An Italian Chef in Berlin
When Food is Everything
I met Giulia Michetti about two years ago. At the time I was thinking of developing a pop-up dinner concept and so was Giulia. John, a mutual friend of ours connected us and we decided to all meet at her house.
On the way there I stopped at my favorite wine shop, Sant Ambroeus, to pick up a few bottles. As soon as I gave her the wine she knew exactly where I had gotten it from. It happened that her and Marco, the owner, are great friends. Marco being an absolute gem of a human being and a great judge of character, I knew from that moment that she could be trusted. The huge smile on her face confirmed this feeling. Staying true to her Italian heritage, she made us the most beautiful risotto that night and I thought I could move into her kitchen. I already knew through John that she was an accomplished cook who had worked with chefs like Michael Task, Dominique Crenn or Andrea Ribaldone but on top of being technically impeccable, her cuisine was simple, elegant, full of love and full of light; a true reflection of her personality. We never ended up doing the pop-up together but we became good friends. She comes from Southern Italy in a family where food was everything. To her, food is meant to be simple, fresh, seasonal and organic. If the ingredients are good then the food will be good.
"I would say that my sustainability is based on a hedonistic choice."
Where does your passion for cooking come from?
Well, I grew up very close to my grandparents. On one side I had my father’s mother who came from Northern Italy and who showed me how to make those heavy, nice, warm northern dishes. And on the other side I had my southern Italian grandma who had a little fire wood oven in her garden and was an amazing baker. On top of all that, when my mother’s father retired, he bought a farm a few hours away from Matera, where we lived, as a way to bring the family together and I would spend a lot of time there, mostly during hazelnut harvest in September. It was a beautiful time; we all had a task. My brother would hit the tree and I would gather all the falling nuts. Finally my father would lay them and dry then.
So for you, food is really a family affair?
Absolutely! There is this quote from Michael Polan that says something like: ‘When it comes to food, we tend to make something that is linked to our culture.’ And in food, culture is just a fancy word to say mother, or father for that matter. I lost my father when I was ten but before that he would always cook for me. He used to travel a lot for work and whenever he was away he would go to restaurants and ask the chefs to share their recipes. He would then write them down, come back home and cook them for me. His favorite dish was scrambled eggs. As he died I had a terrible experience with scrambled eggs and it took me that terrible experience to realize how good his were. Slowly I started reconnecting him by recreating those recipes. He transmitted me his passion and here I am now. All I’ve learned really came from my family.
Did you go to school for cooking?
No, I actually went to law school which doesn’t really have much to do with cooking, although at some point I think I will connect the two of them by focusing on regulations on farming and sustainable practices. But that’s for later.
Right after law school I worked at this law firm in Italy and from there decided to go to San Francisco. There I met Michael Task’s sous-chef and he told me, ‘I can tell you have never worked in a kitchen but I see your passion we can make something out of it.’
I worked for Michael Polan and then later for Dominique Crenn. In the meantime I also started a catering project and worked with urban farms all over the city. I never had the time to go to school; I set a foot in the kitchen and then never left.
What brought you back to Europe?
After 5 years in San Francisco, I thought it was time to leave. The political situation in Italy was bad and I just felt like I had to go back. I went home and met Andrea Ribaldone. Together we opened Osteria Arborina in Barolo, one of the best regions in the world when it comes to gastronomy. Every chef in Italy dreams to have a restaurant there because of the quality of the products that is available. We were obviously farm to table, had access to great suppliers and some of the best Barolo producers were my neighbors. After nine months of operation we got a Michelin star. After this achievement I felt ready for something new and moved to Berlin.
What are your current projects here in Berlin?
The project that is currently dearest to my heart is Salt Wine, a series of pop-up dinners I host with Marco Callegaro, who has the best selection of Italian Natural wines in Germany. The food is centered around Californian cuisine, which is a fancy way to say a little bit of French and a little bit of Italian mixed together while using the best local products available. We built Salt Wine around the idea of referse pairing. Marco and I first pick the wines and then I build a menu around them.
I am also working on starting my own restaurant here in Berlin. The city is really going through some sort of culinary renaissance, where people that were trained in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, are finally here and they are bringing their skills and knowledge. So now there is space and talent!
Give me three words to describe your cooking?
The first word that comes to my mind is fresh. In cooking we had a dark age where chefs were thinking ‘Oh my god, I’m going to take this ugly produce that taste like nothing and turn it into something.’ This type of nouvelle cuisine really destroyed, our way of consuming food.
Then I would say simplicity. This means keeping the product the way it is. I don’t really transform things. I just play with textures and with combinations of flavors but I always keep it simple.
