Chef Luca Piscazzi started his impressive career in a small Italian restaurant in London and worked his way up to holding key positions in some of the world’s finest restaurants. From three-star La Pergola in Rome, to Mandarin Oriental’s two-star Amber in Hong Kong and the Four Seasons’ Mio in Beijing, to becoming Chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s right-hand man.
Chef Luca knew he wanted to become a chef the second he started helping his grandmother prepare their family’s big Sunday lunches when he was just nine years old. Following his graduation in his native Italy he set sail to make his dream a reality.
As the current Head Chef at La Dame de Pic London he has mastered the art of preparing highly acclaimed, Michelin-starred French cuisine, while still enjoying his pizza every now and then as well. Roman pizza that is …
So how did you end up in London?
“My career started in London actually. I moved from Italy as soon as I finished school and went straight to London. After three years the life in London started to wear me down though. The stress of the big city can weigh heavy, especially on a young person who just started out his career. You work very hard and you don’t have a lot of free time nor a lot of money. So, it was a bit tough, and after three years I left to go back to Rome. Here I worked at Michelin three-star La Pergola, but after a year another stressful issue arose: the long distance relationship I was trying to maintain with my girlfriend who was still living in London. I wanted to move back to be with her. We tried being far away from each other and it just wasn’t for us. I called a friend in London and asked if maybe he could help me find a job so I could come back. He proceeded to tell me that he just got hired hired for a position in Beijing and asked if I wanted to come with as his sous chef. So, as opposed to going back to London, we went to Beijing. I spent two and a half years in Bejing and I really enjoyed it. I made good money, lived a good life, but I was still young and I wanted to gain more experience. I decided to do something completely different and took a four month internship at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. From there we decided to move to Hong Kong and this is where I made the transition into French cuisine. As you know, in Italy you can work in very good, Michelin-starred Italian restaurants,outside of Italy people have a different idea of what Italian food is though. When I came to Hong Kong I was offered the opportunity to work in a three-Michelin star Italian restaurant where they made very nice, yet very simple food. Things like Parma Ham with Melon and Veal Milanese. And I was like: ‘Okay, I worked very hard to be where I am today, I just came back from Can Roca which is one of the best restaurants in the world, do I really want to be making ham with melon right now?’ The answer was ‘no’. So, I decided to take a job at Amber instead. Amber is one of the best restaurants you can find in Hong Kong and it’s French. Well, Richard Ekkebus, who is the chef, was trained in France. He’s been in Hong Kong for a long time and basically his cuisine transformed into French with Japanese products. His cooking is French, but not traditional French. It’s French with Asian influences you can say. I learned so much from working with Richard. He’s very precise in the kitchen, not just in his cooking but also in his organization and management. After that the opportunity to come back to London came my way again. Because I had worked with the Four Seasons before I was kept in the loop of new opportunities whenever they came up, that’s how I heard about the opening of a new hotel in London that would host a restaurant headed by a famed French Michelin-starred chef. I immediately applied. My girlfriend applied as well – she works in the hospitality industry. I received an invite to come to Valence to meet Chef Anne-Sophie Pic. I spent three days cooking and doing tastings with her and it went incredibly well. So well that they offered me the job on the spot. And that’s how I moved back to London.”
And this is where you still are.
“This is where I still am. Before the opening I spent two months in Anne-Sophie’s three-star kitchen Maison Pic for training – to understand the menu and to understand more about her philosophy – and after that I moved to London.”
What’s it like working with THE Madame Pic?
“It’s really nice to work with her. She’s very busy as you can imagine, but we speak via WhatsApp all the time and she comes to the restaurant regularly, and a couple of times a year I go visit her in France to discover new products and make new dishes together. So, I guess you can say our cuisine in London is a mix of the both of us. Of course I follow her lead, and after two years I think I can say I truly understand what she likes. I use all her ingredients, we take her combinations and we build onto them. Once you understand what she likes – the ingredients she likes, the taste she likes – it’s fun to start exploring and experimenting around that. I understand her very well and even though she’s French, her cuisine is not as heavy as classic French usually is. It’s closer to what I like and enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I like to go to the very traditional French restaurants sometimes – the places where you eat Terrine de Foie Gras and get served all these creamy sauces – but, to be honest, it’s not what I like to do. Nor is it what Anne-Sophie likes to do. French cuisine is very famous for its heavy sauces, but our sauces are light. We have a certain percentage of butter that we don’t go over and we infuse our sauces with aromatics like teas, coffees and fresh herbs. We use a lot of leaves, a lot of citrus – we use the citrus and the citrus leaves – and I discovered a lot of amazing ingredients with her. The cinnamon leaf for example, usually people will use just the cinnamon, but the cinnamon leaf is actually much better because the flavor is much more fresh, much more green. I’s been great working with Madame Pic and an honor to discover her cuisine and her combinations. I’ll be really honest here for a second, I went to El Celler de Can Roca expecting the craziest stuff and all these mind blowing combinations of flavors. But for me, in terms of combinations and flavors, Anne-Sophie Pic is much more modern. Roca is all about show, which is impressive and a great concept, but when it comes to taste I prefer what I’m doing now.”
