Foodie Confidential: Remembering Grandpa

Before chef Marco de Vincentis enrolled in culinary school, he received quite an education in his late grandfather's restaurant in southern Italy's Amalfi Coast.

From the age of 12, he rushed to the restaurant after school to help out in the kitchen instead of playing football.

He recalls: "It was more than a job. It was an eye-opener to see how a professional kitchen was organised and I always remember the look of passion on my grandfather's face when he was working in the kitchen."

Chef de Vincentis, who is from Naples, helped mix sauces and knead pasta dough for spaghetti and ravioli, and observed how his grandfather whipped up dishes such as seafood linguine and Branzino all'Acqua Pazza (boiled seabass with black olives, capers and tomatoes).

But the chef, who is the middle child, regrets that he never got to cook with his grandfather.

Now 38, the chef de cuisine of The Waterfall in Shangri-La Hotel says: "Back then, I was not ready to be near the stove and my grandfather never asked."

His grandfather died from cancer at 64, after he graduated from culinary school about 15 years ago.

However, chef de Vincentis is keeping his grandfather's legacy alive by cooking some of the latter's signature dishes, such as seafood linguine, in The Waterfall, which serves southern Italian fare.

The 92-seat restaurant was revamped from a Mediterranean restaurant two months ago.

Chef de Vincentis notes that southern Italian fare is lighter and healthier - compared with the "buttery and creamy" dishes from the north - and that its trademarks are the huge amounts of extra virgin olive oil and vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant and tomato.

Prior to his stint here, he worked in The Four Seasons Milano under Michelin-starred Italian chef Sergio Mei, The Relais & Chateaux Hotel in Monte Carlo and headed La Cucina, an Italian restaurant in Saudi Arabia's Al Faisaliah Hotel.

He is divorced with two sons aged 12 and seven.

What is your favourite dish to cook?

Branzino all'Acqua Pazza. I also like eating this dish my grandfather used to cook.

It consists of seabass boiled with cherry tomatoes, capers, black olives, lemon zest and olive oil. I like that this dish gives different bursts of flavours with every bite.

What are your favourite ingredients?

Extra virgin olive oil, basil and tomatoes. I always remember the fresh fragrance of basil in my house whenever my grandfather or mother cooked.

Extra virgin olive oil is important as I use it as an alternative to butter in my dishes.

What are your childhood memories of food?

My mum's baked pasta with meatballs, boiled eggs, tomatoes and eggplant - she would top the dish with Parmesan cheese and bake it for 25 minutes, so the dough becomes crispy.

I remember my grandfather for his dish of pasta with fish and langoustine. The pasta was made from a very flavourful Semolina flour from a now-defunct family-run flour company.

When did you start cooking at home?

At 16, after I entered culinary school. I split the cooking load for a family Christmas dinner with my mother by cooking ravioli with ricotta, spinach and diced tomato with basil leaves as well as baking a cake.

What was the first dish you learnt to cook in culinary school?

A "white" version of lasagne, which does not have the classic tomato or bolognese sauce.

It is made of bechamel sauce, black forest ham, porcini mushrooms, Fontina and Parmesan cheeses. This dish is a favourite among my loved ones and is not common in Naples.

Which chef do you look up to most?

Chef Igles Corelli of Locanda Delle Tamerici, a restaurant in La Spezia, Italy.

He is creative with his ingredients and cooks spontaneously. His dish of shrimps, zucchini with olive oil and basil leaves is unbelievable. He taught me which ingredients would taste best in different seasons.

What is your worst kitchen disaster?

When I was 20 and cooking for a banquet attended by 350 people.

I was inexperienced and could not determine if a fish was cooked or not, so I sent out seafood platters with uncooked seabass and snapper. I was so upset with myself that I cried for three days.

What do you have to eat when you return to Italy?

I return to Italy once every two years. The first dishes I try would be my mother's baked pasta and a margherita pizza with rocket, arugula leaves and Parmesan cheese at a pizzeria in Bologna called Pulcinella.

Which Italian foods do you hope that diners can know more about?

Italian meats, such as lambs from Tuscany and Umbria in Central Italy. The Fiorentina or T-bone steak from cows, such as Chianina cows from Tuscany, has high fat content and is flavoured with herbs that the cows feed on. Meats from Fassone cows from Piedmont have a light taste and soft texture.

How do you gauge the standard of an Italian restaurant?

I will look out for two things: First, the pasta has to be al dente. Also, I like to order beef steak done medium rare. It is difficult get that level of doneness right. It is always either too much on the medium or rare side.

Do you cook at home these days?

No. I spend 90 per cent of my time in the restaurant. In the remaining 10 per cent, I like to go sightseeing in Marina Bay and Sentosa. If you could pick anyone to have a meal with, who would you pick?

My late grandfather because I did not have the chance to cook for him. I would cook the same dishes I learnt from him, such as seafood stew, and get his feedback.

This article was first published on April 26, 2015.
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