After our hearty three course lunch at Edsa Shangri-La, Manila's Italian restaurant, Paparazzi, the restaurant's twentysomething Chef de Cuisine sat down with me. Born in Marino nearby Rome, Chef Roberto Cimmino (or 'Robby') studied at Michelangelo Buonarroti in Fiuggi, has worked in restaurants in Rome, Lecco and Portorotondo in Sardinia before moving to China.
The chatty and cheery Italian was excited to share about his hometown and first food experiences in the Philippines (he is not a fan of bagoong, but a huge one of dinakdakan). When I remarked at how young he was to have already been based in different countries as a chef (he started at the age of nineteen), he reveals that his birthday is soon approaching. "26th of July, I'm turning 27," he smiles.
Know more about Paparazzi's young Italian chef and his inspirations behind the new Pranzo Squisito set lunch in this interview.
Chef Roberto Cimmino
How did your interest in food and cooking begin?
I lived with my grandmother at the age of six, because my family was working from morning until night. So my grandmother was just staying at home, and the only things she did was cooking and cleaning. Well, I'm not really good in cleaning, so rather than being a housekeeper, I decided to cook. Plus we had a garden, all the vegetables were there, and doing all these things like going to the wet market, because my grandmother and grandfather know everything and everybody there. I grew up knowing where to get the good things, the right products.
Around maybe twelve or fourteen, I started to try and cook more things. Then I had to choose my career; in Italy studying for that will last for five years. Originally, I wanted to become an I.T. person because I love destroying computers! [laughs] But then I realized that, back then--first, a lot of people took that school. Back home, around ninety four percent of people took that kind of schooling. It was massive! My school was the first five star luxury hotel in Europe in 1909. It's a five year class where we studied culinary, hospitality, dining room, management, marketing--basically everything. I had to start my way from the lowest possible things. Pastry is my first job, in Rome. Then I started growing up, then I realized that it was time for me to do something more. It was too small for me, it was limited. I grew up within the pastries, then I moved into restaurants. I graduated at nineteen, it was August. I graduated then I wanted to go to London, because everybody was going to London. People ask me why, and I say, I don't know. [Laughs] Everyone was just going there. Then a guy contacted me, it was the 22nd of September.
You remember the date!
Yes, that just changed my life. And then he asked me if I wanted to open an Italian restaurant from scratch. I don't even think, I say "Yes! What do I have to do?" And then, "Where is this place?" You know, I was still connecting it to London, then this guy asked me if it were okay for me to go to Shenzhen [China]. I say, "Yeah, fine, no problem. Where is Shenzhen? How far? How many hours from Heathrow [Airport]?" The he told me, "Want to know in hours or in kilometers?" Then I say, "Okay fine, tell me in kilometers." "Fifteen thousand." "Where are you?!" "In China." Eh? [Laughs] Where is China? I had zero clue of what was outside, what was after Greece! Seriously! I had no clue of how people look over there, if there are actually people there. So I said yes.
November 22nd, I was on the plane going to Shenzhen, I arrived on the 24th in the morning, 5 o' clock, I still remember. And the first big things--everything was in Chinese, everything. Even Starbucks. Everything completely in Chinese. Very few foreigners. Then we started. We started the restaurant on 11th of December 2005. It was a small restaurant, then we did big things, and it was good. It lasted quite a long time, and here you go. Given that occasion, that is when I understood what it is that I wanted to do. It really gave me excitement, doing those things. Some people say--well sometimes I say--that it's nice to finish work at 6pm. But I tried. My mother worked for the government, I tried to work at the office. It's boring, it's very boring. [Laughs] I was like, 'Come on, don't you guys want to do something?' I tried work for probably a few days. No. I could not. Waking up at 8 and going home at 6, I had the whole day. It was 6 o clock in the evening, I go to sleep usually at 3. I cannot sleep, I don't know why.
You don't feel sleepy when you wake up early?
