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Grana Padano

GVCI at Alma Viva 2008. Italian Cuisine in Asia: A Success Story


From the speech given by Mario Caramella, GVCI President, at the conference “Guidelines for the promotion of Italian Cuisine in the world” during Alma Viva 2008
"Today, I wish to speak about the development and success of Italian restaurants in Asia, of which I consider myself to be one of the true advocates and pioneers. There has been no Italian emigration to Asia such as that to the Americas and Northern Europe. Therefore, Italian cuisine has arrived there directly with professional chefs and restaurant operators originally called upon by large hotel chains to carry this task out.

It was a small revolution that started at the end of the 80’s in Hong Kong, when large hotels started offering their guests our cuisine by featuring, within their complexes, Italian restaurants with Italian head chefs and maître d’s who knew how to offer their guests an authentic regional Italian cuisine and a smart service, without being just frills. It was an immediate success, thanks to the concept of “simplicity but also quality of service,” and because of the immediacy of the dishes that were perceived and understood not only by international guests but also by the Asians themselves, who found a point of connexion between pasta and their culinary culture – noodles, to be precise.
Such has been the success, that now, in the year 2008, 20 further years of success later, very few hotels feature French restaurants. The reigning cuisine is la cucina italiana, Italian chefs, sommeliers and maître d’s have literally – and pacifically – invaded Asia, bringing in tow producers and exporters of foodstuffs and wine and, indeed, even the presence of Italian importers operating in Asia is to be found; so the communication between Asia and Italy is becoming much easier.

At the beginning it was very difficult: The Chinese didn’t understand Italian and the Italians didn’t understand English. To ask a supplier to import, for example, some lardo di Colonnata was an impossible undertaking. Fortunately, today in Hong Kong it can be found at the supermarket along with prosciutto di cinta senese [from Siena], traditional aceto balsamico [from Modena] and red late-harvest radicchio [from Treviso].
Another important point that is already giving and will keep giving a big shove to the “Made in Italy” label is the fact that the operators, who at the beginning have positions such as chef de cuisine or restaurant manager, usually have brilliant careers and go on to become food and beverage directors, executive chefs and even general directors. Well, now at this point, not only does the Italian restaurant use products “Made in Italy,” but also the entire hotel falls under the influence; the butcher’s, the pâtisserie, the bakery, the wines on menus, the bars, the frigobars in the rooms and room service.So then, all these departments change and start using Italian products and offering Italian specialties.

I would say then that our generation has opened a door and leveled a way for the generations to come. But now, what do we still need? Maybe a little more aggressiveness, and also a little more professionalism on the part of the Italian producers; not so much regarding their products, they’re fine! But it would be helpful to pay more attention to details, packaging, marketing, information and to the transmission of that information to those who, not having Italian DNA, don’t know or can’t distinguish an authentic product of quality from shoddy or fake one.

And products such as Parmigiano retinato [rejected, that is] shouldn’t leave Italy; such things cause confusion. Passports should be given to the better products, falsified products should be held back from leaving the country or those who want such products should be informed and made aware of the fact that they are buying Grade B products.

Furthermore, more firmness on the part of the authorities would be necessary to lift the ban on importation to some countries of the basic products needed for performing Italian cooking. Also a single association of operators strong enough to give the image of authenticity of Italian cuisine, so that it becomes global, would be necessary. This has already been done with fashion, for example.
... and we need a worldwide media event with the renowned names of popular stars and artists in cultural realms to be staged along with the best of Italy’s chefs abroad, in order to be able to amplify and broadcast our message to all.
Furthermore, schools in Italy should start to prepare youngsters not only to be cooks in Italy, but also in the rest of the world.

In conversations amongst Italian chefs in Italy, I notice a certain sense of inferiority in respect to their French cousins, for whom we abroad have deep respect. But in our case, maybe the opposite happens; it’s often the French chefs who have the sense of inferiority! – at least when faced with the success stories of Italian restaurants all over the world; and I repeat, with all our respect for the professionalism that the French show...