An eclectic chef capable of reinventing himself at every turn, Simone Cipriani boasts a long and varied career, an entertaining approach to television, famous without being a star. His latest adventure embraces the hotel industry for the first time. He struck a deal with the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi in Florence: starting with the rooftop service for aperitifs during the summer, and then taking care of the food preparation, he also quietly opened Ground, the restaurant on the ground floor. Essenziale restaurant is scheduled to reopen in September, and a new program on the Gambero Rosso Channel will get underway. There were so many news that needed to be discussed and talked about.
Adventures never end. After your experience with the Fac project at Eataly, you opened Ground at the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi: where did this idea come from?
Our temporary restaurant inside Eataly was a truly formative experience. It happened in a quiet moment in which I needed to show another side of me and my cuisine, the one linked to the tradition. The collaboration with the Plaza started at a totally different time. It was April, and the only certain thing was the government statement that did not allow restaurants to reopen before June and, when we could, it was limited to lunch hours. Essenziale has always been opened only for dinner. Therefore, after a moment of despair, my partner Massimiliano and I have been looking around for something alternative, temporary or otherwise, that would allow outdoor dining.
And how was the meeting with the Plaza?
We had already worked with the Plaza in the past and talking to their Food & Beverage Manager Gabriele Frongia we came up with the idea of doing something on their terrace. Negotiations went ahead and, thanks to the owner’s and manager’s willingness, we reached an agreement whereby we would not only take care of the terrace, but gradually of the hotel food preparation as well.
So, you now have two different lines, one for the terrace and one for the restaurant. What are the differences?
The challenge was and is exactly that. A hotel has different needs in terms of offer and service compared to a restaurant, and it was necessary to create an offer consistent with the philosophy of Essenziale. Here, the task was to meet the demands of internal customers and to attract external customers, so that they would find something different at Essenziale and at the same time consistent with our thinking and way of working. Fortunately, in a hotel there is ample room and the areas are well defined. On the terrace we set up a small outdoor kitchen with a Yakitori grill and a refrigerated counter, which enabled us to provide an independent and fast service. The terrace has a à la carte menu in tapas version, including a selection of raw, cold dishes and grilled skewers, where the dishes accompany the cocktails, since the actual dinner is at the Ground on the ground floor.
And what is your proposal like at the Ground?
The Ground offers an 'Essential' style six-course tasting menu; few high-quality ingredients, a flawless food presentation and cooking for a fun, light, relaxing menu. The à la carte menu is more traditional, designed to meet the needs of hotel guests, but also of those who want to grab a quick, tasty and healthy bite.
Essenziale is reopening on 21 September. This place has become your home, where you experiment, create and then carry around the various experiences. What's new for the next season?
I'm working on it day and night. I have many ideas, but I don't want to throw them out straight away, I'm growing and becoming more than a chef. Essential is home, it has to be for me, my team and those who visit us. There are many parallel projects taking shape, therefore I need to be careful and sure when choosing the personnel, menu and other changes.
Gone are the days when I was alone in the kitchen and changed the menu on a daily basis. Now every dish has to be thought out, tried and rehearsed so that it can be prepared at its best even without me. I can't wait to reopen and see Essenziale alive again. I miss it a lot and at the same time
I am afraid of having to deal with different situations. Luckily, I know I can trust my team and Daniele Lambruschi, as chef de cuisine at the Plaza Hotel.
It is a time when staff shortage is a current issue. You have created a great deal of understanding between the dining room and the chefs, so much so that they often carry the plates to the customers. What do you think about service in the future?
Our service is definitely a key point. It succumbs to any staffing problems, where people are trained to be flexible by looking beyond their job description. Those who have worked at Essenziale are not only chefs, they are restaurateurs, yet the lack of charismatic and competent sommeliers and dining room managers is glaring. It is easier to teach a cook to be passionate about the dining room than to find young people who are passionate about wine and hospitality.
Which is the weak point?
What is missing is the role awareness. Whoever is in the dining room should be the "landlord", feeling it as his/her own space. They should have a predisposition to socialise and get to know the customers, tell them about the restaurant’s philosophy and bring out their character. This is not trivial at all.
What will be the food trends? And what do you find today that has caught on?
Haute cuisine is always following fads, even when it tries not to. Alain Ducasse is working on vegetables and fermentation, and those who looked down on Adrià's cuisine unwittingly ended up using his technique. At the moment there are no great influences or currents of thought to follow, and perhaps that's a good thing. When there isn't a single fad, they look back at what they have learnt and then create their own cuisine that embraces the teachings received, detached from their own creativity and thinking.
In Italy we are finally talking again about tradition, gastronomic culture and trattoria. When I started out, the trattoria was unpopular, associated with low quality and professionalism, just to mention the exclamation "here we are not in a trattoria!", whereas now it is becoming a cult and a trend. More and more young chefs are taking an interest in tradition, having the awareness that there is also something else and, with the knowledge of modern techniques, tradition can be innovation, thus satisfying both cooks and customers. If we think about it, traditional cuisine is the only trend that never gets old, a sought-after cuisine that identifies our country and our history.
L'appartam3nto is doing very well on the Gambero Rosso Channel. What do you like about it and what are your plans for the future?
L'appartam3nto was recorded during the pandemic, it kept me company and it kept many people company. But the third season closed a cycle of my life and that of Buba, my partner in crime who moved to Canada to open a wine shop. In September a new format with the title "AC/DS: A Casa Di Simo" will be released: three recipes for each episode at a rock rhythm, with a young and fresh language where I will not only prepare recipes, but also drinks to pair with.
by Leonardo Romanelli