Pattaya Mail turns 12

Vol. XIII No. 32
Friday August 12 - August 18, 2005

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Local Personalities

Luca Messina - Italian Chef

by Dr. Iain Corness

What do you call an Italian, born in Sicily, who lived in Switzerland since he was three, rides a big motorcycle, restores furniture and collects black and white photographic art? You could try Luca Messina for a start!

Luca is the visiting Italian chef who is working at Bruno’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, bringing a new range of Italian dishes, already given the highest recommendation by the Pattaya Mail’s food critic, Miss Terry Diner. I was fortunate enough to interview Luca over lunch, which included his salmon stored overnight in a special dressing, to make the taste that little bit different, and his ravioli with truffle mushrooms, which were enough for me to agree wholeheartedly with our food writer.

Luca is a young man, only 31, but he is definitely a man on the move. When Bruno’s owner Fredi Schaub was looking for a visiting chef to spearhead the Italian promotion for August this year, he contacted a great friend of his in Zurich, Hans Rudisuhli of the Hotel Senator, who suggested a young chef who had already been working in the kitchen of the Michelin two star Restaurant Panoramica in Asti in Italy. This was Luca.

Fredi flew to Zurich to interview him and taste his food, and ended up agreeing with Hans Rudisuhli’s estimation of the young man’s talents and brought him out to Pattaya for August.

Luca was born in Sicily, where his father was a wine merchant, but they moved to Zurich when Luca was only three years old. His language is Swiss-Deutsche, which means that he can communicate very well with Fredi, but Luca’s German comes in a huge flurry of words, with much Italian style hand waving and expressiveness. “He’s Italian,” said Fredi, “You can’t breed it out of them in a 100 years!” If they’re all like Luca, then Fredi’s certainly right.

By the time Luca was 15 years old he knew he wanted to work in a restaurant. His grandfather used to sell vegetables to the restaurants in town, and Luca would help, but it was the kitchens, not the commerce, that attracted him.

He began his three year apprenticeship in Zurich, and by the time he was 19 years old he had his diploma and began the long climb from Commi-chef to where he is today. His rise has been almost meteoric, and I asked Luca was this just luck, being in the right place at the right time, or did he catch somebody’s eye, or was there something else? Without any sign of being boastful or bashful, he said confidently, “By the time I was 23 I knew I was better than the others.” This prompted my next question, which was how did he know he was ‘better’? “I could see the others were slower, and I started to get requests from the executive chef to ‘make me this’ or ‘make me that’ and then he began asking me to make new creations, which ended up on the menu.” Again all this was said without any hint of self aggrandizement, but just delivered in a ‘matter-of-fact’ way.

For a chef to create new dishes, I presumed this had to be an art all in itself, and asking Luca how he did it, reinforced that impression. With much hand-waving he described that this is not something that could be done on demand, but was something where he had to wait until the right ‘creative moment’. These ‘moments’ can sometimes only last one hour, so he has to make as much use of them as he can. He rather reminded me of a painter describing waiting for inspiration. Luca’s inspiration often comes just from looking at new products and wondering how he can mix their characters with others. “You just keep changing until you get it right,” said Luca.

But what about some new dish that he might have spent much time and emotional energy over, to find that it does not have such an appeal to the diners? “You can be proud of a new dish and find you are disappointed, but you have to go with the customer’s taste,” said the voice of experience.

Since cooking is for Luca very much an ‘art form’, I wondered just how difficult it was for him to come to Thailand and then work in Bruno’s kitchen, an environment set up to suit chef Fredi. “It is not difficult to work in another kitchen. In three days you have it sorted.”

My next question was still on the theme of working in different kitchens, but more directed to the problems of strange (or uncommon) market items or even their scarcity working in another country. Again, the young chef had come well prepared. “You just ask what is there or not, or whether the ingredients are too expensive. I came here with boxes of truffle mushrooms, because they are plentiful in Europe.”

So by this time in the interview I knew that Luca was an artist in the kitchen, and I wondered if this artistic feeling spread to other areas. It certainly does, with his collecting of artistic nudes, done in the classic black and white photographic medium, and another spare-time pursuit, which is antique furniture restoration and interior design.

They all fit very nicely with the image of the artistic creative chef, but his other hobby does not fit as well. He has a 989 cc Ducati big bike, on which he goes touring, and once a year goes for an instructional weekend at a race circuit, learning to get his knee down like his hero (every Italian’s hero) Valentino Rossi, the current king on two wheels. “He’s crazy,” said Luca, shaking his head.

His dream is to one day open his own restaurant and small hotel. “But it is impossible to do this on my own. I’d need a partner,” said Luca. Anyone got any spare cash lying around? You would be hard pressed to find a better chef!

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