To the delight of many and the surprise of some, Italian chef Simone Salvini has taken on the challenge of bringing vegan cuisine to new levels in a land where Prosciutto and Parmigiano reign supreme. The author of a vegan cookbook, Cucina Vegana, for now available only in Italian and published by Mondadori, Salvini’s haute cuisine is made without any animal products or by-products, and easily stands up to the more classic dishes from the Italian culinary tradition.
Born in Florence in 1969, Salvini left his native Tuscany for Milan where he become head chef at Pietro Leemann’s famed restaurant Joia, one of the few vegetarian establishments to earn a Michelin star. And it was once again with Leeman that Salvini founded the Organic Academy, a project to educate and increase awareness about vegan cooking throughout Italy. His aim is to show restaurants and hotels how vegan dishes can be integrated into menus without compromising taste, appearance, or any of the other senses that come into play with the experience of eating.
Your recipes favor simple, traditional ingredients that are easily found at farmer’s markets. What connects vegan cooking with traditional cuisine?
While studying to become a chef I learned a lot about Ayurvedic cuisine, its philosophy is based around a diet in harmony with the environment and season. I absolutely subscribe to this idea and am convinced that it applies to Western cuisine as well. And while Italian cuisine is based around meat and fish, there are lots of Italian dishes made from vegetables and spices. We forget that 50 years ago having fish or meat on the table was rare because many people couldn’t afford them. The so-called “vegan” way of eating is already part of our tradition, we’re just not used to thinking of it from that point of view. People seem to be distrustful or suspicious of vegan cuisine.
Why do you think that is?
I think there are a variety of reasons. On the one hand, we are still connected to the idea that in healthy or vegan cuisine, the presentation of a dish isn’t considered important. People think that natural cuisine isn’t very seductive. And on the other side, many people are judgmental about people who have made these “extreme” choices. Some may feel like these options aren’t available to them for either cultural or economic reasons, and they may feel on the defensive about it. Chefs may also be to blame, as we haven’t managed to create enough appeal. Because, as well all know, there isn’t much appealing about a lettuce and tomato salad.
Vegetarianism and veganism are often mentioned as a solution to the world’s ecological problems. What do you think about this aspect?
While of course I’m interested in things other than cooking and food, I am first and foremost a chef. I don’t feel comfortable taking on the role of a “prophet”, talking about how this kind of cuisine is a universal solution. But having talked at length with doctors, oncologists, economists and philosophers, I do believe that a vegan diet can bring improvements to the lives of people, animals and the environment. I can suggest this, but not force the idea on people. I can put my energy and resources into this idea, but forcing your will onto others is an act of aggression.