No, no. Thanks to the iPhone battery. [Laughs] So that's when I knew that I really wanted to become a chef. I feel pleased doing this. I want to be somebody. I don't want to be somebody who can just cook, and run a restaurant, and nothing else. I'm very aggressive in these things. I always find something to compete for, to fight for. This is me.
Do you still remember the very first dish you cooked that you were proud of?
Yes. The first one was a disaster, so let's skip to the second one! [Laughs] The first one was a rice pudding, and it was to be steamed in the oven but I forgot to put water. So let's forget that first one, and just do the second. The second one, it was winter time. It was winter and pumpkin was many, so I made a risotto. One of my first. Risotto with pumpkin and red wine. Now, on the TV they tell you, chop the pumpkins, sautee... What I did, I cooked the risotto from scratch, I put the raw pumpkins in the risotto so that it's mashed. Stunning! Stunning. I don't know why or how I came up with those things; I just get these chunks, huge chunks of pumpkin and leave it in the rice. I cook it for fifteen minutes. It was really good.
And this was when? How old were you?
That was the first dish I cooked entirely by myself. That was my first one. I still remember how I did it, and who were with me. Thirteen, fourteen? That was my first, first one. My risotto, they're actually really good. Not because of that, but I like them to be cooked nicely. If they're not made well, then you're not going to enjoy. The gelato, you only have to follow the recipe. Stewed meat, just let it stew. The longer it stays, the better it is. A piece of fish, you fry, just not overcook it. A few things that have to be really precise. You cannot just let it stay or let it go; sometimes you have to be strict with those things... Except the rice pudding. [Laughs]
What year did you arrive here in the Philippines?
October 2011. I came from six years of China, the last years were in Shanghai. In Shanghai it was very developed. When I went here I was like, "Why don't you guys have subways?" I love subways. Here, we just have the train. MRT and LRT.
Did you try the trains here?
Yes. All of them. But it's okay. The place is good because the people are nice. The food here, some are really good. The bagoong, no. I just cannot. I love the buko. I love the buko pandan. I remember someone brought a gallon to the restaurant, I wanted to just bring it home! I loved it, I just cannot stay without. There's a lot of things I like. The freshness of the ingredients. The adobo's quite famous, and the stew. Stews are really good. It's simple, sometimes it's just pork belly or pork shoulder. Nothing really fancy. But it really tastes good. The kind of spice and the kind of marinade that you do is good. I like the food here. I try different kinds of food, I tried the Bicolano food. I like the spicy here compared to other different kinds of spicy. The other day we tried something. I don't remember what's the name, it's kind of like sisig but it's cold and it has brain inside. Pork brain I believe. Surprising, me, that I do not eat innards if I'm not the one doing directly the cooking of the animal, it was really good! Twice ordered. I believe they need to cook it on the spot because you always need to order 30 minutes in advance. It's something with 'K' and 'D'...
Is it Dinakdak?
Yes. I love that thing. You see, it's with a D and a K.
How about our perception or version of Italian cuisine in restaurants? How close or different is it from the real deal?
Everybody knows the basics, everyone knows what the food is. But the flavor, let's see... First times I went out to eat something, I see 'tomato sauce Italian style,' then I tried. The Italian style, it's very classical flavor: spice, oregano and garlic. The Filipino style is very... classical sweet. [Laughs] It's very sweet, but cooked the way how it should? It's good. Some of them they know Italian-American food. Many restaurants out here, here's the catch--there are two types of persons, the one who wants to do what people want, and the one who wants to do something different. Don't get me wrong. If you do what people want, it's very easy to get the business. But if you do something different, you are known for it. You have to follow some belief. For me it's more important to have an identity and be known for your personality than just being one of them. Again, it's a self-accomplishment.
When you started working for Paparazzi, how did you do things differently? How did you update the menu?
