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Fish with Italian Flourish: Interview with Michelin-starred chef Mauro Uliassi - JPlus Lifestyle SupplementText by KindraCooper; Photos courtesy of Hotel Mulia Acclaimed “seafood maestro” Mauro Uliassi’s two Michelin star restaurant in Senigallia, Italy was just a wooden hut when it opened in 1990.
Today, despite the accolades and fine tableware, Ristorante Uliassi still retains its clapboard quaintness, with awnings painted bright blue and striped deck chairs out front. Uliassi himself approaches cuisine and life with the same simplicity.
“In the restaurant, you have waiters, chefs, beautiful glasses and precious cutlery. And the dishes cost a lot of money [to make]. But food is food,” says the award-winning chef, who will be bringing his haute cuisine repertoire to street food at next year’s World Street Food Congress. Selling paper-wrapped prosciutto and piadina consumed curbside for just five Euros is Uliassi’s way of reconvening with “his people” – like if football legend Pelé were to scrimmage with kids in the park.
“You can touch the soul of people; you can live in the middle of the people. People are passionate when we go on the road because for the first time they can see a professional team in action.”
However, the five and seven course affair Uliassi recently presented at Hotel Mulia’s Il Mare Italian restaurant for an exclusive two days was a far cry from street food. Replete with seafood and intriguingly, fruity, oriental flavors, the dishes had an unexpectedness that fed the curiosity as much as the appetite. The meal opened with a smattering of a dish comprising “San Remo” red shrimps, briny like sea spray, in a viscous lemon jelly that capped the tanginess nicely. Tiny watermelon cubes heaped with cardamom in the periphery seemed only an aesthetic flourish – if not just for the sake of rounding out the palette of salty and sour with bitter and sweet.
Oozy, silken textures to prep the palate continued into the second starter – yellow tail Carpaccio in tomato “agretto” and langoustine that melded smoky and sour. The third course saw Uliassi spread his wings with a hearty fish soup – his signature – that was brought to the table in the glass jar in which it had been slow-cooked over a low fire. “Please take a moment to appreciate the fragrance of the soup before setting the shells aside in thejar,” read the chef’s accompanying note.
Waiters dispensed the mixture into bowls upon serving, allowing the Thai curry-like odor – a blend of basil, celery, onion and lemongrass – to supply an effusive foretaste.While red snapper, baby squid and prawn are bountiful near Uliassi’s seaside establishment in Senigallia, the soup’s quintessential flavor attributes influences from across the pond. “I love a lot Asia and the flavorsof Asia, the smell of Asia in our food. [We like to use] lemongrass, mint, cardamom, lime.”
Similar to cooking en papillote, the jar seals aromas and flavors, while heating at just 80 degrees Fahrenheit allows each ingredient to express its full profile. “When you cook something over a fire, all the textures, flavors and smells of different ingredients mix together and change completely their identity. And it becomes another thing – fantastic, but another thing.”
Uliassi and team take a three-month sabbatical every year – December 27 until the last weekend in March – to travel and collaborate with culinary bigwigs the likes of Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià. They then cloister in the kitchen for forty days to “brainstorm” – or, what the metaphor-proficient chef calls “brain sailing – because your mind goes where the wind takes you. Brainstorming is like a tempest.”
His favorite metaphor: “Cooking is very, very close with making love. All five senses are involved,” says Uliassi, who most relishes “reading the pleasure” in his guests’ faces – clearly not just the idealism of an infatuated craftsman.
Dish number four, reinterpreted black ink “strigoli” (thick, tube-like pasta infused with squid ink) draws flavor solely from the juices of the baby squid it’s served with, cooked so delicately the silken, almost creamy meat aptly substitutes sauce.
Most representative of the chef’s Asian forays would be the fifth course of roasted goose with a cherry tea, pineapple and lime lacquer so refreshing it was crucial to let each mouthful linger before chewing. “This goose is classic goose but with the flavor of mint and lime that are typical flavors of Asia. And the lacquer tea is Chinese,” he explains.
The seven-course feast closes with a deconstructed tiramisu– inspired, perhaps, by Uliassi’s idol, Ferran Adrià, who is famed for this approach –with the mascarpone and chocolate ice cream served in blobs with the biscuit on top.
“When you learn blues, jazz, classical music and you can play the guitar, piano, sax, then when you want to play something for you – no problem,” Uliassi says of expanding one’s repertoire. “For a professional cook, it’s the same. We can play with the food in every way.”