Executive sous chef Carlo Valenziano bends over the glossy granite surfaces in the open kitchen of Brasserie Europa at Siam Kempinski Hotel. His tall frame bids him to work in a slightly awkward position and the heating lamps hanging over the counter are not easy to navigate either. Around him staff pay close attention, following his every move as pincers move back and forth between the plate and various containers and trays. Not a word is said. He arranges a petal and turns the plate to inspect the dish from different angles. Finally, he slides the plate across the granite in a move that says, “ecco (here)!”
Carlo Valenziano is the latest addition to the newly re-opened Brasserie Europa, and the dish – a sizeable and beautifully decorated portion of sirloin steak tartar, strongly seasoned and complemented by pickled, crunchy vegetables – is part of the new menu that he has helped put together. As the name of the restaurant suggests, the food is strictly European, inspired by the classics of France, Italy, Spain and Austria, amongst others.
“The menu is the result of a lot of brainstorming,” explains Chef Carlo. “We thought of all the European classics and reinvented them a little in terms of balance and presentation. For the steak tartar, we made it a bit more spicy to match the taste of our guests, and the presentation is different from what you would see in a classic French brasserie.”
All the usual suspects are there; gazpacho, Wiener schnitzel and tart tatin represent the grand cuisines of Europe, and although there are obviously differences between each country’s cuisine, the chef says there are plenty of similarities as well. “I worked for five years in a French restaurant and I realised that French cuisine – especially Mediterranean French cuisine – is quite similar to Italian cuisine. We use almost the same ingredients, some of the same techniques, and we present the food in almost the same fashion. I think Spain, France and Italy have a lot in common in terms of food culture...”
Like with so many chefs, Carlo’s passion for food and cooking started in childhood. “For a lot of Italian chefs, the passion starts at home because Italians are really into their food, it is something very normal for us,” he explains. “A lot of Italians are born in a place and a house where they are surrounded by food from the beginning. The smell, the flavour, the ingredients, for us it is part of life. I am lucky, my family is very passionate about food; my grandmother was a really great cook even though she never worked in the food industry, it really is just part of everyday life.”
Everyday life became the start of a profession when he began working as a commis chef at the tender age of 14. For the next 10 years he worked in restaurants from the north to the south of Italy before securing a job at the Michelin-star Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan. After working and consulting in restaurants from Dublin to Moscow, Sydney and Switzerland, he moved to Bangkok in 2012.
“Asia was a dream for me because the ingredients and the way of cooking were so different from where I came from. In many ways it is exactly how I like to cook because everything is fresh and the vegetables are crunchy,” he says. “I like being a chef because you can travel a lot, you can discover and learn new things. In Milan, one of the first things the chef taught me was to go to the market to choose products. We would go in the mornings and he would show me how to choose a product, why to choose this product and not least when to choose it. It is one of the most important things I’ve learned. If I don’t know how to buy the right products, nothing else matters.”
Chef Carlo puts his knowledge to good use at Brasserie Europa. Dishes are product-led and there is a real focus on not overcomplicating things, thus highlighting the quality and characteristic of each ingredient. The seared rack of lamb is a good example; the lamb served with poached white asparagus, a flavourful but not overpowering balsamic jus and a purée of potato and white asparagus. The subtle sweetness of the asparagus is a nice contrast to the strong flavour of the lamb.
Carlo himself thinks the dish is perhaps one of the less balanced on the menu but the point is to let the ingredients speak for themselves. “When you have good ingredients, you really have to be careful with seasoning and preparation,” he says. “If the lamb is average and the asparagus is average, it can be a horrible plate. This is the main thing, respect the ingredients and then you don't need anything else.”
He laments the way some young chefs procure their products. “Suppliers will send a catalogue but you cannot create a dish from a catalogue. You have to visit the supplier, touch the product, smell it, and see in front of you what is available. It takes time but you have to build a relationship with your supplier. They need to understand what you want and in the beginning it can be tricky and you need to check the food and make sure that the standard is the same every single day. You may have to reject a lot of food but in the end the supplier will understand your needs.”
After choosing the right ingredients, the next step is balance, explains Carlo Valenziano. Into each dish go careful deliberation of flavours, textures and combinations. The fattiness of the pan-fried duck breast is balanced with tangy, pickled mustard seeds, while the sweetness of the accompanying pumpkin purée is complemented by braised white cabbage with bits of smoked duck.
The mantra of flavour and texture repeats itself throughout the menu and it becomes apparent that every single dish is carefully planned using these same principles: were it not for the thin crusts of bread framing the serving bowl, the porcini mushroom casserole – for all its deliciousness and the surprising but pleasant addition of slightly acidic stracchino cheese – would be a rather mushy encounter. In the same fashion, the crunchy skin on the seabass and the crispness of slices of fennel add contrast to the soft meat of the fish and the accompanying zucchini caviar. An intensely flavourful saffron fish reduction ensures that the dish isn’t bland.
One of the menu highlights is the seared Mediterranean octopus served with a rather spicy paprika purée, scoops of potato mash and a dry garlic, parsley and lemon dressing. In this Galician-inspired classic, the whole tentacle is cooked sous vide and then quickly seared to add depth of flavour, rendering the octopus tender and delicate.
“Everybody always makes jokes with me because every time I do a menu there is an octopus dish,” laughs Carlo. “I love octopus. Whenever I go to a restaurant, I always look out for the octopus dish. It is a nice ingredient to work with but it also reminds me of home. This combination is Spanish in inspiration with the use of paprika and potato and the level of spiciness. I use the parsley and lemon to balance the spice and I cook it sous vide to avoid altering the skin. Some people don't like the skin but for me it is the most tasty part of the animal so I try to keep it. Again, it has to do with texture; when you cook the octopus like this you caramelise the skin and it brings out a nice flavour.”
It is evident that Carlo Valenziano could spend hours discussing the particularities of certain ingredients and how best to bring out their individual characteristics. However, it doesn't get boring or boastful. On the contrary, it is inspiring to meet a chef who is this passionate and involved – fastidious, even – in everything from procuring the best ingredients from the Royal Project or Adam's Organic to painstakingly re-arranging a petal on a dish of tartar.