Located in Japan’s culinary and cultural heartland, Japan's former imperial capital, Kyoto, THE RITZ-CARLTON, KYOTO, La Locanda offers world-class fine dining with a thrilling, innovative, contemporary luxury Italian cuisine created by the passionate, mercurial, master chef Valentino Palmisano.
Chef Palmisano's culinary history spans continents. He has worked at a host of Michelin-starred restaurants - boasting 12 étoiles in total - in locations as diverse as Paris, Milan, St Moritz, Naples, Amalfi, Shanghai, and now, here in Kyoto. His colleagues, mentors and friends are some of the most famous culinary names in the world. An éminence grise? Far from it, he is just 35 years old. Clearly this is is no ordinary chef. But who is Valentino Palmisano?
everything can be a new emotion, a new discovery. i have no limits. i am ready to try everything.
I am a Napolitano, an Italian, but I am also a citizen of the World. I come from the past but I live and create here and now, in the present, in Kyoto.
He laughs, and takes up his own tale.
“I always say the same thing the as famous actress, Sophia Loren said in her interviews. I am first and foremost, from Naples. A Napolitano. My heritage, my roots, my influences, my tastes, everything is bound up that city, but I do not let myself be limited by my past. Nor do I forget it. If I can find the best ingredient and it is from Italy, and it is from Napoli of course I will choose it!" More laughter.
The experiences of the young chef outside his native city, then in France and Switzerland added skills and dishes to his repertoire but it was the move to Asia – prompted primarily by affairs not gastronomic, but of the heart, he admits – that proved the most decisive shift in his development as a top-flight chef. “It taught me there is no ‘best way’, just ‘different ways’.
Going out and discovering the world, I also could discover myself. I looked back to where I have come from, what made me. By leaving Napoli, I could see anew how valuable its traditions were, and remain, in my life. I could see the goodness. These dualities of then and now, here and there, what was and what will be, what is precious and what must be preserved, are key to my philosophy here at La Locanda”.
No one is more serious or passionate about the creation of fine cuisine as Chef Valentino Palmisano. Few are as knowledgeable. Yet the young Neapolitan master chef wears his erudition lightly, praises his gifted team of professionals rather than boasting of his own prowess, “I am not a one man show”, and he speaks carefully, thoughtfully when talking about his beloved métier.
“Italian cuisine is simple, easy to understand. You know what you are eating. So too, is my philosophy. It’s something like this. When you come to an Italian restaurant you want to eat Italian food. Not fusion, not French. There is no foie gras on our menu. Italian means Italian. All our dishes are based on traditional Italian recipes. I am a Napolitano, and proud of our heritage. At the same time I am living in this contemporary world. However, it is a world that cannot exist without the past. So,
I try to understand where we are at this moment in history, and evolve tradition to create authentic 21st century Italian dishes, here at La Locanda”.
Simplicity sounds easy. However, the cultivated ‘appearance of simplicity’, as Japanese art, literature and cuisine constantly remind us, is spectacularly difficult. How many thousands of hours went into the making of that seemingly expressionless Noh mask? What truly lies behind the geisha’s smile? What makes the Zen garden so much more than a collection of rocks and sand?
On the face of it Spaghetti di Gragnano con pomodori San Marzano e basilico is about as simple as it gets. Yet for Valentino Palmisano, the deceptively simple-looking ‘Spaghetti Tomato’, as he charmingly terms it, is a key dish in understanding his, and thus the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, La Locanda’s philosophy. “I don’t like to use the phrase ‘signature dish’. All our dishes are signature dishes otherwise they would never arrive on the menu,” the master chef explains with a smile, “but for sure this one is significant. It illustrates, in practice, what we think, and what we are trying to do”.
Spaghetti Tomato is, in essence a humble dish, once found on every genuine Italian restaurant menu, but rapidly falling from popularity in an era when chefs fall over themselves in an efforts to impress with ever more exotic menu items and treatments. Palmisano immediately knew he wanted to put it on the menu, for it was one of the great tastes of his Neapolitan childhood. The question was how to do so in a way that is creative, contemporary, smart.
“If you Google ‘Spaghetti Tomato’, you will almost certainly see white pasta topped with red tomato,” states the Chef. “We don’t do that way in Naples. In fact, my mother would kill you if you served it that way. She still cooks it the traditional way, partly boiling the pasta then cooking it in the sauce. It is creamy, so delicious. I wanted that taste, but with an appearance of red on white, a kind of visual sleight of hand.
Palmisano and his team came up with a brilliant solution. They slowly, painstakingly, extract colorless tomato essence from the finest Italian tomatoes, and then cook the pasta – they sampled 24 varieties before finally choosing Napoli’s famed Gragnano spaghetti – in the clear fluid. Palmisano adds a few sweet tomatoes to balance out the pasta’s acidity and complete the picture. “Allora! I love to watch the customers’ reactions when they experience the deep rich taste, but with only white pasta and a few tomatoes. It is a beautiful illusion.”
This city of Emperors, art, Buddhism and culinary excellence sans pareil, is the perfect place for Palmisano to work his food magic. “Kyoto is a kind of paradise for me. We never have to decide what to cook. The seasons tell us what to cook. And there are so many fantastic ingredients, especially the vegetables. We choose only the very best of the best. I feel like a kid with the keys to the toy store”. Palmisano and his team will go to any lengths to source the finest ingredients, a quest that takes them far beyond the city, and indeed country’s borders.
“Our goal at the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, La Locanda is to let you find Italy in every single detail,” he explains, and for this research is the key. For example, although I love it, I won’t use Kobe Beef in our dishes. I consider it too sweet, too fatty, and too meaty for our needs, and most importantly, this kind of meat does not exist in Italy.
We don’t have it. I wanted to find a Japanese beef as close as possible to the wonderful Piedmontese Fassona. It took us a year of research, but finally, in the mountains North of Tokyo, we discovered the red cattle known as Jyosyu Beef. It is perfect. Our guests marvel at its succulent tenderness. It is something they have never tasted before.”
Valentino Palmisano is a man on a mission. He takes age-old traditional Italian recipes and breathes into them a new life, one of innovation, delight and glorious taste. “My guests sit at the table and expect fantastic food in beautiful surroundings. That is normal. But I want to give them more. I want to present them with emotion and memory. It is hard to explain in words, so you must come and eat. The dishes, they never lie.”
And with that, the Neapolitan maestro returns to his kitchen to create another dish born from the past, existing so perfectly, uniquely in the here-and-now. The Zen masters would approve. Buono appetito, Kyoto!
Ritz-Carlton Kyoto La Locanda – リッツ・カールトン京都・ラ・ロカンダ
Kamogawa Nijo Ohashi Hotori, Nakagyo-ku.
Tel: 746 5555. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/japan/kyoto
Meals served 11.30am to 2.30pm and 5.30pm to 9.30pm.
Open every day.
Fixed-price lunch menus: from ¥5,500 to ¥8,500.
Fixed-price dinner menus: from ¥10,000 to ¥16,000.
Credit cards accepted.
The interview above appears with the kind permission and assistance of the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. All photos copyright the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto.