Two chefs – one a former consultant, the other a one-time beauty PR – are wowing foodies with their high quality Italian cuisine.dives into a tale of two very different kitchens
FAT CHEFS. BUTTER. Low food costs, high mark-ups. The establishment.
These are but a few choice specimens off Andrea Oschetti’s long list of pet peeves. The former supply-chain management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers now works as a private chef, putting heart and positivity back into Italian cooking, but not without a few caveats.
He’s poaching cauliflower as he opines, “One stupid idea that people have is that chefs have to be fat. I will never eat from a fat chef. If a taxi approaches you, and it’s totally destroyed by accidents, would you get into that taxi? No. Would you give your money to a banker, if your banker is bankrupt? No. A chef that is fat is a person who doesn’t know how to eat properly.”
He produces a photo frame. In it, a younger and much stouter Oschetti stands proudly on his wedding day. “It used to be fine. There’s a beautiful New York Times book that has all the articles about cuisine from the beginning of the century. They were eating crazy – 20 steaks at a meat party.
“But I think that’s no longer acceptable. We know the disasters that our parents didn’t know. We know about cancer, atrophisation. And particularly because a lot of people spend money on food, you need to request food that is of quality, and is healing.”
Oschetti is using his unique position as an in-demand private chef to subtly proselytise his vision, discovered during his elaborate journey to the kitchen.
Although he’s worked in restaurants, Oschetti hasn’t had formal training, unless you count taking recipes from grandma’s anthology. And until four years ago, he never even considered that his culinary skills might be useful for anything more than scoring points with the fairer sex – “I think I got my wife to fall in love with me over food,” he beams.
A fortune-teller in Mongkok suggested differently. Oschetti was on a one-year sabbatical from his consulting gig when he was told, “‘You will be a professional cook in one year.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy? Impossible.’”
As is wont to happen with ignored prophecies, the idea began quietly to percolate. A friend who loved his food asked if he would cook for some other friends. Someone at that dinner party asked if he would cater another meal. It took not a year, but three months for him to realise, “All right. I’m a chef.” He didn’t return to the corporate world. He started cooking for people, at their homes or his, under the moniker Cuore Private Chef, taking the Italian term for “heart.”
Somewhere down the line came his Eureka moment: you are what you eat. “If you don’t have technique, just throw in a lot of butter,” he laughs. He adds, self-referentially: “People get it the wrong way around, and when they realise it, it’s so late, they’ve destroyed their bodies.
“People eat bad and then go to the gym to minimise the negative impact. This is not the way to live. I don’t do triathalons because
I need to offset the crap that I eat. I do triathalons because I eat so good that I feel so energetic, my body feels so empowered that I want to do stuff.”
And to prove that his song of sustenance provides ample flavours, too, he removes from the oven a completed cauliflower soufflé, elegantly topping it with a giant seared prawn, which he removes promptly after plating and unceremoniously munches, before feeding a bitten-off end to me with his hands, “Italian-style.” It’s seasoned barely but thoughtfully, a tasteful and tasty companion to the blank canvas of cauliflower, which provides texture and creaminess.
A second dish is a simple store-bought spaghetti, twirled in a purée of sun-dried tomatoes and basil, then sprinkled with imported powdered bottarga, a roe from grey mullet.
This mix of high-low ingredients has found favour in fashion, but is oft-ignored in gastronomy – especially in Hong Kong, where caviars and truffles and foie gras are thrown into arranged marriages more for show than flavour. Oschetti is hardly ashamed that his pasta can be found at your local ParknShop – other high-ticket ingredients make up for the difference, and having been a guest in a few kitchens around town, he knows the dirty little secret of the restaurant business: “Culinary capital?” He scoffs. “Maybe of South Guangdong. It’s one of the worst places for value for money. They’re taking the piss, making fun of you. It’s one of the lowest places for food cost. We pay so much money but we don’t get anything in return.”
Except butter, of course. For a lot less in cash – and a lot more in fibre, folate and vitamin C – you can get heads and heads of that creamy white vegetable. “Cauliflower is sexy,” he asserts. “That’s your quote.”
