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Failure Interviews

Tell the story of the land to reach success

When raw materials, memories and passion meet in the kitchen

Interview with Fabio Verrelli D'Amico

Cook at the Materiaprima osteria contemporanea (Modern raw materials tavern), Pontinia

By October 2020April 26th, 2022No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

What does success mean to a chef? What is more important between gratification, personal success, notoriety or the entrepreneurial side?

In the restaurant business if you have to manage a kitchen and a restaurant you are already dealing with a company that employs different people. Therefore you’re responsible to make all ends meet. Once that’s sorted the themes might connect because whoever runs a healthy business that is going well gets a lot of notoriety and gratification. The chef- that I prefer to call cook- has a very noble task. Eating is one of the most beautiful things in life and that is already gratifying to us.

How did you mature the decision to become a chef?

I taught myself and personally cooking is something I cannot keep myself from doing. Until a few years ago I used to do something completely different, but I would spend entire nights reading books or watching videos about cooking. I lived with the obsession of putting into practice what I was feeling inside. The first day I entered a kitchen I started crying after one hour that I was there, not because I cut myself but because, for once, I felt that the passing of time was unimportant. I was happy.

What models inspired you?

The Italian restaurant sector has been growing exponentially over the past ten/fifteen years. When we opened, we wanted to follow the example of those who thirty years ago already spoke about high level gastronomy in Italy: the idea wasn’t to have big numbers but to focus on quality. We looked up to producers, those who dedicate their life to a product and those who travel the entire world to find something that will gift them with exciting emotions.

Cooking is something I cannot keep myself from doing.

Why is the restaurant called “Materiaprima (Raw materials)”?

We wanted to make people understand that to be able to tell the story of the land it is crucial to search thoroughly for the raw materials- intended as the product or the ingredient. Every day we collect natural herbs, we work only with wild animals, we respect the seasonality, exactly because we are telling the story of the raw materials present in this area. Furthermore, every element of the restaurant itself cannot be reproduced because it was designed and planned exactly for this place, utilising only three main raw materials: wood, iron and cement.

How did you find collaborators and how much does teamwork cost?

Finding collaborators wasn’t easy, not only because I am hard to please but also because I require dedication and passion. I look for someone who will be completely committed to the project, devoted to achieving a common goal while working together with the group. I struggle very much when one person in the team is unhappy because I believe that if everyone is serene there is a different level of harmony, which is reflected in the food. On the contrary, whenever there is tension things just can’t work out.

How much time did you give yourself to initially assess how things were going?

When we opened the restaurant we were aware that for five or even ten years we would not have the success we knew we could achieve over time. However, we noticed since the beginning how much we were growing from year to year and we were able to raise the bar progressively higher. The beauty of this work is that the exact moment you think you did something great ends up being the starting point to try and do it even better. There are no limits and there is no possibility to settle. Our true first assessment of how things were going took place after five years- perhaps facilitated by this particular period where we could reflect on many things- and we realised that carrying on with the path we planned brings us the most satisfaction.

Success is proportional to the extent of your ability to create.

How much do the customers’ negative reviews matter?

They matter a lot: I actively search and ask for them every evening. I can’t stand it whenever a customer tells me everything is fine but then comes out of the restaurant feeling unhappy. If you tell me there is something you dislike it is a reason for me to grow, a reason to reflect and improve, because my goal is to make eating customers feel good.

The chef activity implies a form of research. How much time does this research and experimenting work take? Do you happen to travel and taste other cuisines?

It takes a lot of time, which is proportional to how much you believe in development. Each day there is a team that works on the daily activities, whatever needs to be done that day, and another team that reflects, thinks and creates new things that we’ll serve the next day. In our free time we go around other restaurants, in Italy and abroad, to see whatever can be seen. We don’t love the idea of copying and taking over but we’d rather get “contaminated” by something that excited us and integrate it with the produce of our land.

Is the creating and experimenting activity strictly linked to success?

Success is proportional to the extent of your ability to create. I don’t believe much in those individuals who gain success without having a great professional career behind them. Over recent years we can see many chefs on TV that became successful, but that’s after spending thirty or more years working in the kitchens of restaurants. It is simply a second phase of their life and we shouldn’t judge them. On the contrary, at the beginning of one’s career one should not aim for success with the media but should simply be happy with being able to have a full house every night and to speak to the customers after their dinner.

If you don’t make mistakes you will never have the perception of why you do something in a set manner.

Could you tell us about a dish that you really struggled to create but that now is a success?

I think everything stems from memories, what I remember eating when I was young, from smells, and there comes a time where you want to try and replicate all of that. However, replicating a dish is not simple. Nothing is ever the same. Personally I believe it’s important to present a traditional dish in a more modern key, trying to take away some of its faults and turning them into something healthier, without loosing the original taste though. An example of this is pasta with beans, a dish that I used to hate as a kid and only started appreciating when growing up- almost to the point of becoming addicted to it. If you entered our kitchen these days, you’d find a pot of beans, because we are trialling and experimenting to obtain a more elegant, lighter and more concentrated version, while keeping that childhood taste when you eat it.

How important are mistakes to achieve the result?

The trainees that come to the kitchen- the apprentices- dread the possibility of making mistakes because they are taught that cooking is methodical and everything must be done correctly. However, if you don’t make mistakes you will never have the perception of why you do something in a certain manner. Seeing a mistake with your own eyes helps your brain memorise what you shouldn’t do and that is the starting point to improve yourself. Cooking would be extremely boring if we all started up thinking that we could achieve perfection straightaway.

Edited by Rebecca De Fiore