Finally I would say authenticity. My cuisine is no fuss, no bullshit. The word is not politically correct but that’s what it is. It is important to learn things from different cultures but what you learned growing up is really who you are. I stay true to my roots.
"When I was a child my father took me to a slaughterhouse to see how the pigs were killed, it was very hard to see and it changed my relationship to meat."
Where do you get your products here in Berlin?
In Berlin I work with a lot of urban farmers, Chido, is one of them. They use what is considered food waste and turn it into premium quality mushrooms. They are reliable and consistent and the quality is amazing. It’s interesting because I was working in a lot of urban farms in San Francisco, where everything is open and on roofs. In Berlin, because the city was built on bunkers, everything is underground. It’s actually great for the products because in bunkers it’s way easier to keep a stable temperature. The level of humidity is also high enough and that helps!
Another one is Grünerei in Neukölln. When his girlfriend got sick the owner, who has a degree in Physics, thought, ‘what if we grew our own food.’ They now distribute to some of the best restaurants in the city. It’s amazing! It’s an underground hydroponic vertical farming; they only consume two percent of the water a traditional farm would use. They analyze the different nutrients in the plants and adjust it adding organic nutrients into the water. So food is tastier but also more nutritious. They don’t use any fertilizers or chemicals. They grow pea shoots, wasabi and every herb you can imagine. All the ingredients are super fresh because there are no insects in the bunkers and bacteria can’t really develop there either, that’s why they have a longer shelf. It’s perfect; you totally limit your food waste because you can go through your whole bunch before it goes bad.
Sustainability is an important topic for you?
Absolutely! Especially considering the position chefs are in today. They are everywhere! In today’s culinary landscape people expect a story but to know the story you need to know where the produce comes from, how that food is made or grown. So you need to be connected to the farmer, which, I guarantee you, won’t be a big mass corporation. In this regard Michael Polan and Dan Barber have been huge influences for me.
But I am not dogmatic. I would say that my sustainability is based on a hedonistic choice. I am driven by flavor. I will always pick the best celery root possible, or the best carrot possible. And for the best carrot, with the right amount of sugar and nutrients it will have to come from a sustainable, organic farm and it will have to have been cultivated in season. When you are making an ethical food choice, there is also always a pleasurable aspect attached to it. Sustainability is synonymous with really good ingredients and really good ingredients taste really good. Whether you are an environmentalist or not, if you buy products that taste good, you are doing something good for the environment. Sometimes people come to me saying ‘oh my god, what can I do to help,’ I say, ‘well pick the stuff that tastes good.’
Well that's giving a lot of credit to people's taste!
Well of course the first step is to teach people to educate their palate. That’s the role of the chef too. When you go to a restaurant, you go to enjoy yourself but the chef also has an educational responsibility there. By attaching a story to the food you’re eating or saying ‘I am supporting this farmer or producer.’ It’s also not enough to just say you want to eat local and organic. You can buy local apples in March, but they are normally harvested in October-November, so it takes a lot of energy to refrigerate them and preserve them. So seasonality is a very important factor to take into consideration. We really need to know the whole process of production. Not just where it comes from but who made it, and when is the best time to consume it.
What are other ways people can be more sustainable with their food?
If one really wants to be more sustainable, they really have to treat meat as a luxury. I don’t think you have to become vegan or vegetarian although, it depends where you are living. If you live in California where there are severe droughts, you should definitely avoid meat.
In our recipe, we use barley as the main ingredient, which is available everywhere around here. It represents eighty percent of our dish, but in Berlin you have such great quality meat available all year round so why not use it? You should just prioritize less noble cuts and avoid prime cuts. One needs to keep in mind that an animal sacrificed their whole life for you so every part should be respected.
When I was a child my father took me to a slaughterhouse to see how the pigs were killed, it was very hard to see and it changed my relationship to meat. Every time I do eat meat I am fully conscious that it was a living being before it ended on my plate.
I agree, if you eat meat but can’t handle the idea of seeing an animal die than there is a disconnection.
Yes, often people in cities who don’t have access to farms or animals block off the parts of the process. They just go ‘yes, this animal was born as a steak and ended at the supermarket.’
What would you say to people who argue that quality ingredients come at a price that most cannot afford?
People argue that buying the best ingredients is more expensive. It’s true, especially because small local producers produce less and therefore must sell at a higher price. The life of a farmer is also unpredictable. It’s not dictated by an agenda. For example I have a friend who is a wine producer in Italy and she just lost her production for the next two years. When you are not a huge company and lose all your harvest you will struggle, so you will need to make up for the losses in some way.
But actually, I think we should pay extra for quality. Just keep it simple, buy fewer ingredients but buy better. Pick two, three ingredients that go well together, follow a recipe, follow your heart, follow what your grandma taught you, that’s it; so simple.