The menu before included seventy-something items. I changed completely the concept. As you can see, the tables are pretty clean, pretty neat; otherwise, it can make people uncomfortable--too many forks, glass, spoons--how it looks like in a castle. So we cleaned down the table for lunch and for dinner; the menu has a nice approach. Many chefs, they put a lot of ganishes. Here, you go to eat what's on the plate. If I put something on the plate, it means you have to eat it. I do not believe that if you put leaves and things it will make it taste better because it's very easy to load the plate with things. It looks nice, yes. But a simple dish is actually very, very hard. I'm really sharp about the plating, and I'm really focused on the functionality.
Paparazzi, located at the second floor Tower Wing of Edsa Shangri-La Manila
And it's also the same, for the lunch specials.
Yes. I have to follow my own concept, I need to have some guideline. It is continuously evolving of ideas, concepts. It could change overnight, like today you put it this way, then the next, "Guys, put it that way." It's driven by feedback, by market trends. Again, sustainability. I've been working for sustainable items for five, six years. Here it's good, because Filipino cuisine is based on local ingredients. So you have blue marlin belly instead of the salmon belly, you have the gindara, a lot of fish. It's about personal preference, and keeping an eye on items that are running low on the planet, and what people are expecting.
How did you conceptualize the menu for Pranzo Squisito?
I want them to be happy with the selection. So what I have is I'll have a vegetarian, a meat, and a fish for every course. I don't want to force them to order a la carte. So for today we had the zuppa. It's completely vegetarian, and I'm getting a lot of people to order this because they know why it's just a blend and not really a soup. It's just one ingredient--I do not put powder, MSG, stock, cream--nothing. You want to eat the mushroom, you eat the mushroom. Very healthy. What I do is just to season it up. Rock salt, the sea salt, and the pepper is just regular crushed black pepper.
Zuppa: Robby's Blend (mushroom soup)
The prawn, Palawan prawn. Again, local and fresh. And the bacon is actually our home cured bacon. It's served with zucchini, feta, and the pine nuts because it's refreshing. The prawn is sweeter, the bacon is nice and fatty, zucchini is refreshing, the pine nuts is crunchy. The slow roasted pork belly, I like that, my guys liked it. Why give mashed pumpkin with it? Because I just like it. I had fresh pumpkin today, why should I let this stay in the fridge, for what reason? Give it today, give it at its best. If I run out of pumpkin, then I run out. I don't do quantity. This restaurant has 96 seats. I don't do 96 portions of pumpkin, or 96 portions of pork, and 90 of everything. I prepare based on the reservation, this is why I work a lot with the seasonal products. It gives me a lot of freedom. So today it's pumpkin, then tomorrow mashed chickpeas, then a lot of different things coming. The pork belly, very simple. Barbecue sauce--not Italian, but this is my own blend--it's a bit spicy. It has mustard, maple syrup.
Antipasti: Gamberi Arrostiti (roasted prawns wrapped in bacon)
Secondo Piatto/Main Course: Porchetta di Maialio (slow-roasted pork belly)
The gnocchi, this is what my grandmother used to give to me. Usually when you do gnocchi you use potato flour and egg. This gnocchi is gluten free. I do not put egg, so it's egg free, it's albumen and yolk free. Italian restaurants usually are full of gluten, and we do have a lot of people who are allergic. So I give them the gnocchi. Puttanesca, very simple.
Pasta del Giorno: handmade potato gnocchi with capers and olives in tomato sauce
The zabaione biscotti is the big star, very classical. Biscotti cookies we made ourself, it has pistachio inside, and the zabaione I use organic egg yolk and brown sugar. On my next trial, I'll use coco sugar, I will also try to use the coco syrup, the one you use to dip the suman? I want to see how that will come up.
Dolci: Zabaione and Biscotti (Italian custard dessert )
If you had to prepare a quick meal, what will you cook in 30 minutes?
A quick, quick meal? I will probably prepare some pasta with seafood. Not tomato sauce, just crushed tomato. Seafood, tomato, garlic, and olive oil. I love!
