From Salò, where he was born, to Paris, in the very prestigious kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurant Le George. Humbly, with great respect for the fruits of the earth and appreciation for other cultures, Chef Simone Zanoni has become a major world player of Italian cuisine for an environmentally conscious future against all excesses. Let us be inspired by his vision…
You were head of the Jury at the French Pizza Championship for the Pizza Duo Category. In your opinion, what is the secret for success for two-manned teams in a world where it’s usually individuals who vie for victory? What role does each member of the team play?
Simone Zanoni: The pizza duo is composed of two professionals, a pizza maker and a chef. Out of all the candidates, we selected those who seemed to get along the best. Obviously, working as a team means you have to set your ego aside; with this understanding, a pizza maker and a chef can enhance each other’s work. It is all about the union of two passionate minds; it is interesting to see how these two usually separate crafts come together. The lads who won the Championnat de France in the Pizza Duo category won in the same category at the Parma Championship! It was gratifying, because we chose the winning team, whose collaboration turned out to be perfect. Last year too, the team who won the Parizza took second place at the Parma Championship; we obviously know how to pick them.
For us, eternally bound to the world of sports, team spirit and fair play, these are essential factors when it comes to competitions. Are these also part of your criteria in competition? What else do you look for?
S. Z.: Absolutely. The competition had some very good individual chefs and pizza makers who did not work well together. If either member of the team tries to overdo it, balance is lost. We were looking exactly for this kind of harmony in the taste and flavour of the pizza; the chef succeeded in enhancing the pizza without making it heavier or overly complex.
We would like you to tell us a little bit more about the philosophy of your cuisine, which we know is based on local and seasonal products and is careful about not being wasteful. How did you manage to balance your devotion to sustainability with the perfect standards demanded by high cuisine? Do you use any special methods or technologies?
S. Z.: Chefs nowadays must have a global vision and do a lot of research. Understanding good products and making good dishes is not enough. We must be responsible towards Mother Earth and her fruits; we are all in it together and we need to realize that we must be more eco-sustainable. We need to produce less but with more quality. Doing something about it is very important; my team and I cultivate a vegetable garden and recycle food waste on a regular basis. For example, we recycle coffee and no longer buy bottled water; we filter it from the faucet. Business should be done differently, closer to nature. It is certainly not easy to adapt this trend to the luxury of a Paris Palace, so we make use of many start-ups that are going in the right direction and offering interesting solutions and inventions. For example, one of these start-ups grows mushrooms out of recycled coffee. We prefer these solutions that are based on recycling and the respect for nature.
Do you believe that traditional restaurants can do the same? They are usually very concerned with keeping costs down.
S. Z.: As far as this particular issue, we are still free to choose, but we won’t be in ten years’ time; we will have to do it by law then, like what happened with smoking in bars and restaurants and driving under the influence of alcohol. There will be more legal restrictions on how food is produced and consumed. The rules will be a lot stricter in the next 15 to 20 years and some practices that are still tolerated today will be eradicated. This is the only way for a society to regulate itself. Todays’ consumerism is not well regulated either, but over time people will realize how dreadfully damaging this lifestyle is to society and our planet. It will be fundamental to produce less, because the problem is not recycling but overproduction. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do in many countries. Environmental consciousness is not a top priority for the Government, but it will be one day, and laws and inspections will be much stricter. Things are changing; society must make radical changes when it comes to this way of producing things.
Tell us about your relationship with pizza. How do you make it? How do you eat it? How did your association with the French Pizza Championship have its start?
S. Z.: Being Italian, I grew up with pizza, coffee and tomato; it is only natural that I feel an emotional connection to these products. Later, I separated from them, when I went to France and England. However, I realized that this passion for pizza is also very important outside Italy, although the quality does not always live up to my memories. When I got to Versailles, the place had little to offer, so the only way to keep up the tradition of eating pizza on Sunday night was to open my very own pizzeria. That is when I started being interested in pizza to a more professional degree. I started working with Galbani and thanks to them I got involved in the Championship, as an ambassador of Italian cuisine in Paris; it was natural for me to be part of the contest. Pizza has always been a lure. Due to my production needs and consciousness for the environment, I came to the conclusion that a wood burning oven would not work for me. I think that today’s electric ovens can perform very well and are much easier to use, with more uniform results than wood burning ovens, especially when you have to deal with a less experienced crew.
Whether you are a company or an individual, being a professional means having an international outlook. What “cultural differences” have you noticed? Anything that stands out?
S. Z.: Well, there are very clear cultural differences, especially between North and South America. I’m talking about a character difference. I feel close to the passionate cultures of Latin America, less precise living but more intense. I also lived in London and New York, and I see many differences there too. In any case, we should keep in mind that any country is good for personal development; you need to understand the culture you are in and follow along, including with the way of doing business. You need to assimilate. With this attitude, it wasn’t hard for me to adapt to local ingredients and embrace whatever the place had to offer. Up north, I found very tasty products that I learned to use to great advantage; I avoid import products as a principle. These challenges helped me develop.
In your vision, will the old and tired media narratives blabbering on about “tradition vs innovation” and “local vs global” be replaced with new dichotomies?
S. Z.: I guess I could predict “homemade” vs “ready-made”. I don’t see that we have enough professionals nowadays. The restaurant business is developing but the younger generations are not well trained; they are not eager to learn and want things to come easy to them. This is why there are companies now with practical solutions that make up for this lack of professionals, like making just the pizza dough. Buying pizza dough is a little more expensive but you can spend less on personnel. However, where good quality pizza dough can be found in pizzerias so you can have good pizza, things are a little different in restaurants, because using pre-processed products is removed from the whole “homemade” concept. There is a difference between using a semi-processed product like pre-made dough to simplify work and using processed foods while passing them off for homemade. It’s not easy for consumers to make a distinction, therefore it is important to be transparent, so you can understand the involvement level of the Chef.