Where in Italy were you born and raised?
“In Rome. Well, very close to Rome. The culinary school I studied at was in Rome and for years I traveled back and forth. Looking back it wasn’t really worth it. My school wasn’t the greatest. What I truly learned about my profession was what I was taught while already working as a chef. Of course it all depends on which teachers you get – some teachers are great, others just don’t care – but in Italy we have the wrong idea about culinary school. Culinary school is a professional school, meaning you are taught a trade, and it’s a general misconception that people who don’t like to study or aren’t great at it just go to culinary school because that’s all they can do. This wasn’t the case for me. I was a good student and I could’ve become anything I wanted, I just really wanted to become a chef. I’ve been cooking ever since I was nine years old and I’ve always loved it. I was always cooking at home with my grandmother, or making something for the Boy Scouts I was part of, or baking tarts for my teachers. I remember at age five I was already delegating my classmates on who was brining what for the end of the year staff party. I guess you can say it was in my blood. But, when I finished school my mom had already decided I was going to science school, the same one she went to. She saw I was a good student and she wanted me to have a good education. She was one of those people who thought culinary school was for kids who had trouble learning. However, before the end of the school year, my Italian teacher called my mother and asked her: ‘Do you know your son wants to be a chef?’ He convinced her to let me go to culinary school and pursue my passion. If not for my teacher I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
What did your mother do?
“My mom loved to study, but she grew up in different times. When she was younger things were different and it wasn’t like now where everybody can just go to university. So, she became a police officer. No ‘police police’, but she’s part of the local police force. Like, she wears a gun but she doesn’t ever use it [laughs].”
And your father?
“My father is in real estate, he sells apartments.”
So nobody was cooking?
“Nobody was cooking. I think the only one I maybe took after was my grandmother. She wasn’t a chef but she was an Italian grandma, she basically spent her whole life in the kitchen. She’d wake up in the morning deciding what to make for lunch, then she’d send my grandfather to the supermarket to buy groceries, she’d make lunch and after she’d cleaned the dishes from lunch it was time to start cooking for dinner. Sundays were the best. We have a very big family who all live close to each other and on Sundays everybody always went to my grandmother’s to eat and drink together, for hours, That’s what I remember most. Waking up early Sunday morning and heading over to my grandmother to help her make lasagna or cannelloni. I’d help make the desserts, everything. I loved helping her. I also loved eating her food [laughs]. I was quite fat as a teenager actually. At age fourteen I weighed about ninety kilos. I still do. I’m just a little older now.”
What was your first job as a chef after culinary school?
“Well, I started working summer jobs when I was fourteen. I really did start from the bottom and worked my way up as they say. I went from being a waiter to catering, from bar to bar with a small restaurant and then to small restaurant. Then, after I finished school, I came straight to London. I started working in a very small Italian restaurant just outside the city center actually, and honestly, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I’d worked summers in Italian kitchens, but London was just a different animal. After my first year I decided I had to move on and I went to another Italian restaurant, a bit better one. Then I gained some confidence and I got a job at a French Michelin-starred restaurant called Chez Bruce. Mind you, up until that moment I’d spent all my working life in Italian kitchens. I hadn’t had to speak a word of English in any of the kitchens I’d worked. Yet here I was, going into to this crazy busy Michelin-starred kitchen and literally got fired after one month. They said I didn’t understand anything I was being told. I’m pretty sure I laughed instead of apologized on many occasion when being scolded for doing something wrong. I had no idea what I was being told and it was awful, just not a good experience for me. After that I started doubting everything, mostly myself. I was so young, I was only twenty years old, but it was a good lesson to learn. And luckily I got a job with Heinz Beck right after, which I still consider to be my first real job.”
And you learned English!
