Massimiliano Alajmo is a world-renowned Italian chef. He spent much of his childhood in Le Calandre with his mother, who was the chef of the restaurant. After attending the Hotel Institute of Abano Terme and deepening his training in the kitchens of Alfredo Chiocchetti, Marc Veyrat and Michel Gu, in 1994 he took over the kitchen of Le Calandre. In 2002, the Michelin Guide attributed three stars to the restaurant; Massimiliano, only 28 years old, thus became the youngest chef in the world to get this prestigious recognition. Today, based at Le Calandre, a creative center as well as a culinary laboratory, he supervises and manages the kitchens of the group’s premises.
Being a cook is something that runs in your family. What is your first memory of helping out in the kitchen, and when did you know that you want to become a chef full time?
I have been cooking since the moment my mother, mamma Rita, gave me my first handful of flour. I was five years old. She was the head chef of Le Calandre at the time and I would come to visit her every day after school. I would help as best I could, rolling out cookie dough or stirring a pot of risotto. I have such a vivid memory of being in the kitchen at that age. I was as tall as the bottom of the chefs’ jackets and my dream in life was to one day have a clean, white, perfectly-pressed jacket of my own. My memories of that time deeply influence my cooking still today.
Italian food is a cuisine that is adored all over the globe. However, sometimes it gets changed in other countries. For you, what is the essence of traditional Italian food? What makes it an amazing cuisine?
Italian food varies greatly even in Italy, but I would say that the common denominator is sun and a smile. The diversity makes it truly remarkable, as well as the warmth and comfort it provides.
At 28 years old, you were awarded your third Michelin star, becoming the youngest chef ever to achieve this. What does this achievement mean to you and what future goals are you setting for yourself?
Our goal as chefs is to make our guests happy and provide them with a fun, fulfilling experience. My challenge each day is to make sure our guests leave with a smile. Our goal is to be able to do this every day in all of our restaurants —from Padua to Venice, from Paris to Marrakech.
Consumers nowadays consistently want healthier and more sustainable food options. How is your restaurant Le Calandre catering to these desires from customers?
Our cuisine is based on the pillars of lightness and depth of flavor. The selection of quality ingredients is key, especially with regards to one’s health. We have deep respect for the ingredients that enter our kitchen and are meticulous about how they are grown or produced. Our focus on ingredients is what makes for healthy, happy customers.
Apart from the well-recognized uses of nuts and dried fruits in Italian food, such as pesto, what other uses are there?
Nuts are commonly used in Italy to make both sweet and savory preparations, including gelato and sweet spreadable creams made with almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios. In Venice, for example, pine nuts and raisins are used in a traditional dish called sarde in saor, or sardines that are first fried and then pickled in vinegar and onion.
How can nuts and dried fruits make a dish better? What do you value about them?
This all depends on the quality of the nuts, of course. We use a variety of nuts to make dairy-free milks that give a creamy sensation to our dishes without the lactose.
You are not only a chef, but also a philanthropist with a non-profit for childhood diseases, an author and a restaurateur. What plans do you have for the upcoming years? Any projects you would like to share with us?
My brother Raffaele and I founded a non-profit organization called Il Gusto per la Ricerca over 10 years ago. One hundred percent of the funds raised are donated to research on childhood diseases and assisting the kids that are suffering from them. Every year, we bring together chefs from across Italy and Europe to prepare a special lunch and auction to support charities with a similar mission.
What do you enjoy the most about being a chef?
The chance to understand and get to know the world through ingredients. And having the opportunity to meet new people every day.
What is your personal favorite dish with nuts or dried fruits?
Bread, olive oil, marzipan (sweet almond paste) and bottarga.
What is the next big gastronomical trend in the world?
What nuts and dried fruits do you always have in your kitchen?
Sicilian almonds, Piedmontese hazelnuts and Lara walnuts.