The young and passionate Alessandro Cozzolino is the Executive Chef at the beautiful Belmond Villa San Michele in Florence. Originally from Caserta in southern Italy, Alessandro has trained internationally with Michelin-starred chefs, also spending time in Hong Kong, and his food is a combination of daring modern twists and unique ingredient combinations. The Sybarite speaks to Alessandro to learn more about this young chef’s passions, work and his very bright future.
Where did your love of cooking come from?
I’ve always wanted to become a cook from a very young age. I come from a very large family and I loved watching my mother and grandmother cook on the weekends. It intrigued me. I was so happy to give them a hand, it just filled me with joy. There was never a lack of great dinners and delicious food on the table.
How has your cooking style changed over the years?
My cooking style is in continuous evolution. I am attracted by new culinary trends and techniques and I like to train my taste with products of excellence.
Your plates of food look like art pieces! What inspired you to start making such beautiful plates?
I believe that everything that surrounds me is a source of inspiration. I am lucky to live in Florence, a city filled with art, beauty and history in every corner. And I am also lucky to have had the chance to travel and work abroad over the last 15 years- and be influenced and inspired by many different cultures, cooking techniques and ultimately flavours.
Is your first and only love Italian food, or do you have a passion for other cuisines?
After spending 5 years in Asia I certainly have a fondness for Asian cuisine, but Italian food is above all my favourite.
What have been the highlights of your career?
Each and every personal and professional experience has contributed to my professional development. I am proud of every past experience because it’s what makes who I am today. I am also proud of all my dishes because they are all the result of study and research to make the eater the happiest they can be.
What is your favourite part about working at the Belmond Villa San Michele in Florence?
Above all it’s the opportunity to express my concept of cuisine, and my creativity at La Loggia Restaurant. La Loggia, located under the romantic arcades of our hotel – an ancient 15th century monastery overlooking the city of Florence – is an experiential restaurant where we work passionately to offer each of our guests a memorable experience. An experience that combines the magic of being in such a historic location, with the study and realisation of each dish, through to the mise en place and the porcelains, finely selected for their touch of unique contemporary design.
We know you shut your doors for the season from November- March, how do you spend this time? Coming up with exciting new recipes?
I take advantage of the winter months during which we are closed * to come up with new recipes, and new concepts for the various outlets of the hotel. Above all, I dedicate time to widen my horizons – observing and studying new trends and techniques.
*Belmond Villa San Michele will be closing for the season on 1st November 2020.
What makes Belmond properties so unique in your experience?
All Belmond properties are housed in remarkable locations, filled with history, and culture. And each of them offer exceptional experiences… Adventures in taste included! At each property you can uncover the best food of provenance and discover new culinary traditions. At Restaurant La Loggia, at Villa San Michele we are inspired by the beauty and the food of the land that a great region like Tuscany has to offer.
Does where you work inspire what you cook?
Absolutely. I have a strong relationship with local producers and suppliers who play a key role in fostering our creativity. The more the relationship is strong, the more creativity it allows. Nature, through its food of the land, allows us to experiment and explore.
Our location as well is an important source of inspiration for me. Villa San Michele is on the slope of Monte Ceceri , from where the genius Leonardo da Vinci tested his first human flight – this has inspired me to create a special menu based on his essays on gastronomy for our dining experience ‘Leonardo’s Table’. Moreover, from each corner of our beautiful hotel you can spot the Cupola del Brunelleschi… a work by another Renaissance genius that continues to mesmerise generations.
How has your role of executive chef at Belmond changed since the pandemic? Do you feel the effect heavily?
This year has undoubtedly been a peculiar one for all of us. Never in my career would I have thought I would live to see the days when international travel came to a halt. It may have seemed like everything stopped but in fact, it was quite a complete opposite for us. We spent a lot of time during the lockdown to reimagine kitchen operations, dining experience and how we can continue to deliver seamless service for our guests. Our mission was to ensure the experience our guests would receive when we reopened our doors would be as good, if not better than pre-COVID-19. This meant more outdoor dining experiences, elevated in-room dining offers and training support for my team. It has been an extraordinary year but my team and I are overwhelmed by the positive response we have received from our guests since we reopened. This has given us energy to continue what we love and we look forward to brighter times ahead.
Where do you see the Italian hospitality industry heading post-COVID? Do you think it will take a while to recover?
Following our reopening, we’ve revisited our strategy to focus more on domestic clientele and this has been greatly welcomed by those living in Italy. We’ve had a stronger-than-expected summer here at Villa San Michele. This goes to show that although global travel restrictions may have prevented us from exploring further afield, it is evident that these have not dampened our desire to travel. In fact, it may have given many of us the opportunity to explore more of our own “backyard” and supported local hospitality businesses. However, we know that the road to recovery will be long and it will take time for the business to return to pre-COVID level. For now, we will continue to work hard to ensure that when our guests (whether local or international) are ready to visit us we will be ready to provide them with extraordinary experiences.
Do you think the luxury hospitality industry will be forever changed due to the pandemic?
I believe that luxury is personal but I also know that the consumer mindset is also changing. More than ever, consumers will align themselves with brands they can associate their values with. Luxury cannot be purely transactional. It needs to be emotional, conscientious and rewarding. This is something that I think fine-dining scenes have done particularly well over the past few years but we need to do more. Our customers are becoming more and more conscious about their act of consumption – from greater demand for local produce to reducing food waste. We can also do more to help create local and authentic connections with the communities we operate – to help enrich the dining experience for our guests. At Villa San Michele we work closely with local producers – vegetables are local, our fish comes from the Southern coast of Tuscany – named the silver coast, while our finest meats from Valdarno and Maremma. I wanted to highlight this also in the names of our dishes that you can enjoy at La Loggia, for example the amberjack dish ‘Costa d’Argento’ or ‘Maremma che Agnello’, a gently roasted lamb loin.
Have you had to adapt your cooking style due to the pandemic?
Across the portfolio, our food safety and hygiene protocols have been enhanced. We continue to work internally and with third-party experts to reexamine every aspect of our services to ensure that our higher-standards are achieved and upheld. As we already had high levels of standards in place, we didn’t have to adjust our cooking style as much. Operationally we had to consider the elements of social distancing – in the kitchen as well as in the restaurant. We are lucky that our restaurant La Loggia is located outdoors under the arcades of the XVth century monastery which lends itself to a vast space and picturesque scenery. This allows us to provide plenty of space and privacy for our guests, making them feel at ease when dining with us.
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