“Actually I think my girlfriend had more to do with that than life in the kitchen. In Heinz Beck’s kitchen everyone was Italian again. But I learned so much from being there. I started as the commis chef in charge of the amuse-bouches, then I moved to garnish, then got promoted to demi chef and from there to chef de partie. I really worked my way up and I learned a lot. A lot.”
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t become a chef?
“You know, I’ve thought about this question before and I honestly don’t have an answer for you. I knew I wanted to be a chef ever since I was nine years old. Doing something else was just never an option for me. I wanted to be a chef and I wanted to be one at a high level. I started from the bottom but my goal has always been to cook in a three-star restaurant and be a fine dining chef. I like the mixology world as well, I like drinks, I like wine, I like champagne, so maybe I would’ve ended up doing something in that realm. But I just honestly never had any other dream than becoming a successful chef and it’s very difficult to picture myself doing something else.”
Well you definitely chose the right career then.
“I guess so. Of course I would love to open my own place one day. Not in a big city but in the countryside somewhere. A place where I can work with my partner and we can grow the vegetables and herbs we’d use in the kitchen in our own backyard. That’s something I’d really love to do.”
Would it be in England or back in Italy?
“No, not in England. Don’t get me wrong, the countryside in England is very beautiful, but it’s not where I’m from. And you simply cannot grow a good tomato here. O nice fresh herbs. It’s just different. It rains a lot and the sun hardly ever really shines. It’s a beautiful countryside, but it’s not what I would like to do. I would love to have an ice cream shop over here though. Good, proper gelato.”
Speaking of gelato, what’s your guilty food pleasure?
But of course.
“Not the Neapolitan ones – they’re too heavy and I can never eat more than one – but the ones from Rome. In Rome we do square pizzas, very thin with a crispy crust. Now those I can eat a lot of. I feel so guilty after, but I just cannot stop eating.”
It’s funny how many chefs give that answer. Pizza seems to be worshipped by many.
“I don’t know what it is. Fried things I can only eat every now and then, and only in small doses. But pizza I can eat every day. Even if you eat so much you just can’t move anymore after, the next day you’re going to want more.”
Have you ever royally messed anything up in the kitchen?
“When I was in Heinz Beck’s kitchen I remember one day preparing something in a blender – I don’t remember what – and at some point I left my station to go check on something else. When I came back the blender was on the floor. A two thousand Euro blender was on the floor and it was my fault. I remember it so well because our head chef was quite the aggressive man and it happened right before lunch service – which I knew was going to be very, very, very, very busy and therefore I also knew that if I would tell him what happened now, he would absolutely destroy me during service. So, I decided to wait. We did a great service and afterwards I went up to him and told him what happened. He didn’t say a thing. I got very lucky on that one.”
What advice would you have for a beginning chef?
“What I see most right now is that every new guy or girl on the block wants to be a big chef. They all want to start from a Michelin-starred restaurant and become the next big thing. In my opinion, the best start you can ever have as a chef is the one at the very bottom. My advice is to do the seasonal jobs where you’re unbelievably busy for a few months and you have no other option but to work very hard and very long hours. Work in a small restaurant so you can truly learn everything there is to learn about running a kitchen. Slowly work your way up so you have time to refine your taste, refine your technique and know what attention to detail truly means. Of course this doesn’t mean that you should work in a trattoria for twenty years and then expect to become a Michelin-rated chef. No. But start before you’re twenty in a normal restaurant because that’s where you’ll really learn how to cook, and I mean really cook. For me this is so important because I see so many people starting directly in Michelin kitchens and they may end up knowing how to do this very well, but if you ask them to perform some simple, basic tasks, they don’t know how. And to be a truly good chef, you need to know everything.”
What’s next for you? You said you’d like to open your own place someday, you see this happen in the near future?
“Well, I wish that Italy was this great country where you can invest some money and work out something wonderful and profitable for yourself, but at the moment that’s just not the case. For now I’m very happy where I am and I have no other plans than to just enjoy. I want to continue working hard and hopefully in the next couple of years receive another Michelin star – a two-star rating would be great. We’re always trying to improve and in our restaurant I’m always looking to learn and discover new products and new suppliers. I’m always trying to come up with new, exciting and complex dishes that showcase even more detail than the ones before. And right now, I’m very happy doing that.”
Visit Chef Luca Piscazzi at La Dame de Pic London and try his critically acclaimed dishes for yourself. And as always, snoop and drool around his IG page in preparation of your next London trip!