If you can dress any way inside the kitchen, what would you wear?
Open shoes, or even the Crocs but without the socks--because I love them but without the socks. I hate socks! I love those tight shirts with a lot of pictures in it. Lots of prints and drawings. For trousers, I actually like those printed ones with a lot of meme on it? I just love those.
What is your earliest food memory?
The buffalo mozarella from my father's hometown. Yeah, that. Seriously! You guys got to go there. They make it, then they leave it in this big, big thing with buffalo milk which is full of cream. And when you order one, they take one, they put it in a plastic bag, they use a knife to cut it, then you just eat it standing, because it just drips cream. I swear. Wow! And you know, you don't put salt, you don't put anything! Seriously. This guy just puts it in a plastic bag upside-down baliktad, he takes one, puts it back, then he chops it and gives it. You take it, dripping cream everywhere, and then you just eat it. And if you bring it at home, you eat it the day after because it tastes better. No oil, no salt, no pepper. Wow!
What is your favorite ingredient to use when cooking?
I use a lot of seafood, I cook a lot with the clam's water. Once you cook the clams, they have this water. I filter it, and then I use that to give flavor. I don't use salt, I have no salt in the kitchen. I use the clams, I use the mussel stock, I use the pork fat. I use the ingredients and their essence. Clam's water is extraordinary, I could not live without. Back then with my father, we come back home, we clean the clams and we cook them. We eat the clams as a main course and we boil the pasta in the clam's water. Plus the sea there is not as salty as the sea here. Once the pasta is cooked with the water, it's just stunning.
What can you never give up eating?
Oh my God. Pork. Yes. I don't like beef so much; pork has a different flavor. Well coffee is not a food, but can be included. And arugula. Seriously, arugula. I am happy with one ingredient, but it has to be cooked well.
Is there something that you won't eat?
Bagoong. [Laughs] I try to eat it but I just cannot. I tried so many times. Before, I never eat chicken feet. But now I eat it. What else? Ah, skim milk. It just has no flavor! Why do you guys make skim milk? [Laughs] Seriously, the other day I asked a couple of guys, "Did you put water?" "No Chef." "What did you put?" "Skim milk." Is that even milk? That is not food! [Laughs]
It's your last supper on earth, and you get to choose whatever you want to eat. What would you eat?
Last supper on earth? Maybe something that will just kill me anyway! [Laughs] A big bowl of ravioli, but the way I like it -- without the border, the extra pasta. You know the ravioli they have the extra pasta? I hate that. So, a big bowl of ravioli without the extra pasta, with a lot of buffallo mozzarella. And the ravioli, it's filled with spicy lamb. But the ravioli--seriously, no extra pasta, I just don't like it. I want big filling, but no extra pasta skin.
Any advice for budding chefs?
Find your identity. Who are you? Everybody can cook -- good, bad, better, worst -- everybody can cook. You need to have a dream. Don't just do it for the money. If you do it for the money, become a supplier. You will make more money. Chef is a sacrifice life. But don't get me wrong, it gives you a lot of reward. If you have a dream, if you aim a target, if you want something, it gets really good. Find your identity and never accept compromises. Never be demotivated. I love it so much that I cannot stay without. You go to my place and I have, what, 70 kilos of books? All cooking books, all of them. I just cannot stop. The last tip? Be competitive. You need to smash them, simple as that. Be agressive. This is a kind of sport.
This week's Pranzo Squisito menu
The 'Pranzo Squisito' set lunch promotion (P550++ per person, three course meal) is available Mondays through Fridays until August 2013 at Paparazzi Edsa Shangri-La, Manila. Pranzo Squisito menu changes every week. The restaurant is open for Lunch from 11:30am - 2:30pm (Monday to Friday), and Dinner from 6:30pm - 10.30pm (daily). For reservations, please call our Restaurant Reservations and Information Center through (63 2) 633 8888 ext. 2777 or email email@example.com