Lana oliveiro didn’t need a fortune-teller to predict her career path. She is one, though that didn’t stop her from having something of a multiple-personality employment history. Originally an in-house publicrelations executive for a beauty brand, she later took up an apprenticeship with a Chinese fortune-teller to learn the trade, before finally giving her nights up to culinary pursuits.
For a decade until 2010, she was a vegetarian, until a doctor urged her to begin eating meat again for health reasons. Even before then, she’d been an avid cook, “but I couldn’t really cook for friends, and it’s kind of boring to cook for yourself.”
Although the animal-lover in her still feels an internal struggle, she decided to make the best of a bad situation by throwing herself into her new hobby: hosting daily dinner parties. “When I started, it was nine of my friends and one of them brought someone. And then it was half and half. And one day, I was just…how come I don’t know any of you? Where did you guys come from?”
Frequent diners began to chip in for food costs – “they felt bad for eating over all the time” – and then one day, the phone number for her “private kitchen” appeared on the restaurant-review site Openrice, along with photos someone had taken of dishes. “People started calling me, and I figured, since I’m cooking for strangers already, I might as well [take bookings, too.] Someone made a Facebook page for my place, and I thought, how dare you! It should be me doing it, and so I did my own page.”
Eventually, she had to stop operating out of her home, and now her licensed restaurant, Uno Duo Trio, takes up a discreet space in Bartlock Centre in Causeway Bay, a building mostly inhabited by local bars and karaoke joints. Fancy it’s not, accommodating fewer than 30 patrons, but the home-spun philosophy and rustic charm – applied to dishes such as scrambled eggs healthily smothered in shaved truffle or cool and creamy burrata – have won fans among the notoriously difficult to please food-blogger crowd, without creating so much noise that excessive hype has ruined the experience (sorry, Yardbird).
Her food costs, like Oschetti’s, aren’t particularly thrift-conscious. Although dry items are sourced from suppliers, others – such as that aforementioned burrata, as well as a rainbow variety of tomatoes and balsamic vinegar that’s reduced on-site – are mailed to her by friendly connections in Italy. Oliveiro is exploring the idea of expanding the premises to include a small shop corner, plying some of these items alongside fresh homemade pastas, tomato passata, and gelati.
What patrons won’t be able to buy is her secret pasta-dough recipe, the same one used in her gamberi rossi di Sicilia al mandilli de saea – pasta with red Sicilian prawns. “Homemade pasta is great for absorbing sauces, but the downside with most is that they’re quite soft. The secret recipe I have is quite bouncy and chewy. The Sicilian red prawns, we put in kilos and kilos to make this prawn stock – it’s pretty much a prawn paste, we put so much in it. Each portion may look like it’s only got one prawn on it, but there’s actually many more that have gone into the making, we put them in whole.”
For someone who claims to love the beauty industry (and at one point in her teens even competed in a beauty pageant, though only at the behest of her mother, she moans), Oliveiro isn’t really that concerned with appearances, so you can believe what you will about the number of prawns you’re actually having. In fact, if she had her way, she’d rather serve you a piping-hot blob-ona-plate.
“If you want to get a Michelin star, you need to play by the rules. You can’t be truly ‘Italian’ about it because that means just throwing everything in a pile on the plate. I don’t do the decorative thing, and I don’t build a tower on my plate. I just want my dishes to come out steaming hot, that’s all I care about. But if you want a Michelin star, you have to play by French rules. And if you play by their rules, you have to give something away.”
It’s evident that Oliveiro is willing to give up precious little, unless you count her free time. Although her cooking evinces maturity, her attitude still holds something of that youthful naivety, of the ilk that allows her to believe she can have it all (and eat it, too). So in the day, while her staff busy themselves preparing for the nightly two seatings – an ambitious endeavour which few private kitchens bother to attempt – she continues to take fortunetelling engagements, even if it sometimes means asking clients to come to the restaurant.
But her dual passions have afforded her at least one moment of clarity: “When you look at my birth time and date [the “eight words” by which your life is determined, according to Chinese fortune-telling], the only element that I’m missing is fire. That’s why I need to be behind the stove, and it’s good for me. If I did something else, I might be good at it, but I wouldn’t get the same satisfaction. It’s my natural habitat.”
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