At the latest edition of the World's 50 Best Restaurants held in Melbourne, four Italian chefs were there to receive the applause of the public and pose for photographers. Among them, there was one who is probably less accustomed than his colleagues to flashing cameras and microphones: in fact, Enrico Crippa is seldom seen outside of his restaurant, the three-starred Piazza Duomo, which climbed this year’s charts from position 17 to 15.
A step forward that may seem modest, but is actually huge if we see it in the context of Alba, a tiny town in the heart of the Langhe area of Piedmont, where the Piazza Duomo was opened just twelve years ago. The 15th place in the 50 World's 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list, three Michelin stars and a recently assigned Grand Prix de l'Art de la Cuisine: Crippa has collected these accolades with the same understatement with which he has built up an international curriculum of rare prestige, which started out from the kitchens of Gualtiero Marchesi and took in those of Michel Bras and Ferran Adrià, extending from France to Japan.
After all this travelling, today he has found his dimension in this little provincial town, from which he rarely and unwillingly moves because “taking a plane for a one hour congress tires me twice as much as cooking all day long. I admire my colleagues who have a restaurant in Milan, another in Venice and yet another in New York… It would be an impossible feat for me. I have even turned my back on big cities, they no longer resemble me: as the fable teaches us, the country mouse is always nicer than the town mouse”.
You were born in a provincial town– in Carate Brianza, on the outskirts of Milan – and there you returned.
I had never been to the Langhe before. When Bruno Ceretto (a member of the Ceretto family of restaurant owners, Ed.note) decided to open a restaurant, he said to himself: if those of Bresse in France have dominated the world with a chicken, what can we achieve in Langa where we have all possible and imaginable products? Why don’t we have excellent restaurants in a land like ours with its wealth of marvellous products: Barolo, Barbaresco, hazelnuts, truffle, cheese and meat? As soon as we met, he said “I want a restaurant with three Michelin stars here. Is that clear?” At that time, I never dreamed of coming this far.
The most widespread and trite definition of your cuisine is “zen”. Do you go along with that?
I have to admit I am a bit tired of hearing it said… Of course, there is oriental choreography in my dishes, in the graphical way I structure them and conceive their taste – assertive yet light – but it is all in my biography if you consult it: the fact that I am Italian, an Italian in Piedmont, the years spent in France.
If not zen, how then would you define Enrico Crippa’s cuisine?
As I have always wanted it to be: fun yet neat, delicious and attractive. What I try to achieve is transparency, that is to say, a cuisine that has close ties with our surroundings – the season, the terroir. I prefer to seek out a long-forgotten vegetable or fruit rather than a new technique or some physical or chemical concoction.
How does the clientele change when the stars increase?
With three stars, customers are extremely demanding and plan their visit months ahead. However, as far as I am concerned, I have three stars on the menu but not in my head: when you achieve them, you tend to slow down and lose your creative drive. I am consumed by stress and this probably does me no good but I never want to hear anyone say that the Piazza Duomo has lost its verve. I prefer to go on thinking I have not yet achieved them. Or I like to imagine there is going to be a fourth.
Do you notice any peculiarities characterizing customers of different nationalities?
Many. The French have dining out in their DNA. Scandinavians are open-minded and well informed; they stand out for the intelligent way in which they approach food and they study hard. Americans possess the gift of making you feel at ease: for them, it is always a pleasure to dine in your restaurant. There are also differences in tastes. Italians love sour and bitter flavours, unlike the French. The Asian world is sweet and sour and the Japanese have difficulty in relating to dishes that are excessively savoury, such as my agnolotti pasta with truffle fondue which irks them. Scandinavians are more open to cold tastes and the use of fermentation.
Of your many experiences, which have made you the chef you are today?
The Hotel Martinez in Cannes made me realize the significance of my profession. Gualtiero Marchesi was the first chef to approach topics other than food, to tell us we could talk intelligently about culture and art, and be elegant. The protagonists of avant-garde Spanish cuisine, on the other hand, made us understand that as chefs we could be free of the impositions laid down by the French school. However, what counts most is how much you wish to resemble someone, rather than what that person has taught you.
Your vegetable garden is almost legendary. How many varieties grow in it now?
We have one on the Ceretto estate, in the area of San Cassiano (Alba), and another in Barolo. Last June, we counted 131 plant varieties comprising herbs, salads and flowers, plus about fifty varieties of fruit and vegetables. Most of our dishes are closely associated with nature and a philosophy based on locally grown produce, of which 70% are plants and 30% proteins. It would not have been respectful towards the tradition of this land, which has welcomed and nurtured me, to eliminate such dishes as veal in tuna sauce or Alba-style raw beef. However, it is easier to be creative with vegetables.
Which season do you prefer?
Winter is the most beautiful and colourful season: you have red and white turnips, red and white cardoons, cabbage and kale, pumpkins, figs, mushrooms… The worst time is the transition between winter and spring. People are restless and seek change, and the same thing happens on the land.
Before they invent a fourth star, what lies ahead for Enrico Crippa?
Part of me cannot wait to have time to relax and enjoy all the things I was unable to enjoy before. It would be nice not to be constantly caught up in things and in a rush. When I do stop, I know it will be for good.