Luca Fantin cooks Italian fare with Japanese ingredients. *Cue gasps of shock and horror*
To those who still think that authentic flavours can only be created using produce flown from the cuisine’s country of origin, Fantin’s response would be: tomay-to, tomah-to. “You take Japanese tomatoes, olive oil made in Japan, salt made in Japan, basil grown in Japan, and you put them together. If you close your eyes and eat it, you’ll think you are in Italy,” says the executive chef of Bvlgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin in Ginza, Tokyo.
“It doesn’t matter if the ingredients are grown in Italy or Japan. The important thing is the flavour, and the memory of the dish that connects me to a taste of home.”
His dishes are deceptively simple, even if at times laced with decadent ingredients like caviar – a nod to the luxury brand he works for. But the base of all his dishes are strictly traditional. Peek into his kitchen and you’ll find pots of chicken and veal stock, as well as bottles of tangy vinaigrettes, made in classic Italian fashion. A dish of chilled squid ink pasta stops short of being overly-rich, thanks to the light scallop consommé it is cooked in. For dessert, a classic tiramisu – where the mascarpone cream is whipped to a light-as-air texture.
At 39, Fantin has led restaurants to starred-statuses and put them on the list of best restaurants in the world. Yet the Treviso-born chef carries no airs, and is ready to share a laugh at his own expense. During our interview at JAAN, where he held a four-hands dinner with chef Kirk Westaway in mid-September, he regales stories of how he couldn’t tell salt from sugar in the supermarkets when he first moved to Tokyo in the autumn of 2009; how he struggled to feed himself with chopsticks; and how he had to resort to eating at McDonalds when he first moved to Japan – only the second time he has done so in his life, and hopefully the last.
“I don’t like it,” he says, making a face. “The system is very organised, but the product is, uh, terrible.”
Not unexpectedly, there is a certain emphasis on healthfulness in his cuisine, and the dedicated father of three is even working on is how to make nourishing food for kids. His inspiration — his family doctor, 66-year-old Hiroshi Takashi, whom Fantin names as the one person who intrigues him most. “He’s a doctor, studied medicine, but is now studying how to cure your body without medicine,” Fantin enthuses.
“The system is very organised, but the product is, uh, terrible.”
– Chef Luca Fantin, who has only been to McDonald’s twice in his life
He raves about Takashi’s healing soup made from all parts of vegetables, but admits that it is an uphill battle at home. “My son sometimes asks if he can have a French fry. I never make French fries for him, why does he know (what it is)? Why is he addicted to this?” he says in exasperation. “Why doesn’t he say: ‘I want to eat steamed broccoli’?” questions the chef with a comical look.
In that respect, feeding his diners is a much easier task, for they lap up whatever he serves.
These days, Fantin’s audience is even larger, with the opening of iL Ristorante de Fantin in Bvlgari Resort Bali in 2017. The intimate 36-seater serves a menu that is fresher and lighter than its Tokyo sister, says Fantin who shuttles between the two. “Trying to use local Balinese produce in our kitchen is still complicated,” he shares, commenting on the challenges he faces to keep to his local-ingredients mantra. “They have great local produce, and we have found many good farmers, but distribution is difficult – it’s hard for them to deliver to the resort.”
Still, Fantin isn’t about to give up trying. At the Balinese restaurant, they make their own honey, a “very floral” liquid amber that is drizzled over local fruits such as fresh coconut, mangos and small bananas. And at the back of the venue, you will find a garden. A small space, but one laden with the fruits of the team’s labour: eggplants, zucchini flowers, and, of course, tomatoes.