurial perspective, however, both are very stimulating.
What if they ask you to bring your Contraste branded empanadas to another distribution channel, for example in large-scale distribution?
It is never a waste of time to listen to ideas ... thinking about work before doing it is much more difficult and stimulating, we are launching this project because it is very true and exciting: Empanadas del Flaco is Simon Press's dream, the filling is his, the work is his (a study that lasted a year, ed), the research of the raw material is his, in collaboration with Nicolò, who is our food scout. The machine we took has been readjusted for empanadas, it makes a thousand at a time. This is a product designed for the masses, while for Roc we will have our site, we will personally take care of the delivery, with small trays with a shelf life of 24 hours. We study the versatility of each product and the right handling.
The fourth format, Abere, focuses on wine and is signed by Thomas Piras. Can you tell us what it is?
The format has already been in place for over a year, it is a national exclusive import and distribution project of some niche products: they are producers from small companies that have no means of making themselves known, we distribute them in the Italian market. The sense of distribution was to look for producers in areas that were not yet inflated: Spain, Germany, the Loire, the Rhone, areas that allow for acceptable prices. It is a distribution that believes in the quality-price ratio and believes in the pleasantness of wine and in the sensitivity of the vigneron: the issue of terroir today is one of the most important aspects, but there are also very good producers in so-called "secondary" territories, which with zero impact treatments in the vineyard are able to produce high-quality wines. A striking case is Clau de Nell, a producer from the Loire: Leflaive is the property that makes the most expensive Montrachet in Burgundy, 10 thousand euros per bottle, and the same person with the same know-how buys 15 hectares in the Loire ... he can't make a bad wine, but he makes a wine from 22-30 euros a bottle, with him we have exclusivity for Italy. In short, we are looking for new roads and new territories to discover. In this adventure, I am joined by Marco Tinessa, vigneron, producer, who is my partner in the selection. The name of the format comes from our evening gatherings: "ci vediamo a bere”?. ?.
Let's go back to Perdomo: during lockdown, you used your Instagram for irreverent and ironic communication, but what do you really think about the future of the kitchen?
When we opened on September 1st 2015 with a mirror as a menu, we were already saying that the new gastronomy revolution would be a human revolution. That is the gastronomic avant-garde, that is, the human revolution precisely. The mirror symbolises the reflection of yourself: the moment you know who you are and know what you want, you are fine. There must not be a dictatorship of taste, there must not be a personal overlap to the concept, and I believe that now more than ever, gastronomy must go towards that human relationship that has been lost: this was the confirmation of the reflection we had already made. When, with Simon and Tommi, we were looking for a place for the project, we said to ourselves: what do we want from Contraste? That people are okay, we all responded the same way. And this in my opinion is the new revolution, that is, living well, even with ups and downs. Contraste means making you feel good: I don't go out to the dining room, but it's not that I'm not ... Until the last customer I there, then I have my free days and my own moments, but if Tomas or I aren't there, you don't miss us. At Empanadas del Flaco there will be no Simon to serve them, but we will be omnipresent in the gestures, for the humanity inherent in the project itself. But when you concentrate everything on yourself, it becomes a prison, it is a great burden, dreams can become prisons. We have created freedom, not dreams: it is scary because you do not know what you are, but it is what keeps you alive because otherwise, we would have sterilised and not standardised.
Contraste-thinking is like this: it surpasses all appearances, transcends all tendencies, and communicates from the gut with great intelligence and freedom. If it were a painting, it would be an illusory Magritte canvas. If it were a philosopher, it would be Parmenides, with his ontological studies. Now, we just have to discover the new projects in real life signed by a trio that continues to look (and to be) one step ahead.
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